At the Bazaar

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The heart and soul of an Afghan village is its bazaar. – WDAGarner

Excerpt from “Small Gifts from the Heart”

Friday is the only day we have off at the Embassy. It is a day I treasure like that first peanut M&M from the three quarter pound bag.  I wake up at 5:00AM with my hooch shaking and rattling,  determine it is a Blackhawk helicopter passing over and not an earthquake (it could be either one), open one eye, look at my watch and with a sigh of pure joy roll over and sleep the peaceful sleep that only people who work in a war zone can appreciate. Granted, it is a false sense of peace because at any second a duck and cover alarm can go off and I am instantly awake, reaching for my body armor, my senses heightened, listening for an explosion or gunfire.  But I have also learned to take every opportunity to feel I am “off” because no one can sustain their sanity in a constant state of high alert.

Friday is also the day I allow myself a dessert, hopefully cake. The Embassy cooks make wonderful sheet cakes and Friday is usually the day we have them, except for when we have VIPs, then we have two sheet cakes. On one memorable occasion we had a CNN film crew doing a story on life at the Embassy. The Ambassador joined us for lunch and we had three sheet cakes that would rival anything you will ever see on The Food Network. We also had steak, prime rib and lobster tails. Love those photo ops!

But the best thing about Fridays is the bazaar held at the NATO compound next to the Embassy. About fifty Afghan vendors, who are heavily vetted and screened, set their up stalls and display a dizzying array of loose gemstones, jewelry, antiques, scarves, clothing, electronics and DVDs. It is a glorious hodgepodge of brightly colored tents, shouting vendors and exotic merchandise.  I usually go at lunchtime and the smell of kebabs being heated over portable stoves are tantalizing. As I pass through the entrance to the bazaar I show my ID to the guards then tuck it into my shirt. We are not allowed to display our IDs in order to prevent anyone from gathering information that could be used in a terrorist attack.

As soon as I get in sight of the first vendors I hear, “Madam! Madam! How about a beautiful necklace (scarf, sunglasses, knife, etc.)? It costs nothing to look. Please Madam?” Right and left, the frantic pleading assails me. Don’t make eye contact, don’t make eye contact, I chant like a mantra. If I make eye contact, I am doomed. Masters at selling, the Afghan traders instantly size you up and determine what product to show you that will cause you to stop, because when you stop, they have you. At least they have me. Once I stop, they use every psychological trick to close the sale. If I am wearing a pink shirt, they pull out a stunning scarf to match or hold up pink agate earrings for me to drool over. If I hesitate, they take my hand; look at me with soulful brown eyes and say, “I give you good price, just for you, because you are my friend.”

Scarves are my weakness and at $4-15 apiece, they are a cheap addiction. And you need scarves in Afghanistan, right? The seller will pick up a rough, ugly scarf that looks more like a burlap sack. He says, “This is what you get from other vendors. Feel how rough on your beautiful hand.” He drags it across my hand and it is like sandpaper. “Bah”, he says, dramatically throwing the scarf aside. “This is not for you. But this scarf”, he says, picking up a beautiful silky scarf, “this scarf is for you. Look how soft it is. You will find nothing like this anywhere else in the bazaar. Only I have it. And I give you  good price, just for you…” His voice is low, seductive and he slowly allows the scarf to glide sinuously across my hand like a snake easing into a cool pond. The colors swirl before my eyes. I envision myself draped in this wonderful scarf, people staring at me with awe, stunned at my beauty. Like a mouse held in the hypnotic gaze of a cobra, I feel my hand reach for my money and I am handing it over without a whimper. The seller smiles and says, “Are you happy?” Oh, yes, I am happy. I thank him and take my scarf and walk, dazed, onto the next vendor, Shakib, a jewelry maker.

Shakib was fourteen when I first met him. He has worked in the bazaar since he was ten. If I don’t see him right away, he stands in the middle of the milling bazaar patrons, lifts his arms into the air and shouts, “I am here!” He is so earnest, his young face scarred from some injury, but with a smile that wins my heart every time. We have a ritual. It is sacred and must not be strayed from. He asks me, “How are you? Are you healthy? Your family is healthy?“ I say I am fine, my family is fine and I ask him if he is healthy. Is his family healthy? He takes me by the hand and leads me to his table and begins to show me necklaces and bracelets he has made. Jewelry is my other addiction. A veritable cornucopia of gemstones–jade, lapis, agate, amethyst–is spread before me to admire. Shakib knows I like unpolished stones and he has several on display to whet my appetite. I pick out five necklaces and ask, “How much for these?“

”What would make you happy?”

“I don’t have a lot of money.  How about sixty dollars?”

He rolls his eyes, draws a finger across his throat like a knife and says, “You are keeling me!! Anyone but you I sell this for two hundred fifty dollars. This is real gemstone from Afghanistan.”

I say, “They are beautiful and I love them, but I only have one hundred dollars. How many can I get for a hundred?” He says two and I pick out four. We negotiate back and forth, inching closer to a deal. Finally I get three. As I give him the money and he puts my treasures in a little velveteen bag, he picks up two more and says, “These are for your daughters.” I thank him and he says, “Are you happy? I want you to be happy because you are my friend.” I tell him I am happy and we part, both getting something we want. He gets money to support his family and I get beautiful jewelry.

This weekly transaction transcends a mere monetary exchange. I know and he knows I could just give him a hundred dollar bill, pick out five necklaces and walk away. But this is not our ritual. I am old, he is young. I am a woman and he is a man. I am American and he is Afghan. But for a few minutes every Friday our cultural differences disappear and we are two people who genuinely like each other, and yes, it makes me happy.

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