by Dr Jehad Al-Omari
Street salesman in Jerusalem, late 19th century
A couple of weeks ago, Jordanian children resumed their schooling following a prolonged forced shutdown due to Covid-19. Despite the controversy surrounding this decision – especially due to the fact that Jordan was in the midst of the fourth Covid-19 wave, with percentages of those testing positive soaring to 25% and higher – many Jordanians welcomed it. The trend on Facebook on the first day back at school was for people to recall their first impressions of school as a child. Although my first year of school was in Jordan, I’ve retained very few strong recollections of it and my thoughts immediately went back to Abu Dhabi, where I had my remaining 11 years of schooling from primary to intermediate to secondary, as it was called in those days.
When our family moved from Jordan to Abu Dhabi in 1968, the country was still under British Mandate. The city, or island, of Abu Dhabi was then a very small and relatively underdeveloped city by any standards and its population at the time probably did not exceed 30,000 at most. Very few major roads had been built and there were sand dunes almost everywhere on the island alongside the few modern buildings and structures. There were four or five main roads, including the Airport Road which remains to this day, and the central Hamdan Street, which remains the central street in Abu Dhabi. My school was situated in that street opposite the house of Sheikh Hamdan, after whom the street was named. Today it stands proudly as the Hamdan Centre, combining a shopping mall, residential buildings and a hotel, but alas, my school was demolished a long time ago, to be replaced by high-rise towers.
Of the three impressions that come to mind regarding my early years at school in Abu Dhabi, the first was the fun we had learning history ‘live’, so to speak: our history teacher always insisted that we re-enact major historic battles on the sand dunes next to our school and it was great fun for us kids, although it did get tough sometimes with the soaring heat and high humidity. A second impression that has left its mark on me is going to school in a Land Rover. The island was basically very sandy and there were few roads, so you certainly needed this kind of vehicle to get through the dunes. On many occasions our vehicle became stuck and we would then spend 30 to 45 minutes getting it out and arrive home soaking wet and covered in sand, which certainly didn’t amuse our mothers. Water was also scarce then and the British authorities did very little to bring potable water to this rapidly expanding island city, which later became the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
Our school was very basic, mostly made from prefabricated materials and gypsum board, with only one row of six classrooms built of bricks and mortar along with the administration building. In 1968 there were just six schools in Abu Dhabi – three for boys and three for girls. They were quite close to each other and very modestly furnished. Our books came from Kuwait and even though Abu Dhabi was an oil-producing country at the time, it was Kuwait that financed the education system in Abu Dhabi. Although I’m often classified as an Anglophile, one has to state categorically that in those days the British government gave back very little of the wealth that they earned from oil production.
My third and final recollection of school in those days relates to the vendors who came to sell us all kind of edible things during the mid-morning break. To me, it was like a funfair, and despite our parents’ warnings not to buy certain things from them we simply clamoured for the crunchy fried samosas, the boiled egg sandwiches with Indian spices, and the fried nuts. I’ve lived in many countries and tried so many samosa recipes in lots of restaurants, but still nothing can compete with the oily, crunchy, spicy samosas sold by those hawkers who flocked round our schools. They came in their ragged clothing carrying oily, stained cardboard boxes, but we just couldn’t get enough of their produce.
To this day, I still adore seeing street vendors and hawkers – both men and women – selling traditional food, from corn on the cob to roasted peanuts, sandwiches and various sweets. Here in Jordan, the tradition of the street vendor is still alive and well. Some vendors are licensed and some are not, but the demand is certainly there. A most famous person who is often remembered in Amman was a Nigerian selling roasted peanuts (left). He originally came with his father all the way from Nigeria to perform the Hadj (pilgrimage) to Makkah. On the way back they visited the city of Jerusalem, where his father died. Not wishing to leave his father, he stayed in Jerusalem until it was occupied by the Israelis, at which point he left for Amman and became a permanent fixture in the city’s rich panorama and pageant until he died.
In Abu Dhabi in the sixties and seventies we had another type of itinerant vendor. Known as Lailams (right), they were predominantly from the Pashtun tribes of Pakistan and Afghanistan. These very masculine-looking and even fierce men, carrying their wares in a bundle consisting of a rolled and tied blanket, would go door-to-door selling mainly textile items – everything imaginable from towels and bedsheets to baby clothes, underwear and ladies’ lingerie. They flourished in the days when central markets were not accessible to women. The great thing was that you could also ask them to bring you certain kinds of merchandise and they often obliged. The fun part for us children was the haggling that went on every time and the look of satisfaction on our mothers’ faces when they finalised a deal. The Lailams have now disappeared from Abu Dhabi, and I suppose right across the Arabian Gulf, just like the Indian peanut sellers. These sellers would roast their peanuts in sand and salt. The taste and texture were simply heavenly and no-one from my generation – unless of course they’re allergic to peanuts – who tried them could ever forget the experience.
When I was writing the above, it occurred to me to compare the situation with the scene in the UK. As looking into old photographs from around the world, and from London in particular, is a hobby of mine, I came across two photographs of London street vendors dating from early 20th century: one of a woman selling sweets in 1930s Kensington (above); and another of a man selling muffins somewhere in London (below).
By the time I first visited the UK in the 70s, these people had all but disappeared, with the exception of the flower-sellers. Other than that, the only remnant of this tradition is the common ‘back-of-the-lorry’ traders selling fake expensive perfumes, watches and jewellery. In similar vein, I recall that when I moved to Guildford in the early 80s, the two main streets had their fair share of small, specialist shops – i.e. butchers, greengrocers, bakeries, sweetshops and the ever-present florists. By the time I left in 2001, they had all gone except for the florists. What, in my opinion, makes such shops stand out from the retail chain outlets and giant supermarkets/hypermarkets is the specialised, personalised service they provide. Although I’m not really qualified to make socio-economic arguments in favour of preserving the now-dying small shops, I just feel that the UK will soon have lost part of the very fabric that makes small cities and towns such warm, charming places to live.
Fortunately, here in Jordan we have not yet lost the small greengrocers, the butchers, dairy, cheese and pickles shops, the nuts and sweetmeats shops, the small bakeries, the small watch repair shops, or the local family jewellery shop – not to mention small restaurants. This is not to say that they’re not now all under attack from the giants – global, regional and local – but so far they have managed to withstand the onslaught of globalisation and standardisation and as our attachment to them here in Jordan has not yet been sufficiently weakened by the lure of online shopping, they may well still have many years of life in front of them. On a personal level, I still enjoy a very warm relationship with my local butcher, carpenter, tailor and next-door greengrocer. I have implicit faith in them; and, in addition to being personal and immediate, the service they provide is of the highest standard. This does of course come at a cost when one compares it with the prices charged by the large chains, but I feel too strongly about the value of small local shops to object to the marginal additional cost I incur.
Besides the itinerant hawkers and the small shops here in Jordan we have two other types of street vendor. There are what are known as ‘bastahs’ – unauthorised sales-points where the merchandise is displayed on the pavement. These can be a nuisance if you’re a pedestrian trying to make your way along a busy street, and they are sometimes associated with crime. Despite continuing efforts by the municipal authorities to regulate them, they remain both popular and controversial at the same time. Recently there was a public outcry when the Amman municipal authorities destroyed the merchandise of an unauthorised fruit seller. Then there are also the people you find at traffic lights selling everything from flowers to strawberries and from children’s toys to chewing gum. This is sometimes regarded as disguised begging, especially when the hawker is a young boy or girl not above 12 or 14 years of age. Personally, I don’t object to them as long as they are not too persistent and – in the absence of effective and thorough social welfare programmes, we’re bound to see them operating for some considerable time to come. One person I used to see quite frequently was a physically handicapped young woman in her mid-twenties, with a lovely, affectionate smile, who used to squeeze her wheelchair between stationary cars at the traffic lights near my home, in order to beg from the drivers. She disappeared two years ago. I hope that her life has taken a turn for the better and that she is safe and sound somewhere. Her activities never did anyone any harm, and I still miss her smile.