26 April 2014

Haifa fieldnotes - Wadi Nisnas souk

He walked into the tumultuous souk with abandon, his mind a blank, treading on unfamiliar ground. His was the clean supermarket, lit with sharp blinding neon lights, where every product had a label on it: where it was produced, by whom it was imported, who the distributor was, number of calories, the vitamins and minerals it contained, colour additives and other chemicals. They came in a variety of shapes, sizes, colours. Plastic, glass, tin, cardboard. In bags, bottles, and boxes. Smiling faces of young beautiful women and children (all light skinned with blue or hazel eyes, but of course) peeked from every shelf, winking at him, promising a better something. He did his shopping automatically, grabbing the cheaper product rather than the one that promised it had no artificial flavours added. But here, in this haphazard souk, with its own chaotic order, he felt out of sync. Olive oil was sold in plastic bottles which originally held bubbly drinks that tickle your tongue just so swiftly, flying through the nose like tiny dust particles that attach themselves forcefully to every in-breath. Ziyad couldn’t tell which olive oil came from the Triangle area and which from the North. To him, the bottles all looked the same – the only difference their single eyes – the plastic caps screwed in place. These came in reds, blues, grays, and greens. 

Ziyad puts two boxes with the same winking blue-eyed kid in his cart. Never mind that he doesn’t usually eat this cereal; it’s buy one get the second for half price. He can’t pass the deal. He pushes the creeping fact that the company has been suspected of trafficking in child labour out of the left corner of his mind. It has nothing to do with him. Those children don’t belong to his neat world. And anyway, if he didn’t get this brand, chances are the next one was produced in an illegal settlement or by women under inhumane employment conditions. So he clears his muddled conscience, shaking the grey specks like dust swept off old furniture. There was no way around it. 

The souk wasn’t free of child labour, either. But it was a different kind of child labour. The red, green and yellow apples still bore the fresh prints of children’s laughter inscribed into their skin. Sisters, brothers and cousins would chase one another around the family orchid, now getting tangled up in a grandmother’s wrinkled skirts, now passing under a ladder, picking up an apple here, stealing a hand-stitched scarf from a young cousin over there, running wildly, turning over a tank of lukewarm water. Chased by an uncle’s stick. The apples in the crates in the souk held on to these memories, to release the faint laughter of those children when sliced sharply by a knife to be served at the salu of another family. Ziyad didn’t know these secrets yet. The apples winked at him mischievously, teasing his taste-buds with their smooth colours like the waves tempting the rocks with their foam.

He stops at the first vegetable stall, where an ancient woman sits on the bare cream-coloured floor stacking up grape-leaves in neat little bundles. “Assalamu Alaikum, khalty,” he says after a moment’s hesitation. “Wa Alaikum Assalam, son,” she looks up with her dim eyes, wrinkled fingers resting on the stack she had just finished. He’s stuck. He was waiting for her to offer him today’s deal, or to tell him how delicious her apples were, but she remains silent. “Uhm… can you tell me where can I find Um Muhammad?”
“Um Muhammad,” the ancient woman rakes her memory, pausing to consult a dark, unswept corner of her mind. “The third stall on your left. I bet your mother sent you to her for oranges. She’s got the best ones, Allah be my witness.”
He thanked her, feeling awkward because she didn’t try to persuade him to buy anything from her. Later on, when he would frequent the souk several times a week, he would learn the ways things worked here. That you never try to buy a customer. Things are done ever so subtly at the souk.


He walks down the souk, passing an improvised stand with a boy of about fifteen selling freshly squeezed rumman juice. His face is dark from the sizzling Middle Eastern sun, his light brown eyes shimmering, catching the blood red of the fruit. His stark white tank-top in gleaming contrast to his olive skin, jeans smeared with thin strikes and dapples of various shades of rumman colour – some fresh, others old – like the cloth a painter cleans a brush on before dipping it into another colour.

Ziyad pauses at the side of the stand, watching a woman in her late thirties bargaining the price of a cup of the paradise drink. The young boy smiles politely, refusing to lower the already cheap price. The woman gets upset, her brow creasing, but she buys the drink anyway, not wanting to appear stingy. She walks away triumphantly, holding on to her trophy, sipping it ever so slowly. "A cold rumman drink to start the day with, muallem? Only five shekels for a taste of paradise.” The boy is already squeezing a fresh fruit into a tin cup with one hand, holding a sieve over it with the other so that the juice dripping into the cup is pure. “But you sold it for ten to that woman,” Ziyad says in confusion. “Ahlan wasahlan to the souk! So you’re new here?”
“How did you know?”
“Nobody asks a question like that. Ya’ani, nobody who knows how things work here,” the boy snickers, then continues in a more hushed tone, as if sharing a newly discovered conspiracy, “For everything in the souk, there are two prices. One for our brothers and sisters, and one for the Yahud. Don’t tell me you didn’t know this, muallem.”

Yes, of course. Ziyad remembers this traditional practice, though in mixed cities it also leads to some confusion or uncomfortable instances, usually when young Arab women are mistaken for Jewish. Most often, these misunderstandings end with laughter and an instant reduction of the price. He sipped his sublime clear juice, remembering the reason he was here.

- khulud, deleted from Haifa Fragments, forthcoming by Spinifex Press, 2014

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