Balila and Hajja

You can not have lived in Saudi Arabia and not know what balila is. The sound of the honking would serve as an announcement to arrival. Then you would see the guy on the tricycle driving up. Back in the day, the Yemenis owned this business as well. These Yemenis met the same fate, as their brethren that changed tires, sold fool tamees, filled Betrol (gas)  at Betrol (gas) stations and were the vegetable vendors. Once Saddam attacked Kuwait, and they sided with him, they were replaced miraculously by the Bengalis.

For two riyals, you could enjoy the chickpeas with a gracious pouring of lemon juice, sour turshi, a mixture of cucumbers with surmac and potatoes. He would have the hot chickpeas and the potatoes in a largish pot in front of the tri cycle, which was kept warm by a small fire under it, fueled by a small propane tank that he carried on the tricycle. Some of the vendors would give you a plastic bowl, while other used a transparent plastic bag. The Saudi version of the balila has un-drained chickpeas, so it sat in a fluid. Once you were done eating the peas and the potatoes, you had the option of either drinking the sauce left behind, or trashing the whole bag. Most times I did drink the sauce and ended up with a sore throat.

The balila guys were a familiar sight right outside the school yard. It would not be uncommon for us to get one before we boarded the bus back home. The other common sight outside the school yard was the Hajja. The Hajja were African women, selling an array of candies and toys, all priced conveniently under two riyals. They would place the goodies on an aluminum platter about four feet in diameter. They would be clad in colorful robes that would flow around them graciously. All Hajjas had to have at least one small child each. I do not think that they needed to carry a child to qualify to be a Hajja, but my father would always comment on the strength of the immune system of the child. He would then look at me, and make me feel guilty on how easily and often I got a sore throat, that turned into an infection, resulting in a bout of antibiotics binge. I never told him it was the balila that was the cause. The Hajja and the Balila guy were also common sights outside the mosques after Friday prayers. Along with a whole army of other street vendors.

It was not uncommon for the Hajja to be breast feeding their child while sitting on the ground behind the tray displaying their array of goodies. For a school boy, to see a part of breast, in Saudi Arabia, is out of the ordinary. The Hajjas of course did not really care about us nervously noticing their bosoms. I don’t recall buying much from them, but we would curiously, ask the price of every thing. Some times we would even try to haggle with them. It is not uncommon to haggle in Saudi Arabia. You haggled for every thing, from groceries, to clothes, to apartment rents. At some point in the process, the Hajja would lose their patience, and scream out, in their native tongue, which I believe to be either Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba.

Once in a while, the police would have a rash, and they would start chasing the Balila guy and the Hajja. Shurtas would show up in a couple of vans and start running down the Hajjas. We were fascinated by that chase. The hajjas would adeptly swing the child to their back in the hammock, and make a dash. The shurtas would chase for a brief bit, before giving up. It was too much work. No one would dare touch the goodies left behind. The shurtas didn’t care much for it either. So the task was left to the Balidiya. What’s that you ask? Stay tuned!


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