Tehran’s Grand Bazaar – from Angry Birds to pomegranates

It is 8 am in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, and Mohsen is already six hours into his working day. His day normally starts with a 2 am trip to the enormous fruit and vegetable market in the South of Tehran. From 8 am to 10 am he makes his customer rounds, providing them with fruit (pomegranates, of course), vegetables and other consumer package goods. Most restaurants would like to receive their goods early, to complete the food preparation work prior to the lunch madness. “I avoid visiting during lunch time, as they are too busy to talk,” he says sternly. Deliveries are made with handcarts, as the streets are too narrow to be serviced with trucks. Each cart has a registration plate. I ask him about the process to register the carts. He shrugs, “don’t worry about it”.

Stopping at numerous restaurants and fast food outlets in the narrow alleys of the bazaar, I cross paths with salesmen armed with tablets and other handheld devices. One salesman shows me his Android device that can calculate the sales order based on the previous sales call and inventory. It is lunch time now and we head over to a very popular restaurant in the centre of the bazaar. The place is packed, but finding of table is not a problem for Mohsen (he provides them with fresh produce). In the restaurant I am introduced to what they call the Mayor of the Bazaar. He tells me there are 60,000 stalls and shops in the bazaar. It is estimated that 2 million people visit the bazaar on a daily basis, a market that has seen some form of trading for more than a thousand years.

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Mohsen provides me with a plate that contains a mountain of rice and the obligatory saffron yellow rice with small blocks of butter on top. He orders enough lamb and chicken kebabs to feed the market patrons for a week. He seems disappointed that I can’t make a dent in the kebabs. One man staring in our direction asks if I am German. “No. He is from Africa, but not a good eater” he laments. Looking around in the market you would not guess that Iran is currently going through the worst economic sanctions imposed on any country. Prices have doubled and tripled in some cases. However, shelves are fully stocked and people are buying. That said, disposable income has decreased and smaller firms are struggling. I ask one man if the situation is worse now than during the eight year Iran and Iraq war. He laughs, “No. Those were hard days. We sometimes didn’t have electricity for 16 hours”, he complains.

Visiting a grocery shop, my eyes are drawn to the Kibi cheese, which looks remarkably like Kiri cheese in other countries. The packaging and design look authentic. “Counterfeit?” I ask. This is an honest question considering I have seen a lot of counterfeit infringements ranging from KFC, Red Ball (Make that Bull) and enough Angry Birds memorabilia to last a lifetime. A Shell branded motor oil scandal, left many motorists with cooking oil in their engines.  My interpreter starts laughing. He explains to me that Kiri is a derogatory slang term in the Farsi language, and the company had to change the name for the Iranian market.

Around the corner we run into an amateur video operator shooting a sales video. “Come back tomorrow as I would like to wear my new shirt” the shop owner begs. Wherever I go, I am struck by the hospitality and sense of community in such a large city. Many small retailers provide 30-60 day credit to their regular customers. A child shows up with a handful and small notes. Clearly not enough for the soft drink, milk and ice cream requested. He gives her the items, “Maybe tomorrow she will have enough money”, he sighs.