I Will Let You Work with Me and You Can Be My Right-Hand Man

The contributor of this story grew up in a Sudan that many of the Jewish community had already left. He was born in Wad Medani, before moving to Khartoum. A great story teller, here he remembered his time as a child, working with his father in the market of Wad Medani...

As a child, the age of six or seven, I used to finish at the Egyptian School at about two o’clock and then I used to go to the shop to work with my father. My father loved it, that I was so anxious to work and that I could work hard. Sometimes I even went with him before school started. I thought it was very fun. Then when I was about eight my father said to me, 
‘Ok, you don’t have to go to school any more. I will let you work with me and you can be my right-hand man’. 
My brother didn’t like that when he heard it. He understood that you have to go to school and learn to become something. So he took me to Khartoum and enrolled me in the Sister’s School. Now I see that it was the right thing to do. If it was up to my father…well, I wouldn’t have gone to school at all! He passed away when I was nine. 

I enjoyed working with my father very much. I used to open the shop – it was a very big shop in the souk, where all the cloth merchants are, and we had to take all the iron cases that he was selling outside, clean the store, wash everything. I used to do all that at that young age. I could sell too! Actually, it’s a funny story. Our main customers were the farmers and they came in groups to the souk. They live in the villages and they come for the harvest and then at the end of the season they travel back home and on the way they buy things in Wad Medani – gifts for their wives and children and so on. To sell to them you had to grab the attention of the first farmer, the boss. So we catch them, 
‘Come, Come! Please, come! Welcome to our shop! We want to give you some tea, some coffee. Come and be our guest!’
So they come into the shop and we let them sit down, be comfortable. We give them some tea or coffee and some cakes. You know we were all salesmen in the souk together so we call the guy who sells cakes, 
‘Mohammad, bring us some cake for these people!’
then to the guy who makes coffee, 
‘Bring some coffee for the customers’.
Then after they have eaten and have drunk their tea we start to sell them stuff. First for their kids and for their wives. It was a big market, a garment market, but we didn’t sell garments ready-made. We sell the material and we hire two or three guys who can sew with their sewing machines to sit outside the shop and measure it and make the garment – the jellabiya or whatever it was – for the customer. Then he will buy some accessories or negligee for his wife and a big iron case to put it all inside. To get home they would usually travel on a bus or a lorry, they will sit in the back so they need a strong case to sit on, we used to make them from big aluminium sheets and sell them also. My father would buy the aluminium sheets, store them, and then he had another guy who made them into cases, my father would sell them and they divide the profits, it’s cheaper that way. 

Wad Medani Market, 1969 ©Jean-Claude Latombe, http://ai.stanford.edu/~latombe/mountain/photo/sudan-1969/sudan-1969.htm

Wad Medani Market, 1969 ©Jean-Claude Latombe, http://ai.stanford.edu/~latombe/mountain/photo/sudan-1969/sudan-1969.htm

Imagine yourself, a six or seven year old boy, running around the shop, jumping on the tables, running up and down the stairs to get the things. I learned the system too, everybody who works in the market knew it. There is a system to selling and you have to know the system or nobody will buy anything from you. First you must bring the customer a material, the first material you bring he will look at it and he will say, 
‘No, this is not a good material, bring me another one’.
So we had the same material packed in different ways. We bring him another pack, he looks at it again and he says, 
‘Yes, this is a better one’
So we bring four or five different packages, all the same material, and he decides which one is better for him. We knew that nobody would ever buy the first material you bring them, so you have to sell it differently each time, 
‘This one is more expensive, this one had a different thread count, this one is a bit cheaper’.
They’re all the same! But that’s the system. That’s how it was. Ok, so they select their material and now they have to choose a case. You have to go to the case and stand on it to show the customer how strong it is. But where do you stand? On the corner! Because that is the strongest place. If you stand in the middle it will bend. So I as a child, I used to go to the corner of the bag and jump on it, all around. That’s how you sell the cases. 

Wad Medani Market, 1969 ©Jean-Claude Latombe, http://ai.stanford.edu/~latombe/mountain/photo/sudan-1969/sudan-1969.htm

Wad Medani Market, 1969 ©Jean-Claude Latombe, http://ai.stanford.edu/~latombe/mountain/photo/sudan-1969/sudan-1969.htm