12 January 2009
Poultry shopping for lavash bread at the market in Yerevan. Photolure
Yerevan - A large 18-wheeler with Syrian plates has managed to snake through the excruciatingly narrow side streets and is parked, taking up half the street with its back doors ajar. As we walk past the truck, several men begin hauling carts of cucumbers covered in thin plastic wrap and dumping them on the wet pavement as a light snow begins to fall. The truck is packed to the rafters with . . crates of cucumbers.
They import cucumbers by truck all the way from Syria? My curiosity piqued, I ask the same question out loud to my husband. He chuckles. They obviously do. From Syria.
As we turn the corner from the truck, we tumble into a whole new world. Several city streets have been converted into an open-air market. It is a sight for the eyes and for the senses. Amid overcast skies, splashes of color abound here on these wet, gray streets encircled by large Soviet-era apartment blocks that could be the stuff of one's nightmares. The sound of cars running, wheelbarrows being pushed, carts being hauled, goods being bagged, and a dank, damp smell that is only overpowered by the sweet smell of coffee. It can easily be mistaken for an eastern bazaar from the late 19th century. There are men and women selling crates of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, radishes, turnips, and lemons at wholesale prices. Sacks with no less than 20 kilos of potatoes and onions are piled into neat rows ready for the next buyer. Stalls are overflowing with different kinds of lettuce, parsley, coriander, rosemary, dill, basil, green onions; their aroma overpowering and intoxicating. Green, red, and yellow apples, tangerines, oranges, grapefruits, kiwis, bananas, and pomellos. There is the mythical pomegranate, country of origin mysteriously unknown and the persimmons (including oriental persimmons) that have been trucked in from Georgia only this morning.
This is the Malatya market, the wholesale market in Yerevan's southwest district of Malatya. This is where vendors come to sell their fruits and vegetables to businesses both large and small. At first, what appears to be an uncivilized, squalid, unkempt, mishmash of enterprise, slowly begins to make sense. Depending on your budget, you rent a space from the owner of the market on a daily basis. The amount of rent depends on whether you are selling out of your car, van, or truck. If you have neither of these luxuries, then you carry in your carts and place them on the freezing ground. Your space in the market is never guaranteed unless you stay there 24 hours. Some vendors do so to ensure the best location.
Large snowflakes serenely coast downward, sprinkling people's heads and coats. I am being pushed along involuntarily as buyers and sellers coax, cajole, and finally beat down the price of a crate of grapes. My husband pushes and weaves through the crowd expertly. I linger a few steps behind taking in with my eyes what my mind is trying to process. There is a woman, dressed in many woolen layers, walking just ahead of me. She has a jazve and two cups of steaming-hot Armenian coffee placed on a tray. She's slightly overweight but is moving lightly and swiftly. Her business in the Malatya market is making and delivering coffee to the freezing vendors. I find myself trying not to gasp when I see her cherry red, bloated and parched hands that seem to belong to someone else, someone who must have been trapped in the snow for days with no cover. I shamefully hide my hands in my pockets.
The Malatya market is an integral part of the social fabric of Armenian society. Here you find people from remote villages, from surrounding areas, and from the heart of the capital city itself. You can hear a chorus of dialects from Karabakh, Goris, Gyumri, and the distinct Yerevan dialect, which includes Russian, Turkish, and Persian words. The holiday season is the one time any of these entrepreneurs can hope to make some money that will carry them through the next several months until the coming of spring bears the promise of new hope.
We see a friend, Anto, who is selling cucumbers and tomatoes from the back of his blue van. We stop to chat with him as he continues to conduct business. He has a fistful of sunflower seeds he is expertly cracking and then spitting out when an older man approaches him. Without asking, the man helps himself to several sunflower seeds from Anto's hand like it was the most natural thing to do. They discuss the price of a crate of tomatoes, drop their voices down, Anto winks, and a deal is struck while they continue attacking the sunflower seeds. The older man says he'll be back in half an hour to pick up his tomatoes. Just then two women walk by and ask about the price of the cucumbers. Anto says 900 drams ($2.90) a kilo, where just a few minutes earlier he had told an elderly woman they were 750 drams ($2.40). After the women walk away, I ask Anto why the discrepancy in the price. He says the women looked rich enough to afford paying the inflated price. That is how business is done in the Malatya market.
The real Malatya, located in southeastern Turkey at the foot of the Anti-Taurus Mountains is known for its apricot orchards. About 50 percent of fresh apricot production and 95 percent of dried apricot production in Turkey comes from Malatya. Our Malatya in Yerevan is synonymous with the wholesale market, which has become a hub for the agricultural bounty of Armenia. One day, I presume, officials from the ministry of health will come in and demand that the market be cleaned up to ensure some level of hygiene. Outdoor stalls will no longer be allowed and a building will be constructed and the stalls will be built uniformly and small vendors will no longer be able to pay the rent for the few measly square meters of space. It will become a more civilized place for both the vendors and the buyers, but the sights, sounds and smells so unique to this market will be lost forever. Another part of our history in the city will be eradicated, making way for new things to come.
(c) 2009 Armenian Reporter, http://reporter.am, January 09, 2009