Second (and third!) – hand marketplaces offer some of the greenest shopping options available – especially in the run-up to frenzied winter holiday consumerism – but in developing countries, they are also an economic necessity for both buyers and vendors. In early October, the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) closed down a popular souk in the Abdali neighborhood in the name of progress and civic safety. Or was it simply to sanitize another sector of Jordan’s capital city? The souk sits centrally in an area undergoing massive revitalization. (See cranes at top of the photo above.)
Abdali market appeared every Thursday in a central city bus depot. Hundreds of vendors hawked clothes, housewares, toys, and tools at reasonable prices (outrageously cheap from an ex-pat point of view). There were food vendors and an extensive fruit and vegetable market. Sellers stayed through Friday afternoon, some sleeping beneath their tables. Everything was orderly, clean, and covered by a patchwork roof of plastic tarps which kept the market cooler in summer, and protected in winter.
For months, there were rumors that the market was relocating to a new downtown site in Ras al Ain but the makeshift shops remained. In faltering Arabic, I’d ask my favorite vendors what was happening. They’d laugh, fist-bump each other, and say they were staying put. Then, in October, GAM closed the souk.
Around 100 street sellers clashed with anti-riot police. Protesters threw Molotov cocktails and the cops responded with tear gas, arresting several merchants. Then GAM bulldozed the stalls and immediately began work to tear up sections of pavement. It was a violent end to an Amman tradition. (Image above is the aftermath of the riot).
Writer-disclosure: I’m a lifelong charity-shop-shopper, scoring deep discounts on old books, vinyl records, housewares, and clothes. Men’s tuxedo pants and giant overcoats bought at American Salvation Army stores were the backbone of my university wardrobe. Here in Amman, I scoured the souk for supplies for my endless arts and crafts projects. I’ve made mittens from moth-eaten cashmere sweaters and curtains from silk scarves. I wasn’t alone.
Locals and foreigners from every layer of Amman’s economy used the souk; you could pick out foreign NGO workers, South Asian maids, and tourists looking for an off-the-path experience. Friends who could afford to ski in Europe bought their jackets and ski pants at the souk for less than the price of coffee in a Zermatt cafe. Others would convert $50 raised at a school bake sale into two dozen warm hoodies to give to a local orphanage. For many people, on many levels, this market worked.
For five weeks I searched the new Ras Al Ain site for vendors. The large parking lot (7 acres) with ready-made stalls placed within neatly painted boundaries was empty. Week after week, no one showed up. It may have been a form of protest, or process delays (vendors needed to get permits). For over a month, a guard said, “Insha’Allah, next week.”
Now the market is back. My guess is 50% of the vendors are still missing, and the produce stalls are gone.
GAM said the move alleviated traffic jams and safeguarded public health with medical facilities and added parking. The city is also studying adding Saturday to the mix for a 3-day market served by a shuttle bus. All good, plus the new site is visually interesting; it is ringed by concrete walls splattered with vivid graffiti. The area seems empty by comparison to the old market, hopefully, over time, the remaining vendors will return.
As cities race towards modernity, it is critical that urban functionality remains. Sleek architecture may be a city’s face, but small economic and social engines like Abdali souk are it’s soul.
Image of old souk from The Jordan Times; all others by author