Merchants navigate between the lazy and business savvy – seemingly contradictory traits that define the bazaar
One time in Keman, my grandmother sent me to the bazaar for cumin. I asked for a quarter of a kilo. Perched comfortably on his chair, the spice seller looked me in the eye and raised his brows in a „no“.
That’s the stereotypical Kermani attitude for you, too blasé to even speak. Trying to trump him at his own game, I pretended not to understand the gesture until he was finally forced to reply: „We don’t have any.“
I pointed to a huge sack of cumin in the back.
He grumbled like a bear deep in winter slumber. „You said you want a quarter of a kilo. You want me to get up and walk to the back and open the sack and weigh your purchase … do all that work, for a quarter of a kilo? Nope, my child, I don’t have a quarter of a kilo.“
Such incidents aren’t rare here. A merchant unwilling to rise from his seat might ask you to come back the next day when the shop is busy and he’s up anyway, or he might just ignore you – gaze through you with eyes half closed until you go away. I always react to rudeness in other circumstances, but somehow these shop owners don’t bother me. The bazaar exemplifies Kerman’s whimsical, lazy spirit, often exacerbated by the region’s avid taste for opium. (Kermanis distinguish traditional leisurely use from addiction.)
The Kerman bazaar is one of my favourite places. Not only is it beautiful – despite the fact that it is crumbling – but the spirit of the city sieves through it. Underneath brick domes, through bustling hallways, the conversations and negotiations with the shop owners give glimpses of the heart of the city, 600 miles (965 km) to the southeast of Tehran.
At the same time they are also savvy businessmen. How they negotiate these seemingly contradictory traits is part of what defines this bazaar. In Tehran, Isfahan and Mashhad, the bazaars have lost their identities – the styles and attitudes that made them unique to their particular geographies and histories. In an age where their sons are no longer being trained at their sides, I often wonder what will become of this place when the old men are gone. When the last of these bazaaris leaves his shop, the spirit of this bazaar too will fade forever.
I have heard of the old bazaar district in Mashhad that was completely demolished to make way for new development under the shah despite his wife’s efforts to preserve it. And I wonder how many other places across Iran, cities and towns I’ve never heard of, had bazaars and neighbourhoods now gone without a trace.
Each section of Kerman’s bazaar leads to a courtyard, with rooms all around it. These are the caravans for which the bazaar was once known. In the old days, like hotels, they hosted travellers and itinerant merchants. The caravans were still in good shape only 20 years ago, my uncle says. Now they are in disrepair, used mostly as storage and parking spaces. The bazaar’s gorgeous blue hand-carved wooden doors are also steadily being replaced by iron ones. Mine will probably be the last generation to see a hint of what the bazaar used to be, of the life that it once breathed into the city.
The copper-making section is one of the parts of the bazaar I cherish most. Kerman copper was once an industry and an art, made manifest in the beautiful, intricate engravings on dishes from centuries past. The very fact that there are still a few copper shops left is something to be grateful for. The copper section of the bazaar in Yazd, 220 miles to the northwest, has all but disappeared.