SIDON, Lebanon: In Europe, where vegetable sellers are a dying breed and fruit is often encased in layers of plastic packaging, customers have long been able to buy individual slices or even cubes of watermelon to take home. In Lebanon, however, having the choice not to purchase an entire fruit weighing upward of 10 kilograms is a recent phenomenon.
Mohammad Massoud, who has been running a fruit and vegetable shop in the southern city of Sidon for more than 15 years, told The Daily Star that the first time he ever sold one watermelon to more than one person was this past Ramadan.
To start with, Massoud was only selling watermelons imported from Jordan, as the Lebanese variety was not yet ready for consumption. But as the imports, priced at LL2,000 ($1.33) per kilogram, proved too unpopular with customers, he decided to cut them into pieces of four to encourage people to purchase as many as possible.
But still, “the turnout was weak ... and people were embarrassed to buy slices,” he said.
However, as the Lebanese watermelons began to ripen and come onto the market in recent weeks, people’s attitudes began to shift, and customers began flocking to Massoud to buy slices.
The Lebanese melons, which are grown in north Bekaa, Nabatieh and Sidon, are sold in Massoud’s shop at LL750 per kilo.
Mayada Hariri has fond memories of her late father buying watermelons by the dozen more than 30 years ago, which he divided up between the family and their animals. “We would eat the watermelon’s flesh, roast the seeds and give the rind to the chickens, goats and donkeys; that way there was no waste,” she said.
Multiple reasons have pushed customers to opt for precut melons: Low incomes limiting the amount of money a family can spend on fruit; a lack of constant electricity supply that rules out 24-hour refrigeration; and small, close-knit families not being able to consume a full 14-kg melon.
Nahed Wardeh, a 55-year-old housewife, welcomes shops’ initiative to start selling by the slice, something she said she had “only heard about in Western countries.”
“It makes sense for people to buy only as much as they need and not waste their money,” she added.
Perhaps a more compelling reason to opt out of buying a whole melon, however, is that cutting slices allows customers seeking the crimson tint that indicates a ripe and flavorful fruit to see the color of the flesh from inside.
Cutting the fruit also allows Massoud’s customers to try before they buy. He said that new customers had begun coming to him specifically for his watermelons; he now sells 35 cutup melons per day in addition to around 16 whole ones.
Ibrahim al-Qiblawi thinks it’s a “great idea” to start cutting up the melons for sale because they make them much easier to transport.
“I can’t carry a whole melon up to my apartment when the elevator is not running,” he said.
But Hassan Shamieh, a fruit peddler who tours the poorer areas of Sidon calling out the names of the fruit he has for sale, laughed at the idea of splitting a melon in two. “Am I in Japan or Madrid? Are we going to start selling just one apple or a single banana now?” he asked, laughing. - Writing by Emily Lewis