Markets: Forgotten Connections

“Pity the Nation that wears a cloth it does not weave, eats a bread it does not harvest.” – Khalil Gibran, 1934

I have been enthralled by the romantic mystique of traditional trading places, since I first went to Mexico as a boy on a family holiday. There is a raw humanity at the core of these markets, rawness not found in supermarkets where the essence, the real nature of goods cannot be sensed through sealed packages. Farmers’ markets in Western or European cities are popular because they satisfy our instinctive attraction to natural qualities and human scale. We still enjoy the experience of personally choosing and buying homegrown food; handmade wares and eating home-cooked meals; even though these activities are more time consuming and than our modern alternatives.

It’s easier to buy the polished rhubarb from Safeway than local produce with mud still clinging to it from an organic farmer. We drink Kenyan coffee and eat papaya from Brazil without thinking twice. A complex web links our downsized workplaces, our imploding marriages and our alienated youth. We pay a high social price for the Brazilian pawpaw or name-brand jeans and t-shirts our children constantly demand to wear. Our local cultures, dialects and communities are being eroded every day by the global economy.

The experience of living on packaged and processed food and synthetic commodities removes us from the daily ecological reminders that our needs are met by the earth. The American poet, philosopher, naturalist, and farmer, Wendell Berry has written that, "Our bodies live by farming; we come from the earth and return to it, and so we live in agriculture as we live in flesh. While we live our bodies are moving particles of the earth, joined inextricably both to the soil and to the bodies of other living creatures."

Markets pulse with unabashed determination, yet everywhere in the cacophony are enclaves of people working, visiting, sharing stories, reflecting, or just sleeping. The market is community, family and movement in a series of never-ending events. It is a moment more than a place. It exudes continuity, a quality where elements of the past and the present continue to meet. In the Peshawar market, tea boy’s scurry through alleys carrying soot covered pots and trays between fires that have been burning for hundreds of years. It is an old and well-used market. I visit with a man who sells raw cotton and uses his hands as weighing scales.

Market people are part of whatever they sell. Their inventory is all around and in some cases all over them. What is sold is present and visible; a man displays dead rats to advertise the poison he sells. I often think that some of the old vendors start to resemble their products. Like the Chinese man who resembles the round, plump duck eggs that he sells. He fits so well into the side streets alongside other sellers and buyers. They inspect, weigh, feel and smell the produce and wares and compliment each other with well-honed bargaining strategies. Each is a story unfolded through the meeting of buyer and seller. Nothing has a fixed price. Value is arrived at through mutual understanding and respect. There is heart in the sale and every sale is a good deal.

 

Robert Semeniuk