Just Above Sunset
June 25, 2006 - Apple, Carmel, Melon and Pears

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A new photo essay from Our Man in Tel-Aviv - Sylvain Ubersfeld - the amazing market at Carmel. Seven high-resolution photos follow the text.

Watching Israeli living their daily life, I often wonder if they are not automatically getting an American passport at birth without anyone knowing. Obviously, the American influence is present in every aspect of the Israeli society, ranging from multi-channel cable TV to the various fast-food chains (with the same impact on public health, including a large number of overweight people), from take-away or TV dinners to singing telegrams.


Everybody here wants to go to Miami on vacation (one of the largest Jewish "colonies" in the US) - kids want to go surfing USA while the beach boys gather on the local sea shore in selected places to play remake of the Flower Power era in California including (but not limited to) consumption of various substance which may be considered as illegal (although darned good!).  Apartments are traded in American dollars while families, shunning visits to Europe, plan holiday trips to Disneyworld in Florida.  Last but not least, none of the political decisions potentially effecting the peace process are taken without the blessing of America, a wise decision when remembering how much the United States contributed to Israeli economic life.


In the same fashion, huge shopping malls - "Anytown USA" - are opening here and there, and about five major chains of supermarkets, including one particular brand operated by orthodox religious management (ZOL PO = Here it is cheap!) are attracting each day hundred of thousands of Israeli shoppers eager to spend their hard earned shekalim (plural of Shekel, the local currency 1 USD= 4.50 NIS) in air conditioned supermarkets, buying foreign products in their effort to pretend - living like foreigners in their own country.


However, and especially in Israel, all that shine is far from being made of gold, and fruits and vegetables bought in any of the major "super" (when shopping in such places, Israelis simply say I am going to the "super") are tasteless, useless and extremely expensive.  (Any supermarket should only be the place were one can sample for free the different kinds of dried fruit, cucumbers in their prime, and eventually eat on the spot some specific delicacies such as poppy seed cake "delicately abducted" from the bakery department.)


For those lucky enough to live close by, for Israeli chefs, for people who crave for authenticity, for housewives looking for the real taste, there is only one place to go, located in the south of Tel-Aviv, a stinky, dirty but beautiful place humming with life from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm - Carmel!


The entire place consists of about twelve narrow streets crisscrossing, along which one can find anything for about one third of the price of the cheapest supermarket in Israel.  There are no real shops there - only old and derelict "sheds" with a very low rental price.  No modern conveniences either, as that would increase the price of merchandise, regardless of the kind.  Carmel developed its reputation mostly because of the fruits and vegetables which can be found there, including the very fruit which I love and hate at the same time (I call it the fruit of the thief) since one has to spend thirty minutes peeling it just to be able to eat half of its weight at the end of the game.  Pomelit, a weird combination of grapefruit and … something else, is it?


Colors are everywhere, so is great taste (most of the time) at indecently low prices.  But fruit and vegetable stands are only about one third of the treasures available in Carmel - and it will take a visitor some time to find out about the rest, as indeed Carmel is home to food from Israel but also food from all over the world (in cans) to cater to the taste of the Jewish community originating in the diasporah and interested in finding in Carmel edible "memories" of the childhood spent in Austria, Poland, Bulgaria, Rumania or Soviet Union .


Many other items, legally or (ofte ) illegally present on the Israeli market can also be found in specialized locations for "the few who know."  There are cheese stands there, also selling all kinds of delicious salads, and fresh juice kiosks whose owners are pressing all kind of exotic fruit under your very eyes, and dried fruit stands, antic bakeries, and numerous shops where one can find the most incredible and unexpected kitchenware, including enough equipment of far–eastern origin to open up a Chinese or a Thai restaurant in the shortest amount of time. 


Because Carmel is located in Tel Aviv and Tel Aviv is definitely a middle-eastern place, people do not speak - they shout.  It appears that no conversation in Carmel can be conducted  below 100 DB (decibels, the unit used to measure sound level).  As a result, once shopping is done, one will experience a real feeling of well-being when getting away from the noisy environment.  To beat the noise and save his voice, the owner of the "All At 1 NIS Shop" (a shop where everything costs only 1 shekel) has elected to use a recorded voice through a loud speaker system to claim "all at one shekel , all at one shekel" from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm.  As a result, the noise level around his place definitely means everyone gets into the shop and buys whatever may be needed (clothespins, plastic balls for dogs, hairpins, super glue, tooth picks) as quickly as possible.  And in one of the slippery streets usually littered with all kinds of garbage, the butchers hold shop.  Just like in Africa, meat is exposed on stands in a fashion that will attract only danger-loving people and hungry flies.  Not far from there one can find the shop where products from the far east are sold, usually to the large Pilipino community (1) living in the Tel Aviv area. A few meters away, fresh fish bought the same morning on the Jaffa harbor is offered for sale.


Hidden in a small secluded street, the spice shop holds an incredible smell, a mix-up of all the spices of the world.  That smell itself is enough to carry me over into the legend of the thousand and one nights - there I can already feel the presence of my princess, covered in gold, and there come the promises of nights full of Turkish delights and lust.


In Carmel, everyone must make a living, legally or illegally.  In several shops owned by Russians, one can find cheap contraband Vodka bearing labels in Cyrillic, all kind of French pastis which arrived from Marseilles to Israel hidden in sea containers, red wine from East European origin.  There are also the stands of the men who sell contraband and counterfeit cigarettes and who will not even agree to be photographed, in order to protect the illegitimacy of their trade!  Let's only say that the color of their pack of cigarettes is slightly lighter than the original brand and that prices are slashed over half.


Higher up in the main Carmel market street, right past the fresh pitah stand, one will enter the clothing sector for shmattes (2), with its bargain prices and fake denims bearing worldwide known labels starting with an L.  Not long ago I bought one of these reputable pairs of pants for 45 NIS (10 USD) and as I wanted to get another one the week after, I returned to the same place just to find out that all the "reputable name tag" starting with the famous L had been replaced by an other name, possibly better fitting the local market of

Jewish (David) - although the cut itself stayed the same and still fit my slender body (Yes, I am slender).  In between , bounty hunters paid by the anti-counterfeit-league and working for the "reputable firm" which owned the L logo had managed to convince the shop keepers to return to acceptable practices and take away the telltale signs of obvious fraud and trademark abuse.


In the same fashion, hand bags bearing the logo of some luxury brand, made in the Far East, are hanging from hooks over the main street.  Everything for everyone at a reasonable prices - and who really cares if all is counterfeit?  For that kind of money no one expects the authentic product.  Ralph L, polo and Lac….  Shirts are cheap and that is all that matters, including for me.


Like all over the Middle-East, Israelis have a sweet tooth!  Dental surgeons in Tel-Aviv should thank "ha-Shem" (one of the names for God) for the existence of the numerous and huge candy stands spread all over the Carmel market - it guarantees that their respective waiting rooms will always be full, for generations to come.  In the same fashion, lawyers should praise the name of Carmel market - streets and alleys full of garbage that will certainly cause some unlucky senior citizen to fall and get hurt, thus leading the way to a claim for compensation against the municipality.  On the other hand, the poorest of the poor will certainly bless the name of Carmel - it allows them to earn a few shekels on a daily basis, selling the useless stuff that one will buy anyhow, simply because the "tzedakka" (3) is a command by God and a part of the Jewish values that people do respect over here - no one really knows how the accounts will be settled when one departs this world and gets into the "world to come."


Carmel may eventually smell wonderful.  The strong smell changes as one crosses over, from south to north, from east to west -  strawberry smells… those strawberries so red that one can think they have been hand-painted with crimson… melon aroma mixed with spices, goat cheese flavor floating along the streets, spices, hot bread, fresh fish, parsley, oranges and lemon, apples and pears, and, omnipresent, the incredible smell common to all the Middle-Eastern markets, from Jordan to Turkey, from Khartoum to  Teheran - a powerful combination of heat, smoke, garbage baking under the sun and  human beings.  Carmel is dirty and noisy, but shopping in Carmel also means living an incredible experience, embarking on an overpowering trip to a different land, as  Carmel is not Israel, Carmel is "the East" and if for some reason, now and then, a few cucumbers are soft instead of hard, if some strawberries are tasteless although of a bright red, if some of the bread is a little bit harder than it should be, if there is a dent in the brand new pots and pans you bought form the "Russian" (4) … don't even think that someone tried to trick you while you were looking somewhere else, as it would not be fair.  Maybe it is just because you did not keep your eyes and ears open enough while being handed over the fruits and vegetables, or "they" know that you are not the local that you pretend to be.  Could it be more simply just because it is Carmel market and …. all has to go?





(1) The Israeli government is making extensive use of workers coming from the Philippines who are mostly employed in helping senior citizens in their daily life. Both male and female workers are legally coming to Israel.  That community, of the Christian religion, has a "dedicated" church in Jaffa.


(2) Shmattes is a Yiddish word which characterize cloth of a cheap, dubious quality.  Someone selling this kind of cloth anywhere in the "Ashkenazi" world will be called with contempt a "shmatnik."  It should be noted that some "shmatniks" have made a fortune and even own their own private business jets.


(3) Tzedakka comes from the world Tzeddek (or Tzaddik) meaning "rightful" - practicing justice, and thus being a respected citizen, a man living by God's commands, and in a general fashion, someone who is generous enough to part with some of his money and give it to he or she who really needs it .  In Jewish shops, in Israel and the world over, there are little metal or plastic boxes dedicated to various charities (animals, senior citizen, hungry and needy people) in which it is customary to leave a few Shekels, euros, dollars or Swiss francs before leaving the shop.  Judaism, like Islam, has made charity to "the other" an excellent command to be performed in the name of God. In Carmel, needy people can be found sitting on a chair selling batteries, boxes of matches, eggs, pitah bread, and all kind of small and cheap items.


(4) There is a large community of Russian men and women in Israel.  While a few of them are of Jewish origin, the rest has managed to come over here using "fake" documents reflecting the possibility of their being of Jewish origin, and therefore being eligible for immigration.  When they are not working for security firms, Russians may own a shop or a trade of some kind.  When none of their endeavors has worked out, Russian are prime target to become part of the homeless population plagued by alcohol problems - if they have not managed timely to join the well-established Russian mafia that is.  If they manage to integrate into the large Russian crime community, their name will soon be found when reading the obituaries in local newspapers.  Russians have a tendency to die victims of a violent death.

Carmel market street, Tel-Aviv

Carmel market street, Tel-Aviv

Carmel market street, Tel-Aviv

Carmel market street, Tel-Aviv

Carmel market street, Tel-Aviv

Carmel market street, Tel-Aviv

Carmel market street, Tel-Aviv

Photos and Text, Copyright 2006 - Sylvain Ubersfeld

Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik

The inclusion of any text from others is quotation for the purpose of illustration and commentary, as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law.  See the Legal Notice Regarding Fair Use for the relevant citation.
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