Melon Merchant of Azerbaijan: Rafael

Dealing in melons is a sweet business. Rafael, merrymaking merchandiser of melons, carves a cream yellow mottled melon in two. Juice pours onto cement. Rafael sells two types of melons, watermelons and torpedoes, yes, that’s torpedoes. So named, I assume, because of their length. Despite the name, torpedoes are full of flavor, and when I eat them, my elbows always get wet.

Rafael shows his sweet torpedoes.

Rafael, from Ganja in Azerbaijan has spent much of his life in Russia. He has lived in Novosibirsk, Yakutsk, Chita, Sverdlovsk, Khabarovsk, Moscow and the last seven, in Irkutsk. At -64 F, Yakutsk was too cold for Rafael, and in Moscow, after a several day stay at a hospital courtesy of the heavy hand of Moscow law enforcement, he moved on again. Khabarovsk and Irkutsk, those are the cities he likes. “In Irkutsk, the police are my friends, so I like it here.” When I asked why he chose to move from Azerbaijan, a relatively warm country, to Siberia, he told me that he felt free here, unconstrained by family tradition and expectation. And so here he stays. Rafael likes to have fun, and as we chat, he carries on a running exchange of jokes with Bunavsha, a Tajik woman who sells kvass.

Making his first sale of the day, he brushes his melons with the bank notes to bring more sales, as if the bills are magic. (Very common practice here.) “Tell me about Azerbaijan Rafael” I ask. “Sometimes I call Kolya, my uncles horse. He comes running to me,  I mount and ride him up into the Caucus mountains. In the morning the flowers smell a certain way, Oohhh! Everything is quiet except for singing birds. It is insanely beautiful!”

Rafael has a friend in Kazakhstan who grows and supplies him with melons. “Have you been there Rafael?” “Of course!” he responds. “The fields are huge, it is like Lake Baikal covered with melon plants!” How long does it take for the melons to get from there to here I ask him. A week he informs me, by train or truck.

We speak of his family, wife, teen age daughter, son back in Ganja, of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan (’88-’94), of who the Azerbaijanis are, Turks, and of Ramadan. “How do you congratulate someone at the end of Ramadan?” Rafael responds, “Uaroh%v5nco<iahv;ns3@zrxx! You’ll break your tongue on that one!” he laughs. “What do you do for friends when Ramadan ends?”  “People make cakes and other sweets to give as gifts.” When Ramadan is finished, I will go see Rafael again . . . and I’ll bring him some sweets.

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