Written by Edward Stallard
The idea came to us as a moment of inspiration while walking through the streets of Amman’s downtown area on an overcast Friday afternoon in late May. Watching the sellers interact with one another, share jokes, drink tea and casually attend to buyers who strolled from stall to stall thumbing through the wares on sale; we were intrigued. Makeshift wooden tables heaped up with clothes bearing American college slogans, mobile phones laid out in snaking rows, unidentifiable electrical parts in piles and people drifting and chatting with one another.
Somewhere between seeing the spirit of community between the traders, and the hum of activity around popular stalls we came to a simultaneous conclusion: we could do that; we could set up a stall and sell in the Balad.
Exactly one week later to the day, we were loading black trash bags full of unwanted things into our jeep and checking our pockets for enough small change to get the business started. We steered through the pre-Friday prayer traffic making for a spot where we had noticed a little more shoppers than in other areas. The day was a fine one, a clear blue sky, and we were early thus avoiding the worst of the summer heat. But the streets were packed with people and the air was filling with the cries of traders and the smell of smoke from the barbeque stalls selling kofta and falafels.
We looked at each other with a growing sense of awe; we had never seen so many people in that part of town. The fine weather had seemingly brought them out from every corner of East Amman. We had expected to have a calm relaxing morning, gently selling and negotiating a few items whilst drinking tea and observing the people mingling with one another, possibly even making friends with a few of the other stall holders and having interesting conversations about the state of business and condition of life in general. We could not have been more deluded.
Empty handed and wide-eyed we strolled around the various stalls to check out the competition and find a decent spot to set up shop. We found a suitable clearing next to a man with three phones set out on a cardboard box and then returned to the jeep to get the bags. At the car we decided to take only one of the bags full of clothes, expecting it to last maybe an hour before one of us would return and collect the next bag. This would let the shoppers see only a limited selection and also help us keep an eye on what we had laid out for sale.
However, as we were pushing through the crowd an old Bedouin woman stopped us and started haggling over a kerosene lamp that one of us was carrying. This should have given us an indication of the speed of trade that day. We sold it to her after she said we had electricity in our homes and didnâ€™t need it as much as her family did.
Arriving at the chosen spot we paused to think how best to lay out the colored bed sheet on which we would place our goods. Turning around we saw a small crowd had gathered behind us, turning to each with a rising sense of confusion we quickly assembled our stall and squatted, in the style of the other traders, on our haunches. In the time it takes to send a text message we were surrounded. Before we knew it we were fending off fierce negotiations from all sides. To my right a man in a brown dish-dasha began gesticulating wildly about the price of a tie, to my left the same Bedouin woman from before was invoking God at the price I had asked. Looking to my companion I saw he was equally in trouble.
The arrival of two westerners deep into the trading heart of the downtown was like throwing raw beef to starved lions. It became apparent that we were way out of our depth.
My companion was selling at light speed. Chattering away and rejecting offers from a man who had taken an interest in the baseball cap he was wearing. My friend took off his cap and put it on the man’s head, next he wrapped a scarf and tie around his neck and said “One dinar the lot, take it or leave.” Theatrically, the man looked wounded and offered at half the price.
The Bedouin woman looked at me over her thin muslin veil and beckoned me to lean forward. As I came closer to her she pinched my chin and grinned through the veil, the creases around her old eyes reminded me of my grandmother. I was useless against her powers of negotiation and sold her my desert coat, a pair of corduroy trousers, a traditional wool-lined vest and a sheepskin for a price I am embarrassed to relate. Slipping the money into my palm she vanished into the crowd. But I was pleased. What I bought for the desert, I reasoned, must go back to the desert.
Before we knew it the whole lot had nearly gone, glancing at my watch I saw that just under ten minutes had gone by. Retrieving the rest of the bags from the jeep and whisking up two cups of tea on the way I returned to my stranded partner who was squatting beneath what was now a deluge of standing figures blocking out the light in the courtyard. Fending off offers at all sides he glanced up to see me with a surprise as if he didn’t expect me to have made it back. Armed with tea we began again.
“Half dinar? You must be kidding!”
“I won’t sell those pants for less than one dinar and that is the truth!”
And so it continued. Bag after bag until everything was gone and we were left exhausted, we even sold the bed sheet that we were displaying the goods on.
Shaking hands with the traders who were now filling the courtyard with their stalls, we said our goodbyes and returned empty handed to the jeep. Counting our winnings in the car I looked at my watch again, it was an hour after we had arrived.
The sun was gathering heat and looking out we could see someone had taken our spot, we drove off with the feeling that the real shopping frenzy had only just begun. Splitting the winnings from the morning down the middle I proposed breakfast and we drove off to our favourite restaurant for a celebratory bowl of hummus.
Edward Stallard teaches English in Amman and is originally from England.