MEMORY OF A MARKET

7 Oct

2gunkid

(From Steve’s library: check it out)

The earliest memory I possess of a marketplace is a roadside kiosk in Cairo. This was a shanty thing: rotten-wood black, haphazardly arranged into roughly rectangular planes. A little old man hung out inside from early morning to mid-afternoon when he’d close up a few hours and then open again at dusk until well after midnight sometimes. At night there’d be a gas lamp and an old box with an ancient tea set, glasses half-full of sugar; cards or a backgammon board. Other old men would sit about and play with the kiosk man. Shoot the breeze. When they laughed they showed whatever optional teeth were left in their heads.

It was a slow business, cheap. Good for boys. For 5 or 10 piastres you could buy yourself a brown paper bag of bon-bons. These weren’t candy, they were explosives. Little balls of pebbles and gunpowder the size of a large marble wrapped in wire and old newspaper. You threw them hard at the road and they went off; Crack! Great fun when riding your bike. You buy Israeli bubble-gum, Snickers bars, Pepsi or Seven-Up. Marvel not DC. No Coca-Cola. Coke didn’t exist, neither did Mars-Bars, McDonald’s or colour television. But Kentucky-Fried Chicken, yeah.

Things done changed on that side. And I lie.

There’s an earlier memory of market: a toy store in Islamabad. One of my birthdays. I remember the place as a hole in an old and filthy building. The wood was dark with smoke. Behind a high counter another old man with optional teeth. And behind him a random assortment of cheap plastic toys: a sword in the style of a Western knight and day-glo ponies. Cardboard and plastic mould packaging with cheap designs in the 50s mode of advertising. I got a cowboy costume: the chaps, the rope, the spurs, the hat, the two-gun belt and holster set; plastic bullets in leatherette loops. On the way back to the car we were intercepted by a boy my age. He had one arm, one hand. He was using it to beg.

My father was working on a project designed to bring electricity to Pakistan. It worked:

Islamabadatnight

Things have changed there too. Now most people in Islamabad can read. Most of the city is still flat, draw what meaning you will from the one piece of monumental architecture evident in the above photograph. Right now work proceeds on a temple to modernity:

Centaurusislamabad

I wonder who’ll be renting retail space, shopping here, staying the hotels, living in the flats; dining, going to the movies. There’s the appearance of a modern economy but most of it belongs to a government that mostly belongs to an army. People don’t beg on the streets anymore but not because they’ve got jobs in the service industry.

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