Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Market Diaries

Friday was Costa-riccan mango day - all the bins were full of them; but also Dutch chickory, French wild mushrooms (morels and chantarells, it's late May... god knows how they keep them fresh) and Chillean grapes. But I want to write about the Israeli mint I found right at the beginning of my round.

It was in a blue plasic bag, inside a cardboard box with the familiar Carmel logo, lying in a big pile next to the skips. A sucker for fresh herbs, I had a look: the mint was not super fresh, some leaves were dark, some even black. Maybe other times I wouldn't bother, but this was mint from home, real Middle Eastern na'na, not the European genteel and boring version common here. So there was no question about it. I picked the best looking bunch and carefully put it in my panniers.

Skipping veggies from Israel: a complicated issue. There is a lot of Israeli produce in the Global Market of New Covent Garden. Mainly herbs (mint, sage, thyme, basil), but also capsicums, cherry tomatores and other things. It makes skipping rediculously personal. On a very basic level, it's familiar tastes and smells, reassuring even in the concrete wasteland of South London. And sometimes it's the good?-old patriotic pride: Israeli avocadoes, the best, I would present them to my housemates. But then, I'd think, if they are the best, why did I find them in the rubbish? and I would get angry and offended, my middle-eastern pride talking: why do you import vegetables from my country to throw them in the bin?

Soon i'd get bored of this nationalist role-playing, and think of this produce, this 'Israeli' produce that almost certainly was picked, wrapped and packaged by immigrant workers. Agricultural work in Israel is done mostly by Thai workers these days; 10-15 years ago labour shifted from Palestinians to Asians. Globalisation and the Oslo process playing in tandem meant that today, even the kibbutzim hire immigrant-labourers to do the hard work. I guess somewhere in my mind I still have Zionist images of socialist pioneers ploughing the land and toiling the soil, making the desert bloom; this is part of me being sentimential when I see the name Arava on the boxes at the Market. But I know the toiling is done by Thai workers, living in shacks, their passports held in the gangmaster's (sorry: personnel officer) safe. Hard-working, they say, they rarely complain, read: easily exploited. You know, the Global market is vicious, and cheap labour is the only way to survive... they still manage to send savings to their families, don't they? But exploitation is not the topic of this post, maybe another day.

Only one time I found Palestinian boxes in the market. It was strawberries, around November last year. I knew they came from Gaza. It was not too long after the Israeli pull-out; the Gazan farmers were led to believe the border-crossing would be open for exports. But then, how not surprising, 'security-alerts' kept it closed most of the time, and the strawberries rotted in Gaza. These boxes were among the few who made it out: I was relieved to find it was only the boxes, that the produce itself wasn't thrown away. Knowing how difficult it is for a 'Palestinian' strawberry to make it anywhere, the thought it would be just thrown to the bin was too hard.

Only rarely do I find Jaffa citrus fruits in the Market. When I find the Jaffa label on oranges and clementines, I cherrish them, because I know I am skipping history. They started everything: the introduction of citrus plantations in late 19th century Palestine signalled the integration of the country into the Global Economy. From a subsistence agriculture - where people ate the barley they grew, and trade was limited mainly to olive oil and its by-products - agriculture became a means of money making. Oranges were the first and most successful 'cash crops': planted in the coastal planes of Palestine, they gave grove-owners profits of 10 to 20 perecnt on invested capital. A real hit. The rest is history, and orange-flavoured chocolate biscuits. I sometimes wonder what Palestinians refugees from Jaffa feel when they see their city name on Israeli oranges. Another an act of appropriation, this time for a marketting ploy.

But today, citrus is not so profitable. Most groves have been sold to property developrs, because you know, money doesn't grow on trees anymore. It's in real-estate and branding. The Jaffa oranges have been outsourced, like everything nowdays. The successful Jaffa 'brand' is franchised by the Israeli Agricultural Association to other international producers; e.g. South Africa.

In histories of the conflict , the story of the Jaffa orange groves and the incorporation of Palestine in the Global economy is a distant background, the muted wallpaper of the theatre set of Modern Palestine/Israel, where the real drama is political: British troops, Zionist leaders, the Palestinian Mufti, clashes and massacres, wars and dispossession. For me, however, Jaffa and what it stands for is a main theme, perhaps the real story. I won't make a case for it, not now.

More and more I am inclined to think of the global agricultural market as an unfortunate episode in human history. Its envrionemential and social implications, and its reliance on limited resources of cheap energy, make it an especially dubious enterprise. The wheel cannot and will not be turned back easily, not without pain and hardship; as the people of Gaza find out these days, growing your barley is not an option anymore. They are dependant on a global economy from which they are locked out, by political, artificial barriers: a situation that is perhaps not so difficult to solve. On a longer term, and on a global level, I'm not sure what solutions would look like. At the meantime, I offer these market diaries as a form of archiving and documenting; I am looking forward to growing my own mint on a window seal in Jerusalem.


RUINIST said...


lilli said...

please please little ravaging mink, draw a beautiful map for me of the global food market based on covent garden market findings...or of the jaffa citrus history if u like. love c