Fish, Fruit, And More...

Iranian traders supply eager Kuwaitis with just about anything

IF official Kuwait is emerging only slowly from its post-occupation coma, one spot on the seafront has sprung to vibrant life: the fish market.With most Kuwaiti boats either sunk or stolen by the Iraqis, the catch is coming from an unexpected source: Iranian sailors who had been banned from Kuwaiti ports for nearly a decade. Now they are welcomed, as they spread their catch on plastic sheeting over the forecourt of the market building, its walls crumpled from a wartime bomb blast. Kuwaitis love fish above all other food. And from dawn till dusk elegantly white-robed gentlemen and their black-shrouded wives haggle on the shore with rough-handed, stubble-chinned seamen. Some 15 to 20 boats arrive each day, according to the Kuwaiti customs men who check to see that they bring no weapons, drugs, or alcohol. Aside from these clearly forbidden articles, anything may be traded or sold in this country where open shops are still few and far between. Fish hauled in plastic laundry baskets from ice-packed holds are the most popular commodity, but watermelons come a close second. Mountains of the fruit are piled everywhere, and merchant Hehda Dehedari explains why. "Maybe I can sell only 50 melons a day here, and it will take me a week or so to get rid of everything I've brought," he says. "But I can sell them for 10 times the price they fetch in Iran." Other fruit and vegetables are in heavy demand: wheelbarrows full of pumpkins and squash, sacks of onions, crates of garlic, grapes, tomatoes, and apricots. Some traders have brought a few packets of spaghetti or some lemon juice bottled in Isfahan, and a few try to unload even more exotic items. Two woolly goats, a second-hand Mercedes-Benz, and a cage full of song birds were among one captain's cargo recently, and he was confident he could sell them all. Sailing out of Abadan, Bandar Khomeini, and other Iranian ports, the traders normally do their business in the United Arab Emirates, farther down the Gulf. Banned by a Kuwaiti government fearful of the Iranian revolution, they have not been here for years. They are still not allowed off the dock when they get here, and while some stay as long as it takes to sell their cargo piecemeal, sleeping on their boats each night, others prefer to find a wholesale buyer on the jetty and head home as soon as possible. The journey across the normally placid Gulf takes as long as 24 hours, but the wide-bellied wooden plank boats with their high, painted prows are well built to withstand much longer voyages. And though their captains carry compasses and navigational charts, most prefer to steer their course by the stars. These are familiar routes from time immemorial to the Gulf traders, and if today they are hawking melons and onions rather than the pearls and spices of Arabian legend, the tradition is the same. For a few years, politics interrupted that tradition. But at the first opportunity, the patterns of the past have reimposed themselves.

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