White Rabbit

Chinese Shopping Mall in Iraq
April 8, 2011

After stopping by the afternoon rally at Azadi Maydani I worked my way back out through the Sulaymaniyah bazaar. The streets were thronged with people out buying every imaginable product: bolts, fish, mobile phones. Currency traders sat along the side of the road behind small nightstands stacked with colorful piles of cash: mostly Iraqi dinars followed by U.S. dollars and euros. I've visited many bazaars in many other countries. The one in Sulaymaniyah may neither be the biggest nor does it have the most exotic offerings--but it is one of the most bustling and active among marketplaces I have seen.

Walking along, I came upon a tall, new building occupying an entire block--a building with stone lions on either side of the steps leading up to the main entrance. A sign declared this to be "Kaso Mall". Even before I stepped inside I knew exactly what I would find.

Outside Sulaymaniyah
I could have been at any small shopping mall in China. Even the products weren't manufactured for export but the same ones that would stock domestic shelves: labels were printed in large Chinese characters with occasional pinyin transliteration. The merchants were also Chinese. A few employed local help, but it was clear who was running the show.

I wasn't interested in most of what was on offer. There were shops dedicated to lotions and beauty care products, a shop selling nothing but electric scooters, and a few that traded in children's toys. I worked my way up a couple flights and found the one store that sold anything I might be interested in. On the top storey was a shop that dealt in food products imported from China. I stepped in and began chatting in Chinese with the family who were gathered around the cash register.

It felt good to be able to communicate more fully again. Kurdish is similar enough to Farsi that I can understand the numbers and the odd noun, but not really speak. The shopkeepers told me they were originally from Anhui Province. They had come to Iraq less than a year ago. Their story was identical to that of the shopkeepers I encountered in Iran a few months ago: leave poor home province to set up shop in some other even less-developed country.

I had heard recent news accounts focusing on how small-scale merchants and large-scale entrepeneurs from mainland China have been moving to various countries throughout Africa. But, until two months back along this present trip I hadn't realized that this trend is taking place throughout the Middle East, as well.

Prayer Mats for Sale
Right at the front of the shop were shelves lined with Chinese candy. I picked up a small bag of White Rabbit, a brand I remembered from childhood. Was it worth 1,500 dinars ($1.25 USD)? I continued to clutch it in my hand and contemplated whether to buy while checking out the other side of the store. There, I found plastic cartons of "century eggs" and of salted duck eggs. Neither are very common outside of Asia. Most westerners think both taste disgusting. But, to me they were another treat I remembered from childhood. I picked up a carton containing four salted duck eggs and weighed if it was worth 2,500 dinars.

I made my choice. I put back the candy and left with only the salted duck eggs--which have already been entirely eaten up.

Then, I thought better of it the next day. I made a return visit for the candy. Really, where will the next point be along this journey where I'll be able to buy White Rabbits?