Al-basta (Iraqi goods displayed for sale on the sidewalk) used to be for the poor people of the country. However, it became a small business opportunity for many vendors later. Today, these sidewalk displays are generating daily profits and fairly compete with the stores and shops around them.
Shaker Ahmed manages two square meters of sidewalk in front of a shop in Hilla, Babel, south of Baghdad. He pays the shop’s owner $3,000 a year to rent the location.
Ahmed laughs at the naiveté of those who think that basta vendors are allowed to sell their goods in front of large stores just because of shop owners' kindness. He remarked, “It is very difficult to have and use an outdoor space, because you have to pay money to the person whose space you want to occupy.”
The relationship between the “sidewalk vendor” and the shop owner depends on the latter seeing customers visit the basta. The more customers, the higher the rent he can charge the vendor. This is true in most Iraqi cities, especially in Baghdad, where goods flood the sidewalks, turning the latter into commercial projects instead of safe walkways for pedestrians.
Baghdad resident Halim Hassan said that he likes buying foods from Basta vendors as they sell them in a low price. Also they have wide varieties to offer, further noted by Halim.
The bastas are very common during religious occasions and holidays, when traders empty their stock and display their discounted wares to the public.
Ahmed Hassan, a member of the Department of Economic Security in Babel, said, “The businesses these vendors run are prohibited by law, and they should be removed. There have been several attempts to do so, but they failed because the [bastas] have become a social phenomenon.”
Mr. Hassan added, “The removal of bastas would result in a backlash against the authorities, because the people would consider that move an attack on their livelihoods, especially since Iraqis deride those who get in the way of their means of subsistence. The phenomenon has even turned into a political debate and an electoral issue.”
Wiam Fallah, a sidewalk vendor in Babel, told, “Electoral candidates are flocking to areas occupied by basta vendors and they assure us that they will defend us and will not allow the removal of our shops. In reality, they only want to win our votes.”
The sidewalks of Iraq have become commercial projects, which is not an issue that can be ignored. The state’s security and regulatory institutions cannot control them due to the corruption among the traders and owners of these projects, who pay the police and government inspectors a monthly fee.
In al-Shorja, one of the largest markets in Baghdad, economic control is extremely strict. Al-Monitor spoke to Ahmed al-Jabouri, another young vendor, as he displayed his electronic goods. He remarked that he has not been worried about his business for years, because he "agreed to pay off the municipal staff and the police.” Jabouri admitted that he “receives a phone call from staff members from municipalities whenever state inspectors are coming.”
Despite the wealth of sidewalk vendors and their reliable daily income, this business is still for the poor, according to social scientist Ali al-Moussawi. He said, “The majority of sidewalk vendors are lower class youth with low income and no education.”
He further added, “Most of the vendors can’t afford the goods they are selling. These goods are the property of influential traders who own stores in the neighboring areas. They employ these young people and pay them a small daily amount of money.”
While state inspectors have failed to curb the phenomenon, Babel City Council member Suhaila Abbas told that the solution is not using the force but providing employment opportunities.