Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Adventure in the Junk Souk in Amman, Jordan

I have a great belt.  It's really beautiful.  I bought it in Amman in 1980.  And like so many things, the memory of the adventure of buying it is the best thing about it.

I loved our first posting in Jordan.  I embraced the culture, the people, the food, the city, the climate--everything.  I was fascinated that everyone I met, including taxi drivers and shopkeepers, were so much savvier about world affairs than so many Americans.  And I loved exploring the Old City for old silver and Bedouin jewelry. "Shifty" and other entrepreneurs came to the house (see first blog), but I also wanted to explore on my own.  People told me I should visit the "junk souk" which was way down in the older central part of Amman, at "First Circle".   We lived at "Seventh Circle", and so I would have to take a taxi . The city was safe and I had no worries about hailing a taxi and making my way down to the souk alone.

I remember that I had to step down, to this place, as one steps down to a basement in New England.  It was dark, and filled with men working on metal—resembling booths of hardware and auto repair businesses. I had brought cash in my pocket, hoping to find some treasure in the form of a Bedouin amber necklace with silver beads, or coral, or lapis.  I had, if I remember correctly, fifty dinars in my back jeans pocket, which was the equivalent of one hundred fifty American dollars.  I walked slowly, peering right and left,  and visited several stalls.  What I found was not very different from the stuff on jebel weibdah, or jebel shmeisani, other neighborhoods in  Amman.  But then I entered one stall, and my eyes spotted a belt of silver and leather.  I had never seen one like it. Huge etched silver pieces adorned a 3-inch wide, worn leather belt.  In short, it was spectacular.  I asked to see it, and tried it on.  It could be worn at my hips and would  work with jeans,  skirts or dresses.  Heck, I could wear it with anything.  So I asked, "bikum hada? (How much is this?)"  My Arabic was simple but I got an answer. “Ktir” –a lot, I said, in my feeble attempt at bargaining.  I got them down from a hundred and fifty dinars to one hundred--still an exorbitant price.  Well, it was a wonderful belt I told myself.  I explained to the two guys there that I only had fifty in my pocket, but promised to bring another fifty next week.  They said okay: fifty now and fifty next week.  Then he said that I could take the belt home with me.  I thought that was more than fair.

I was teaching tennis lessons, at 10 dinars an hour, so after five lessons,  I had the second fifty within the week.  I got a taxi on the street, and made my way down to the junk souk again.  It was a little tricky finding them, but finally I recognized the shop where I found my belt.  I caught the eye of the same shopkeeper, and proudly made the final payment. The surprise in his eyes made me realize that I was one foolish girl. 

silver belt from Jordan

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Julio in Peru

Some amethysts I bought from Julio

One common theme in my life overseas was the pursuit of crafts.  In every country I lived in I immediately set out to discover the beautiful craftwork of the region.  Often, the craftwork came to me.  Back in Jordan in early 80’s, the Arab vendors would always know who the new expats were and where they lived.  Within the first month, they were knocking on my door.  Americans were prime targets, but so were European residents.  Over twenty years after my initial forays into souks, pursuit of native arts, I began sponsoring craft shows for the embassy community in Lima.  This way I got to know the artists and learn about their lives and families.  In one show in the large side yard of the house, I had Willi, the painter, Oscar the woodworker, Ana Miranda , who had a sweater business, Pablo the gourd carver, Jaime the chess set maker, and Julio, the Rock guy.

Lima was difficult for me in some ways.  My Spanish was only so so.  While I could communicate, my comprehension was not adequate for the rapid language that bulleted back at me.  I felt handicapped and inadequate in my Spanish.  And while Peru is a beautiful country, Lima itself is cold and grey and crowded with nine million people.  I was so fortunate to have discovered Julio.

He was a small man, probably Quechua.  He talked fast and walked fast and liked to do business fast.  He arrived in a taxi and brought  bags with stone beads in them.  Sometimes he had old Venetian beads from old houses in Cuzco.  Usually he had amethysts or quartz or chrysocola to sell.  I like to think that I started designing necklaces out of some creative explosion in myself.  But in hindsight I realize that I started making/ selling necklaces so that I could buy beads from Julio.  He would arrive, run-walking up the walk, come in, and we would do business.  He would name his price, and I would balk, but I wanted the beautiful beads and so I would make offers, and then try to get them ALL for something much less.  Julio’s business plan was to move his inventory.  And I know that he loved coming to my house for that reason.  I learned the prices; the serpentine and onyx and orange jasper were very inexpensive, while he could ask more for the Peruvian opals and turquoise.  Once he caught himself up because he asked more for small quartz heishi beads than the large quartz beads.   When I asked him why the small ones cost more he told me that there was so much labor involved in the cutting.  I didn’t fall for that one; and I told him so. 

I miss my bead buying with Julio, and I remember those business transactions with nostalgia.  The thing is-- Julio didn’t know one word of English.