After almost a decade in the Middle East and Central Asia, I’ve found local street vendors to be among the most responsive businessmen I’ve ever encountered. When I got off the plane in Istanbul today, it started to rain. By the time I took a cab into the city, street vendors were out selling Chinese umbrellas for about $3.20 a piece.
While most people in Turkey will tell you that they were taken completely off guard by the protests, within days street vendors were out selling swimming goggles and disposable face masks for about $2.67 each as protection against tear gas. They also had masks popularized by the movie "V is for Vendetta" and the "Anonymous" hacker group, which have been adopted by many Turkish demonstrators.
The speed at which they were able to offer these items is astonishing when you think that before the protests, most of these people were probably selling toys and products that generally had nothing to do with protection from tear gas or revolutionary symbolism. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they have boxes of pro-government paraphernalia ready in case the protests are permanently squashed.
Of course, the quality of their wares is always questionable. On my first day covering the protests, I didn’t have a gas mask so I purchased a pair of swimming goggles and a face mask, the sort of thing you’d wear to hang dry wall in your basement. When I hit a cloud of tear gas the goggles provided some protection for my eyes, but immediately fogged, blinding me more than the tear gas. As for the mask? I would have been better off trying to hold my breath.
Coming back to Istanbul after yesterday's fierce clashes, I decided that I needed a real gas mask, and sought out a vendor with a brick and mortar storefront. I found an industrial safety shop where the clerk told me that in the past 10 days he’d sold more gas masks than he normally sells in three months.
Normally, Turkish people couldn't care less about industrial safety and breathing toxic fumes, especially if it means spending money, he told me, but now he has people coming in to buy masks as gifts for their friends. Still, committed to selling quality products, he lacks a street merchant’s adaptability. He told me he worried he would burn through his inventory shortly if the demand continued.
If I’m ever in an end-of-days scenario, I hope there’s a Middle Eastern street vendor around. I’m sure he’ll have something to sell me for $5 or less that will protect me (at least psychologically) from anything ranging from a Biblical plague to a zombie apocalypse. In fact, whatever I’d need to weather either of those scenarios is probably already in a box wherever street vendors store their wares.