Blogs > Cliopatria > The Decline of the Shoe Industry in Iraq.

Jul 14, 2004 4:34 pm

The Decline of the Shoe Industry in Iraq.

Once, not so long ago, you could visit a skilled shoemaker in Baghdad who would take your foot measurements and design shoes to your liking. The shoes were always made from fine Iraqi leather, usually kid leather, and were every bit as supple and comfortable as Italian or Spanish shoes today. However I am told that those days are gone. In the wake of the American entry in Baghdad, tanners, who worked animal hides (usually that of sheep, goats or water buffalo)into leather, have been more or less ruined by the creation of a tax-free economy; they have watched foreign entrepreneurs move to Iraq and pay higher prices for the raw material necessary for making good shoes. Of course, skilled craftsmanship has been on the wane in Iraq for quite some time. Still, the Iraqi shoe industry struggled through thick and thin to preserve its traditions and continue production throughout the lean Baathist years, so it’s a loss for all of us that it has succumbed to the imperatives of globalization.

In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a similar situation developed in the Iraqi provinces of the Ottoman Empire. The impact of the world market on Ottoman Iraq, as in all the Ottoman provinces, is well known. Take any important commodity and chart its course over time and the first thing that you’ll notice is that the commodity in question gets priced out of reach for the local merchant. But the wealthy export merchants, or those Iraqis or Syrians or Egyptians who tied themselves to the European market, end up comfortable in both worlds. For instance, Sarah Shields’s excellent book tackles the shoe industry’s transformation, from inexpensive slippers made for the local market to shoes and boots, using not Iraqi but French leather, and bought exclusively by the rich Mosulis. However, and this is a key argument, she contends that rather than this being a linear development, in which Iraqi foreign-affiliated merchants subverted the local economy by selling off local commodities to Europeans, thus making the same commodities too exorbitant for local taste, the European-allied merchant himself was so stitched in to the rich fabric of local/regional society that he basically buffered the “impact” of the world market. Because the Iraqi middleman was himself dependent on the local economy for supplies of both raw and finished goods, he had two clienteles that he was forced to attend to: the regional supplier in the villages of northern Iraq, and the European merchant and/or shipper. If he did not appease the regional supplier, he could not sell to the European merchant.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century. With Iraq’s economy just getting off the ground, it is worthwhile to ask: who are the local suppliers that could rein in the Iraqi middleman today? Where is the counterbalance to selling off the Iraqi economy, lock, stock and barrel? How can Iraq produce a relatively strong and independent tanners’ or leather producers’ association in a short enough time to forestall the sale of this particular commodity? I’m not an economist but I’d sure like to hear from those who are on what to do.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 8/6/2004

It depends upon the class. In my Early National/Jacksonian class (roughly 1789-1848), the shoe example works well because the students get a lot of context. I spend time on the growth of market capitalism and its impact on owners, workers, and consumers. As an example, the availablity of inexpensive shoes is one of many incentives to farm families to shift subsitence crops to cash crops in order to buy such goods. This results in a major shift in the activities of farm men and farm women; some burdens are decreased others increassed.

In a US survey course, I'm using the shoe as a central example because I don't have as much time for the context. Still it makes a good introduction to how technology and trade can combine to change the lives of workers and the nature of work itself.

Hala Fattah - 8/5/2004

Dear Oscar,
Thank you for your wonderful comment. Indeed, the impact of the world market from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries was such that,in Iraq, a totally autonomous local industry (shoes, but also many other industrial products)was never to see the light of day again. But, let me ask you, how do your students respond to your example?

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/2/2004

I often use shoes to demonstrate the interaction between the growth of mass production and the mass market in the United States. Students can see quickly how the different sections of a shoe could be made in separate processes and then combined. They can understand how people will exchange a precise fit at higher cost for an adequate fit at low cost because they make similar trade-offs in their own world.

The shift to mass production in shoes happened in the United States at a time in which most of the materials were produced within the nation. Americans were also the majority of the purchasers. Therefore, a high percentage of the profits were kept at home. (How fairly those profits were distributed is another issue.)

Your example points to the limits of free trade as a force for national development. If we somewhat simplistically divide the lifecycle of a product into four parts--creation of fabrication materials, assembly into product, distribution, and final sales--we can see the problem.

To the extent that a country houses more than one than more of these parts, there is a greater incentive for the business people involved to have some concern with the wellbeing of that country. The example you pull from Sarah Shield's book is a good illustration of this.

But if a country houses only one part of the process, then it is easier for the business people involved to look at the country the way mine owner looks at a mine and the community that surrounds the mine. Once the wealth has been mined, no incentive remains to be concerned about the community.

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