I have a low tolerance for malls in the United States. I get mall headaches and feet; I feel quickly overwhelmed, tire easily of the glitz and the poster children for anorexia dressed in pretty much nothing with gaunt cheeks and blemish free skin. I find that discontent goes hand in hand with the American mall experience – show me a content woman, put her in a mall for one hour, and I guarantee discontent. It’s just the way it works.
But take me to a bazaar in the east – whether it be Pakistan, Turkey, or Egypt and all my sights and senses are engaged in an amazing process of hunting and gathering. The smells of pungent spices mingle with perfumes; the vibrant colors of fabric and pottery fill my mind with possibility. And I rarely get tired.
On our trip to Istanbul last year, my husband and I were talking about crowded bazaars as we walked to the Spice Bazaar in the Eminönü quarter of Istanbul. The Spice Bazaar (also known as the Egyptian Bazaar) is one of the largest bazaars in the city. And while the Grand Bazaar is known for its glitter, the Spice Bazaar is more appealing to me. This bazaar has been in the city since the 1600’s and is a covered space holding hundreds of shops. It was and continues to be the center for spice trade in the area. Huge containers of pungent spices, large quantities of boxed and fresh Turkish delight, pottery stores, cushion covers and carpets of bright colors and textures,Turkish towels known world over for their softness — all of these and more are in abundance. I know this world and am fully comfortable in it. Bazaars like this were part of my childhood experience and I am at ease even without language skills. What would make many of my friends tense with frustration and worry is home to me.
I mingle comfortably with shop keepers, interacting with confidence, knowing when to bargain and when to compliment, knowing when a price is good and when it’s far too high. I know it’s ultimately about a relationship and a business deal, that it’s a game with a clear set of rules to the skilled – rules that seem ambiguous to the uninitiated.
My adrenaline flows and I am fully engaged in a game I know and love well. I know that you don’t get into this game unless you’re serious. I know what will be insulting, and what will be fun. I know when it’s getting old and when to stop. And I almost always win at this game.
I know bargaining. I know spices. I know fabric. I know pottery. I know carpets.
I don’t know Ralph Lauren. I am unfamiliar with Lacoste or Yves St. Laurent. I have never met Coach or Gucci. Calvin Klein is a stranger. Thin, headless mannequins do nothing for me. but take me to the crowded shops overflowing with color, fabric, texture, and smell in the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul and my heart is satisfied.