Majid Market is small. It can only fit three people at once; the owner, Agha–mr.–Majid, his old mother who sits on a box of can food in a dark corner and a costumer in front of the counter. But there are always at least seven people cluttered inside the shop.
I think “fire safety” when I walk in to the shop for the first time, “If we were in the US, Majid Market would defiantly be violating the fire safety laws.”
Behind the counter there is only enough space for one person standing and from the entrance door to the large refrigerator at the back, one could only get to the end of the store by walking side ways and maneuvering between the potato chip stands and unopened boxes of food and products left unattended on the floor.
There are no visible walls inside. Products are stacked in blue metal shelves on top of one another. A piece of crooked card board separates rows of can food and bags of grains from one another any where a space could be used to create a new shelf. Long rusted tongs are leaned against the refrigerator and only Agha Majid is allowed to use them to carefully grab something from the very top shelves. He smiles in triumph each time a costumer’s order travels safely down the shelf. He announces, “I have stacked them so well not even an earthquake would move them.”
Majid Market is the busiest store on our street. There is only a block distance between the next two super markets with bigger spaces and more variety of products. But it seems that the entire neighborhood shops from Agha Majid.
The first couple of days of my visit to the store, I stand motionless in an imaginary line with imaginary people in front of me and behind me, waiting for my turn to reach the counter. It never works. Any one who walks in, cuts me through, makes a purchase, chats with Agha Majid and leaves while I’m still waiting my turn. Even though I have been noticing that Iranians are standing in lines at the banks or in official buildings where waiting is required, I am yet to see a line respected in small shops and non-governmental places.
After a while Agha Majid notices me. He calls me Hamsaye–his neighbor and asks people to move away so I could reach the counter. I never tell strangers that I live in America. It bothers me that I have an opportunity many Iranians long for. But a sudden urge of I-stay-in-line-because-I-have-manners-I-learned-in-America feeling haunts me. I resist, pay, thank and leave.
My brother “boycotts” Majid Market. He finds him superficial and his prices high. Too claustrophobic. Despite his warning to not to shop from him, I find myself going back there every day. I stand back with a foot on top of a newly arrived box of Maggie instant soups and bouillon cubes and with the other on the way of customers to step on. My hands begin to get cold from touching the sliding door on a small ice-cream refrigerator. I scan every corner of his shop and don’t even feel that I am in Iran.
A neatly displayed row of Dove shampoos, Gillette Fusion Power razors, Always pads and Kellogg’s cereals whose woman on the the back is covered for Islamic reasons of censorship sit next to each other on top of Iranian brands of the same products. An elaborate glass box displays Eclipse, Orbit, Stride and Icebreakers gums on the right hand side of the counter. At the bottom of the glass display there is a crushed, neglected box of Iranian brand chewing gum, Khorousi which he hands to costumers instead of few remaining coin change–equivalent of some Pennies.
I look for unfamiliar brands. There are none. If I can’t find anything that could also be found in US groceries, there is definitely an “Iranianized” version of it. A bag of Tortilla chips reads tour-tee-la in Farsi and a bag of mozzarella cheese reads moo-zeh-reh-la. There are also bottles of Zam-Zam–the Iranian version of soda–packaged exactly like American Coke which makes one appreciate not having copyright laws in Iran.
One of these days when I am drowned into fascination with almost every thing so “American,” a costumer rushes into the store and asks for a “good” toothpaste. Agha Majd hands him a box of Colgate toothpaste. He looks at it and protests. “Give me something American. This is Chinese!”
The Iranian in me gets offended! Why should my fellow Iranian cares about American products?
I unconsciously raise my voice. “Every thing in America is made in China.” All of a sudden, heads turn and every one begins to notice me.
“You are right, says Agha Majid, “but once I saw a Chinese made Cool-gay-t from America. It was very good.”
“Yes, they send the top Chinese products to Em-ree-kah and we get the crap,” the toothpaste man agreed.
After that, Agha Majid’s attitude towards me changes. When he sees me from far, he yells “salam Lay-dee” and uses any excuse to tell people where I live or to brag to his costumers about his only American costumer. He asks me when I would have time to teach him some more English and any time I buy a bottle of Doogh–a traditional salty yogurt drink–he asks if there Americans like Doogh.
He looks at me in disbelieve when I say it disgusts them.
Agha Majid has the best costumer service I have ever seen. He is friendly, knows every one by name. He calls the doctors by their last names and refer to their wives as Khanoon Doctor or Mrs. Doctor. Kids rush to pick up a bag of chips or some Lavashak–sour fruit rolls–and he writes down their father’s name in a thick brown planner to charge them later. He baby-talks with a spoiled Armenian teenager who brings her tamed bird to the shop to show it to her favorite shopkeeper. He bows down to the Colonel who shops two hundred thousand Tooman worth of groceries.
After a while, I too realize that his prices are high and his collection is limited. I am often forced to buy the imported olive oil, Thai tuna fish or the for-export-only Iranian mayonnaise because he doesn’t carry the Iranian brands. Yet I keep going back to him. There is something attractive about him and the way he does business.
He has a BA and he does not talk like his brother, the dirty mouth, vegetable-seller next door. He tells me about his CPR/costumer service classes. He notices that I am very fond of Iranian cinema. He makes sure that I look at his newest collection of DVDs for sale and if I have seen the film already, he starts a deep philosophical discussion about it. He even tells me that I am so down to earth for being an American educated woman and he feels honored to have a costumer like me.
But the real reason for my attraction to Majid Market is that it resembles the modern Iran where a university educated man replaces the old image of an old grumpy shopkeeper.
It resembles the paradox of modern Iran where the American style costumer service and products differ immensely from the spiteful image of Iranians who hate the West.
Agha Majid is from the young educated generation of Iranians who are globally aware and the world around them is not limited to the life their government wants them to endure.
The paradox of living an Iranian life and longing for an American one lies within most of his costumers. And he is smart enough to make sure they are getting some of it even if it can be found in an expensive tube of Colgate toothpaste or bottle of Heinz ketchup. He also offers them a tiny space to express their opinions. Whether it is a political discussion comparing the future of Obama’s and Ahmadinejad’s administration or a brief complaint about the Chinese products, Agha Majid’s costumers find comfort in his store.
Perhaps, I find myself indulged because any time I visit Majid Market, I discover a new piece of a country which has undergone substantial changes and I meet individuals who are–admittedly or unwillingly–part of these changes.