Informal Economy

Bird Markets, Artisanal Pigeons and Class Relations in the Middle East

On a dark, empty lot along Garden Street in Amman, Jordan stands an illuminated sign for Victors Café, a subterranean game space advertising pinball, pool and snooker, where pigeon breeders in the know secretly gather every Friday at 9pm for one of the best bird auctions in the capital.

Gaza’s Tunnel Complex

For an informal smuggling route, the tunnel complex underneath Gaza’s border with Egypt is remarkably formal. A security cordon of chicken-wire fencing surrounds the Gazan side of the site, barring entrance from Rafah town a few hundred meters away. At each exit a squad in military fatigues monitors the round-the-clock traffic for blacklisted goods. At one checkpoint, Hamas security men frisked a youth in jeans and a baggy T-shirt, discovering a colored paper bag taped to his waist. Inside were 16 packets of tramadol, an opioid painkiller that can be purchased over the counter in Egypt but is sold by the pill in Gaza. The young man’s stash would have fetched 6,000 shekels (over $1,600) on the streets.


A large, sinister pair of eyes stares out from the cover of the February 2011 Wired magazine, above the heading “The Underworld Exposed.” The rest of the face is darkened, melding with the shadows. At the top of the shadows reside the words “Counterfeit Ferraris, Sex Syndicates, Darknets, Secret Societies and More!” At the bottom, between “The Nine All-Time Greatest Cons” and “What’s Inside Heroin”: “How to Buy a Kidney, p. 112.”

A Modern-Day Pirate’s Port of Call

Not far from Fort Jesus, the sixteenth-century fort erected by the Portuguese to mark their violent entry into the world of Indian Ocean commerce, is a small office near the old port of Mombasa. Scattered inside are copies of Seatrade and other maritime trade magazines. An old desktop computer displays the Baltic Dry Index, which tracks international shipping prices for dry bulk cargo, as well as the shipping movements list from Lloyd’s of London highlighting the movement of commodities on ships registered with the insurance company.

On Piracy and the Afterlives of Failed States

Until the resurgence of naval predation in the late 2000s, pirates were confined to the realm of the fantastic — novels, films and stage productions. Since Western states last worried about pirates in the eighteenth century, the intrinsic, man-bites-dog interest of contemporary pirates for the popular press is easy to understand. The reemergence of piracy as a political problem, however, has in no way banished the fantastic from current understandings of the phenomenon, nor of Somalia, whence the most famous of today’s maritime bandits come. The fantasy is evident in media coverage, but in policy discourse as well. Once upon a time, begins the tale, there was a state called Somalia and now there is not. Pirates flourish where the writ of government has entirely lost its sway.

Gray Money, Corruption and the Post-September 11 Middle East

Graft, smuggling and kickbacks in the Middle East create huge sums of money requiring concealment in a secretive banking system. Al-Qaeda has simply used existing mechanisms for hiding cash. Regime and elite corruption, not pervasive regional sympathy with Osama bin Laden, are the main factors inhibiting the cooperation of banks in the Middle East with Bush’s “war on terrorist finances.”

Networks of Discontent in Northern Morocco

What are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms? A gang is a group of men under the command of a leader, bound by a compact of association, in which the plunder is divided according to an agreed convention. If this villainy wins so many recruits from the ranks of the demoralized that it acquires territory, establishes a base, captures cities and subdues people, it openly arrogates itself the title of kingdom.

— Saint Augustine

The Menace and Appeal of Algeria’s Parallel Economy

In March 1994, fighting between Algerian security forces and armed Islamist guerrillas reached a critical intensity around Blida, about 90 miles east of Algiers. A commercial strike to protest army killings of young men became the target of yet another military action. Blida is a center for private agriculture, where numerous small private food processing plants operate, not all of them licensed. With its concrete villas surrounded by high walls that conceal both family space and underground production, Blida presents an interesting conjunction of private property and wealth that has escaped state assessment and control, and support of political movements challenging the state.

Squatters and the State

The early 1990s saw a period of renewed urban popular uprisings in Iran, unprecedented since the 1979 revolution. From August 1991 to August 1994, six major upheavals took place in Tehran, Shiraz, Arak, Mashhad, Ghazvin and Tabriz, and there were frequent minor clashes in many other urban centers. Most of these incidents involved urban squatters concerned with the destruction in their communities. This was the case in Tehran, Shiraz, Arak, Mashhad and Khorramabad.


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