An Uneventful Shopping Trip to the Bazaar
Hallie D. Adibi
And so we went to the bazaar. Not that it had been easy! Early in the morning my mother-in-law and I decided: today we are going shopping. My husband had mentioned that there were demonstrations downtown Abadan, pro Mossadegh and anti the Shah of Iran, but he had left it at that. It was a daily event in the early 1950ís, and it probably had occurred to him that once two women decide to go shopping, no power on earth can stop them.
Not so our Arabian cook, Mooni. He started to roar with laughter when he heard about our decision.
"Nim-sahib*, you canít go, there is a lot of trouble!"
The fact that Mooni was concerned about our safety did not deter us either, so we took off. Maman in a lovely flowery veil, and I myself probably wore a summer dress, Abadan being what it is: an unbelievably hot Persian Gulf town.
Question: to take a cab or the bus? Letís take the bus, and so we walked over to the bus stop.
It was 7:30 in the morning. Life starts early in an oil town. One gets up at 4:30, husbands leave at five for the refinery and come home at 10:30 for lunch. After that one falls into an exhaustive dead sleep for two to three hours, and then there is teatime at 4 or 5 oíclock. At night one can go out to dinner, a dance or movie, but about that some other time.
As we walked to the bus stop, we noticed it was somehow more quiet than usual. At this time of the morning the streets should be bustling with shoppers, houseboys on their bicycles with bags of groceries, nannies pushing baby carriages, or young wives on their way to the pool at the oil company club.
While waiting for the bus, a chauffeur driven car speeded past us, reversed itself, and an acquaintance of my husband ran over to us:
"You cannot go downtown, and on the bus at that, itís totally out of the question!" Indeed! Fortunately, at that moment the bus arrived, and two determined and giggling women hoisted themselves on board. We were on our way to the bazaar!
How noisy, how dusty, how colorful and smelly, and how absolutely lovely! The clang-clanging of the coppersmiths welcomed us in one section, the fragrance of many spices and aromatic fruits in another. Small boys with trays and tea glasses running to their masters, their soft slippers flying swiftly past us. Braying donkeys, complaining about their often too heavy loads, cursed at and encouraged on by shouting merchants. And small delivery vans winding their erratic paths, honking horns, and somehow evading seemingly inevitable collisions. The dusty, pale-yellow sunlight , projecting shafts of illumination through circular ceiling openings.
The first item on my shopping list was nutmeg. I had been unable to obtain it in the oil-company store, did not know the word in Farsi, and neither my husband nor Mooni had been of any help.
It was dark and musky smelling in the dome-covered alley where the spices were sold. We stopped at a small shop with a single bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling casting a dim light on the old Arabian gentleman standing behind a counter. An enormous carved, wooden cabinet was visible at the rear of the small shop. It seemed to contain more than a hundred small drawers, and we started to describe what we were looking for.
The kind blue eyes of the Arab merchant (it is not at all uncommon for Arabs to have blue eyes) looked intently at me as he listened, eyebrows frowned together, face wrinkled in deep concentration.
"I am looking for a spice. It looks like a small pit of a fruit,
Several shop owners eagerly approached us, looking us over as prospective customers. Especially having a foreign lady interested in their merchandise heightened their sales pitch.
"Lady, please do come in. Please sit down and have a glass of tea, or a sherbet, a cool lemonade!"
This polite ritual takes place at every small shop that we pass by. My mother-in-law has her favorite shops that she patronizes. One of the owners we call: "Baba Mooni" between ourselves, the reason being that the gentleman in question looks just like our cook, slightly cross-eyed and with a perpetual surprised look on his face. He comes from Kuwait, and his language is rich and colorful.
We make our choice and start bargaining over the price. He tells my mother-in-law: "Lady, you can afford to pay my price, you have a rich English daughter-in-law."
"Oh no, my daughter-in-law is from Holland, and besides, I am buying this for myself."
"Aahh! Holland! Phillips radio and light bulbs!" And he points to a small radio behind him on a shelf. Itís blasting Arabic music. Iím stunned!
"Thatís right!" my mother-in-law responds, "I see you are a well-informed gentleman! Now listen to me, you charge double the price this cotton is worth and I do not think I need this fabric at this outrageous price!" And off we go.
The shopkeeper, knowing we like the fabric, follows us with outstretched hands:
"Madam, I need to feed my family, you do not leave me any profit!
I swear by God, I am not charging you too much."
We pretend to return reluctantly and buy the fabric at a mutually agreed upon price, both of us protesting, we, that we are paying much too much, and Baba Mooni that he is losing money on this deal, but only sells it to us because we are old customers. We wish him a pleasant goodbye, he wishes us a long life, and everybody is satisfied.
By now it is nine oíclock and we decide to return home. Coming out of the bazaar, I notice a strange orange-grey glow in the now overcast sky. During the twenty minute bus ride it starts to get quite dark, and, on arriving home, Maman closes all the shutters that cover the windows on the outside of our house. I am a little surprised, itís not even mid-day, why is she closing everything up tight? Is there something going on that I am totally unaware of.... I donít say anything, but shuttered windows still leave me with a wartime sensation. So I sneak into our bedroom and dining room and open up at least some of the shutters to let the daylight in. Maman does not say anything, she is sitting on the floor with the newly purchased fabric in front of her, a pair of large scissors and a box of pins.
Does she use a pattern? Of course she does. Itís all in her head! She measures the fabric along the length of her arm, folds it double and again triple till it looks like a piece of pie, and then bravely plunges the scissors into the cloth. The length and width of the sleeves are measured with outstretched hands, three to four for the length, one for the width. The cuffs are turned over and cut. Now she starts to pin and sew.
Fascinated by this whole procedure I watch it carefully and mentally compare it with the way my own mother sews. She selects first a pattern book, and, after discussing the pros and cons of a certain dress with all her best friends, she takes the book home and my father is put to work. An enormous sheet of paper is put on the dining table, and with a small pattern marker, resembling a kind of cookie cutter, he traces all the dotted lines on the white paper. Then he cuts it out for her, after which she takes over and pins the paper on the fabric. She cuts, bastes, and tries it on. Readjusts, and tries it on again. This process often repeats itself four, five or more times. Finally she sews the pieces together, making sure to press each part first before she continues. The hem part is the most difficult. A neighbor is usually invited for tea, and, with a mouth full of pins and a measuring stick she pins the hem while my mother turns around and is repeatedly reminded to please stand up straight! The total time spent to sew a dress easily takes my mother three to four weeks.
Not so with Maman. Within the time span of a half hour she is happily sitting behind my small hand-driven sewing machine busily stitching her dress together. I am properly impressed with my mother-in-law!
So occupied I was watching her, that I totally had forgotten about the closed shutters, but now, looking up, I gasp: the whole room is covered with a layer of the finest dust, and so are the other rooms in the house! As I look out the windows I see the reason why; there is a big sand storm blowing outside!
Mahmood, my husband comes home and stares at all the dust. I lamely explain to him about Maman closing the shutters and me quietly opening them again. And ask him: "Why did she not correct me?"
He puts this question to his mother, who looks up from behind the sewing machine and says: "I did not want to tell Hallie what she should or should not do. She is a smart girl, she would discover it for herself."
We look at each other and I see the look of affection and humor in her eyes. Dear Maman, you do have the wisdom and compassion of a king Solomon.
Poor Mooni is put to work, but we all help to clean up the dust. Itís very quiet outside, no sounds of traffic or animals. An occasional bird flutters past the house like a lost autumn leaf. The town is windy, dusty, grey, brown and empty.
By teatime Maman is wearing her new dress, and I am making a meatloaf for supper, the Dutch way, with nutmeg.
* Nim-sahib, derived from the Indian Madam-Sahib or Mam-Sahib. I do take exception to the term "nim-sahib", nim means "half" in Farsi, and I do not consider myself a half of a sahib.