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 years, 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. (A 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. “How do you congratulate one-another 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.

Zarina: Uzbek in Her Vegetable Stall

Zarina laying out her fare.

Imagine glowing red stacks of tomatoes next to gleaming white onions row on row. As Zarina Mukhitidova stacks fresh green cucumbers one on another, she tells me about her life as a Uzbek immigrant here in Siberia.

Zarina is on her own here. Her young son lives in Tashkent with her mother, her husband was killed in an accident several years back. She has worked here selling fresh vegetables for three years. Her hope is to work five more, move back to Uzbekistan and open a shop in Tashkent.
“Zarina, don’t you miss home?” I asked. “Of course! But when I get lonely, I go give my son a call, so it’s not so bad.” She continued, “Life in Uzbekistan is hard, there is no work, no way to make money, people have to go somewhere else to find work.” And go they do. As I stand in the sun at the central marketplace and look around I see central Asians everywhere, talking on cell phones, hauling carts full of produce, hawking Chinese peppers and watermelons from Astrakhan. A young Tajik man I met yesterday walks by, greeting me with an “Asalaam alaikum” (peace be upon you) and a handshake.

The whole Muslim community is observing Ramadan (or Ramazan as they refer to it here). Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, a month-long fast. It is a time for extra prayer and drawing closer to Allah. Rising before the sun, they eat breakfast and after prayer, begin their day. They neither eat nor drink anything again until after sunset.

Zarina is reorganizing her egg plants.
“Why do you observe Ramadan Zarina?” “It is a sin not to observe it.” I purchase two light green zucchini, and a bag of lovely cucumbers. Thanking Zarina, I weave through the multilingual jabbering of the thronging crowds. I breathe deeply to savor the sultry scent of sun warmed tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, dill, and cilantro, the marketplace flavor of Russia.

The scent of vegetables warmed by the sun is heady.