April 20, 2017
HOW THEY SOLD FRUITS AT BAGHDAD
I was in Iraq in 1980 on a teaching assignment with the University of Baghdad. I had gone alone but my wife and two daughters also joined me later. This was the golden period of Iraq. Though the war with Iran had started a few weeks back, but it did not seem to have any effect on day to day life in Baghdad. Iraqi dinar was a hard currency. One dinar could get you 3.3 US dollars. Today one US dollar fetches 1100 Iraqi dinars. Iraq of those days was a very good country. Life was very cheap. Law and order was one of the best in the world. Crime was virtually absent. Saddam Husain was aiming to make it a welfare state.
It was my first visit outside India. Youngsters of today may not imagine how India was in 1980. “Imported goods” used to be a dream possession of everyone. So an opportunity to visit a foreign country and that too on a paid assignment to a country like Iraq where expatriates were not only paid heavily but were also allowed to send home 75 per cent of their savings, was considered to be a great luck.
A street fruit vendor in Iraq
Till my family had not arrived, I was living in a hotel on a side lane of the Sadoon Street, one of the most modern and fashionable streets of Baghdad. Being in a foreign country for the first time, I used to loiter in markets in the evening looking at shops for things which I had not seen before. I also tried to talk and befriend with local people. Every day I had some new and interesting experience.
That time was the date season in Iraq. Before that I knew only one kind of date which we get in India. This is the type which is exported as because of its high sugar content, it can be shipped to long distances and can also be stored for quite long. I was surprised to see the large variety of date fruits at the shops. I was told that in Iraq there were over one thousand different varieties of dates.
Sadoon Street of Baghdad during good old days
Being a fruit scientist, I wanted to taste as many kinds of date as possible. However, a problem arose. The fruit and vegetable vendors of Baghdad do not like sell less than a kilo of anything. The other practice in that city was that customers were not allowed to touch the fruits or vegetables for making a selection as we do in India. If some customer touched anything, the Arab shopkeeper would lose his temper and start shouting at the customer.
A small fruit hawker used to sell fruits at the gate of my hotel. He always used to have 4-5 types of dates. When I requested him to sell 100-200 grams, he refused and looked quite angrily at me. Though the fruits were very cheap, but still it was not possible for me to buy more as I could eat only that much at a time. Most dates varieties have to be eaten fresh could be stored for long at room temperature. I tried to explain hawker my limitation, but would not just listen to me.
Then I found a way. I explained my problem to one of hotel waiters and requested him to help me to convey my point to the hawker. The waiter told him that I was alone, lived in the hotel, had no refrigerator, was a fruit scientist teaching fruits at the University of Baghdad and therefore very much interested in tasting different varieties of dates which he was seeing for the first time. The waiter then pleaded with hawker to sell me lesser quantity.
At this the hawker agreed to sell me half kilo at one time. We then requested him to give me half kilo not of a single variety but from 3-4 different varieties. The hawker softened and agreed for that too. So I could taste dates of many varieties grown in Iraq.
Later we became friends. Whenever he got fruits of some new variety, he would gift me a few for tasting.