THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION
OF THE VEGETABLE MARKET
Opinions—about people and about politics—take shape in the network of communications in the suq; even the most severe government censorship cannot stand up against the whispered asides which pass from person to person in the suq.
Robert Fernea, “Suqs of the Middle East”
There are at least two entities that people call market (suq) in al-Zawiya al-Hamra. One of these markets is located between the old masaakin and el-ahali, while the other is in the ahali area but close to the new masaakin. The actual market is hard to define physically. One of these structures was built by the government in 1985. It consists of several wooden booths encompassed by a concrete wall. One part of the market has a roof, while the other part is not covered. Although the roofed market has been a main feature of Middle Eastern cities, traders here do not like the roofed space allocated to them by the government. There is a continuous struggle between the merchants and government officials over where the former can sell their products. The officials try to force the merchants to stay within the bounded market. Merchants, however, refuse to stay within the boundaries of this structure and take their goods to the nearby streets. Only a few traders with heavy loads or hard-to-move goods stay inside the formal “market”, but they stay in the uncovered part. The rest take their fruits, vegetables, cheese, and other products into the nearby intersection. Sellers feel that the street is more spacious, allows them to
The vegetable market is full of movement. Women from nearby villages bring big baskets of seasonal products, some breast-feeding their babies while older children play around; merchants move their goods to allow a car, whose driver is honking madly, to pass; a man tries to force his horse, that is pulling a lettuce cart, to proceed through the crowd; trucks try to unload; small children sell lemons, parsley, and other goods; and a man carries a tray with tea glasses to be sold to the traders. Products are piled on carts, and their sellers loudly describe the taste of the fruit, announce the prices of vegetables, and call upon people to inspect their merchandise and compare prices. Fresh and frozen fish are being sold on the corner of the street, while on the other side there is a shop with an immense woman selling internal organs, legs, and heads of water buffalo. A woman sits next to a cage with several chickens, waiting for customers who select one or two, which are then weighed, slaughtered, and dipped in the boiling water to make it easy to pluck the feathers. Another woman squats with a big basket of rice, and a group of women stand around waiting for her to weigh the amount they requested. One woman screams at one of her female customers who tries to pick a piece of cheese from the metal container. Flies continue to fly in and out of the container, but the merchant is only bothered by the fact that her other customers may feel disgusted if they see the female client putting her fingers into the container. Around the area that is defined as the market, there are shops that sell spices, fabrics, clothes, shoes, and miscellaneous household equipment.
Most of the studies of the market (conducted mainly by male anthropologists) focus on the bazaar or the central market, which is dominated by men (Gilsenan 1982; Geertz 1979; Gerholm, 1977). Studies of the suq also tend to focus more on the merchants than on how the people, especially women, interact and view it. Little attention has been devoted to the study of local vegetable markets that women visit to buy their daily vegetables and fruits. Unlike the central markets and bazaars that have attracted the attention of researchers, the suq in al-Zawiya al-Hamra is dominated by women. They are the majority of the sellers and buyers. Although there are other closer options that could save them time and
In the market a woman compares prices, checks the quality and freshness of the vegetables, and then decides what to buy for the day. She checks with the merchant to make sure that the advertised price is the same as the price that he is charging. She bargains to see if the price can be reduced and reads the reaction of the merchant to ascertain when she should leave or when she should increase the offered price. Although she may know some sellers by name, she does not try to maintain a commitment or a strong relationship to a specific merchant, for if she did, she would not be able to maintain the broad bargaining space that allows her to compare and select what is suitable for her budget and needs. She picks up every single vegetable and examines it closely to make sure that it is fresh and not damaged. Then she hands the plastic bags, which she brings with her to avoid paying extra for them, to the man or the woman who is selling the vegetables. She keeps a close eye on the merchant to make sure that the weights used are correct and that he does not add any bad products. She carefully calculates the total cost and counts the change. Meanwhile, she keeps her eyes open for lettuce leaves or other vegetables that can be fed to her chickens and ducks. Some merchants do not mind if she collects some of the green leaves that they have thrown away. If she does not find anything to take back to her poultry, she may buy them some old cheap vegetables.
A central feature of the woman's interaction with the male or female merchant is suspicion and distrust. Merchants, whether those who reside in al-Zawiya or those who come from villages around Cairo, are not to be trusted because they may try to cheat on the weight, the price, the quality of the food, and the change they give back. Because women expect to engage in such arguments and disagreements, special verbal skills are taught as part of women's socialization, which includes visits to the market from early childhood. Young girls accompany their mothers to the market during school vacations and are sent alone to buy some simple things as they grow older (around ten and over). Before reaching this stage, they are taught “the language of the market” and how to be assertive so that they can bargain and answer back if the merchant tries to cheat them. Women's assertiveness in this context, unlike their assertiveness in relation to the workplace, is highly regarded and celebrated.
The relationship between clients and sellers is not the only potential source of conflict in the market. Women view the relationships between
Like the coffee shop that shapes how young men view the state, the vegetable market is the main site that shapes women's opinions of government policies. Even though their visits to the market are usually short and goal oriented, women still hear complaints about prices and new regulations related to the market and observe the struggle between the merchants and government officials. Women's efforts to secure their daily food with limited budgets makes them experts on the changing prices of vegetables. They monitor increases in the price of tomatoes, the availability of onions, and the freshness of fish and link them with the policies and projects of the government. For instance, women were very concerned when the governor decided to relocate Rod al-Farag market (the major vegetable market in Cairo). They thought that the relocation of the market outside the city would cause large increases in the prices of vegetables and fruits. When I visited al-Zawiya in December of 1994, women considered the increase in vegetable prices and the shortage in some supplies to be a natural outcome of the relocation of that market.