The Business Of Street Peddling

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.

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  • I totally agree on this one. Now, on the down side, some of the street vendors see the signature American blond hair and try to sell 1JD’s worth of flowers for 5JDs… So, I buy from the guy on the other cross street. I don’t give to beggars, but will buy from street vendors. And, I see no reason why street vendors shouldn’t be allowed to ply their wares. After all, the only thing it typically requires to discourage them is not look at them.

    To some extent I fault Safeway and such places for the beggars who harass their customers. Especially since it’s always the same ones. They need to be actively engaging the authorities to root them out. These folks don’t take no for an answer and continue to annoy until either you nearly run over their feet or another potential target comes along. While I’m happy to give to charities that actully try to improve the lives of the poor, I refuse to help a family exploit their young chidren by keeping them out of school to beg…

  • Great idea – license those wretched souls at the traffic lights! That way the government can tax what little money they make, forcing these budding businessmen go back to begging.

    I am sure the casinos in Monte Carlo will be most grateful

  • Authorities like to punish rather than change the game. It’s easier. They are conditioned to believe that to penalize is their duty. They’re in the business of taking away instead of recreating. That’s part of what plagues workplace progress in some public sector orgs.

    I love the possibilities of what you’re thinking here. What it requires from those concerned is to regroup and work on a whole new solution, try it, test it, revise it, monitor it, enforce it, evolve it, re-look at it when it’s not as useful anymore…. That’s a lot of new work.

    Similar to your post on the GAM limiting internet access, people using the internet is not their problem. The problem is bad management. And with that comes wrong hires, bad supervision, little accountability, room for abuse, and a system that believes to fix is to punish. Vicious cycle.

    There’s a fundamental issue we’re still generally overlooking… to fix/move forward/achieve is about people – everything else are mere tools. We really must bring capacity building to the forefront, otherwise we will continue to fumble, waste a lot of resources on very little output, and reach out desperately to foreign aid and borrowed consultants (window dressing) who make us more dependent on perishable resources.

    Building local capacities helps solve at the root, and is forever. It also puts people first and delivers on our aspirations.

  • Very well written, and I like your thought process. But like Nadine said, all of it takes work, which means that some government official will have to actually put down his coffee and cigarette, lift up his hand and do something other than signing his signature. That may be too much to ask. 😛

  • ibby: which is why i said it should be subsidized, in other words, untaxed. but your sarcasm is also a valid solution.

    nadine and dave: true, it does take work. but it takes just as much work sending out fleets of police cars to round these people up when i’m sure the police have better things to do. it takes just as much time to build and run recreational centers, i.e. temporary holding facilities.

    and i agree, capacity-building, or lack there of, is at the root of the problem when it comes to public policy in Jordan

    mommabean: that’s true, they do sometimes rip off foreigners. and i actually thought about that. but like i said, they are businessmen and there are many of those in the “legitimate” category that do the same. to say nothing of taxi drivers who are also legit. human beings will always attempt to rip off human beings. at least giving these people some legitimacy might help regulate that.

  • “To some extent I fault Safeway and such places for the beggars who harass their customers. Especially since it’s always the same ones. They need to be actively engaging the authorities to root them out.”
    Mammabeans,,Did you ever ask yourself why those” beggars” became beggars and desperate?
    in your blog ,just a week ago,you were bragging about helping “the poor” and now you want to criminalize them because of their desperate situation
    Did it accure to you that poverty is rich man creation ?and that the “Rich” became wealthy because they constantly steal from the poor,did you really think that by writing in your blog about poverty ,you are going impress people like me?you really have a lot to learn from the “poor”..

  • To Alurdunialhurr: Did you ever ask yourself that perhaps Mammabean helped the poor who are legitimately poor? Did you ever ask yourself that perhaps she may have been referring to those who make “a business” falsifying themselves as being poor? I believe it is you that have a lot to learn about what is really happening over there. Btw, I read her blog about poverty. It did not appear that she was out to impress us but merely letting us be aware of how she was impacted by this critical issue.

  • Arabic Pride: “Did you ever ask yourself that perhaps she may have been referring to those who make “a business” falsifying themselves as being poor?”
    – Does this mean that only poor people should be allowed to sell things on the street? How do you define “poor”?
    – Does that mean that a successful “street salesman”, for want of a better phrase, would be banned from selling things on the street because he is successful?
    – Would the ban be lifted once they slide back into poverty?

    Nas: You are right. My sarcasm is not the solution. Short of a real solution, one can only comment and point out weaknesses in proposed fixes. That may take the form of sarcasm – especially since you sometimes take yourself too seriously. And sarcasm is fun.

  • Yeah, maybe they should take a test also before they get licensed to become a CSP (Certified Street Peddler) LoL! No, seriously I think it is a good idea to get them orgnized!

    I hope they won’t make a big issue out of it though. I see them all over Chicago! Just yesterday I got stopped by a solicitor in Michigan avenue asking for donations (Begging in a professional way)!

  • I can completely understand and sympathize with your perspective on the difference between the peddlers and the beggars. But I would throw in another factor that you may not have considered: that of gender.

    Most of the beggars I’ve seen are either very young children (who should not be running around in traffic selling anything) or women. The peddlers you are talking about on the street are never women. At least, I’ve certainly never seen female peddlers of the kind you are describing. And a question is, why not? Do you think there might be some social stigma attached to a woman on the street selling items in that way? And would she be able to defend herself physically against a man should there be a turf war of the kind you describe taking place between male peddlers? Granted, there are male beggars, of course. But most of these that I have seen appear to be sickly, mentally incompetent or very old and unlikely to be able to stand up in the sun at an intersection all day– and as I’ve said, the vast majority appear to me to be women and their young children.

    Quite frankly, though, I think the traffic in Amman is entirely way too dangerous for anyone to be legally sanctioned to stand on corners of anywhere selling goods!

Your Two Piasters: