A common sight in Jordan has always been street peddlers. Typically, young Jordanians who weave through the traffic of cars stopped at a red light. In recent years I’ve noticed a change that has been occurring that is perhaps a metaphor for the bigger solution. Up until these past few years, the overwhelming majority of these street peddlers were below the age of 12 and sold (as well smoked) cartons of cigarettes. The rest simply begged for money. Every now and then you would also see a few people selling produce in styrofoam cartons; people who you might refer to as “fair traders”, bypassing the middleman and selling straight to the buyer.
Today, things are different.
The clampdown on street peddlers, especially those who either beg or sell cigarettes at traffic lights, has resulted in their disappearance. In their stead, a new generation of “street workers”, so to speak, have emerged.
They are young, Jordanian business men.
Most are between the ages of 15 to 20-something.
They don’t sell cigarettes and they don’t beg. They sell their products. They employ market and price segmentation. They diversify their products. And they mark their territory.
In the summer, they’ll sell cool sunglasses, sun visors for cars and even cowboy hats. In the spring they’ll sell fresh flowers and toy wind-fans. Depending on the season, you can purchase figs, strawberries and grapes at a traffic light. Lately, tall stalks of green onions have hit the street market. On Valentines day and Mother’s day they sell roses and in Ramadan they’ll have religious commodities like mini-Qurans to hang in one’s car, or a colorful rosary. On a few occasions I’ve seen a man wander through the motionless traffic with an instrument in hand, playing music. I’ve also seen several teens selling local handicrafts.
Concentrated in Amman, they mark their territories. I’ve often seen business battles conducted live, right on the street, with two or more people attacking each other because one trespassed on the other’s usual place of business. The result is sometimes spilled produce at a red light.
Another sight is that of newspaper sellers. They are probably the most dominant workers at a traffic light. All employed by mainstream print media, they made an interesting appearance less than a decade ago when Ammani motorists discovered blue-uniformed, young individuals selling their favorite newspapers at such a convenient location. Sometimes, these employees linger at your window and beg you to buy a newspaper. Imagine being begged to buy a newspaper. But, for the most part, I still consider this group as part of the peddler community who are often overcome with brief times of desperation that turn them in to momentary beggars. A relapse that’s often not helped by hot summer days or cold winter mornings.
Nevertheless, traffic light businesses have been flourishing in recent years.
In contrast, common street begging has given me even more of a reason not to give money as I once did. And while these types have not developed the same keen business sense that street peddlers have, they have become smarter. They now position themselves with a dose of bravado at the most interesting locations. If you’ve gone through a fast-food, drive-thru, you might often see a 9 or 10 year old right next to the teller’s window, waiting for the change you’re about to receive. Large supermarkets like Safeway are prime spots as well, and you’ll be trailed to your car while a child murmurs supplications for the 1,000th time today. Sometimes they hang around ATMs, which is a bit creepier. Restaurants that draw lingering crowds, such as shawarmeh places, will also be littered with a large gang of beggars no older than the age of 12. Sometimes it’s older, black-adorned mothers, with young infants in their hands, huddled on the entrance steps to a place you’re about to enter.
And while they do garner my sympathy at times, I’ve seen the relative success that street peddlers have had when it comes to traffic light businesses and wonder why their counterparts couldn’t engage in that same type of financial exchange. It costs them next to nothing.
But the answer will often involve pride. While I’ve seen many traffic light peddlers come from various backgrounds, some even being bedouin youth, there is an undeniable sense of pride that comes with them making a somewhat honest living instead of begging. Or at least that’s the sense from the few that I’ve talked to during a red light.
And I say “somewhat” because technically they’re not allowed to sell anything without a business license, and such licenses require fees and an office and God knows what. Even home businesses don’t seem to exist in Jordan on a legal level.
Nevertheless. There is an essential difference between a peddler and a beggar. One is a seller and one is a straight-out beggar.
So whenever the authorities launch their infrequent crackdowns, there seems to be no distinguishing of these two entities. They simply round up everyone. Ironically, the past few years, the numbers of those rounded up have floated within the same averages. What happens next is a series of newspaper reports quoting officials who are baffled as to why these people just won’t get a decent job.
I would argue that a lot of them do. They just need to be licensed. And why aren’t they? They are a group of citizens who are attempting to make a decent living by selling legal goods to their consumers. To some extent they remind me of entertainers in subways in Toronto or New York. All of them have special licenses to perform for the moving crowds. In Canadian winters, kids can often be found shoveling driveways in the neighborhood everyday, or mowing lawns in the summer; all of which makes them a decent income and none of which are rounded up by the police for operating without a license.
Tweak the environmental elements a bit: can the same be said about the situation here? Why is the solution always to lock them up just so they can report that they did, only to release them back on to the streets days later?
If the government could find a way to license them, or even partially subsidize their businesses instead of tossing the money in to recreational centers that I’m guessing are not home to lengthy visitors. I think if they could find a way to do that, it might encourage beggars to become choosers, and maybe become street entrepreneurs.
– The Business Of Prayer Cardboard on 7iber