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A Biblical Marketplace

The past comes alive on Bedouin market day in the Biblical town of Beersheba.

A large-girthed woman, covered from head to toe in black, sits cross-legged on the ground amid a multicolored array of beaded jewelry and embroidered knick-knacks. She is surrounded by other vendors hawking their wares. The men with Arab headdresses and long-skirted robes, the women often with a gold nose ring and a child or two in tow – they sell everything from blown glass vases and beaten copper kettles to silver-handled daggers and tooled leather belts; from fragrant spices and exquisitely worked veils to potatoes, onions, and even blue jeans. Would you like a sheep, a camel, or perhaps just a plain donkey? They are all for sale here. It is Thursday in Beersheba, and that means it is Bedouin market day.

Beersheba means Well of the Oath and gets its name from the covenant made between King Abimelech and Abraham there. It is first mentioned in the Bible in Genesis (21:14) when Sarah had urged Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, and God had told Abraham to do as Sarah said: So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar, putting them on her shoulder, and gave her the boy and sent her away. And she departed and wandered about in the Wilderness of Beersheba.

Today, Beersheba is a modern city of some 150,000 inhabitants, but it borders a vast wilderness, the Negev. This desert is the home of the Bedouin who come every Thursday to set up market in Beersheba. Some may bring their goods and livestock in pick-ups or trucks, but they all still live in goatskin tents, little changed since Abraham’s time. Unlike Hagar, who only survived her desert wanderings because of God’s provision of a miraculous well of water, the Bedouin know how to live off these desolate lands.

They are contented with their chosen way of life. Sheep and goats are their prized assets, which make many of the tent-dwelling sheikhs relatively wealthy men. The Bedouin proudly cling to their independent, nomadic way of life and shun all attempts to be housed in permanent settlements.

Their daily routine varies little. While the men and older children wander the barren hills with their sheep and goats, Bedouin women stay home and handspin and dye wool and yarn. While caring for the babies, they sew and embroider garments to wear or to sell in the market. Preparation of food is simple. Meals usually include home-made yoghurt, a sour cream cheese, and flat bread baked on hot stones. Boiled mutton and rice are added for special occasions.

At the market they can buy fresh fruit and vegetables, which do not grow in their arid desert. Huge mounds of cucumbers, peaches, and grapes brought by Arabs from nearby agricultural villages soon disappear into the Bedouin women’s shopping baskets. The purchases are paid for with cash which they hide in their bosoms and retrieve from under several layers of garments. In most cases, the heavy load from shopping is simply placed on the head and effortlessly carried around the market, perhaps with a baby on the back and another clinging to a finger.

The children are delightful. Under their unkempt hair, their faces seem wary of strangers. Still, they can suddenly break into broad smiles, revealing bright teeth and even brighter eyes. There are usually so many in a family that the little ones look after even smaller siblings as a matter of routine. At one stall, while the mother is busy selling tassled cushions, a little girl wearing trousers beneath her skirt sits on the floor while feeding her baby brother a sand-coated piece of sesame halva.

Such habits of hygiene seem to have no adverse effect on the Bedouin’s health, judging by the brisk business at a nearby table. A man in a long, oil-splattered coat fries wedges of aubergine in a burnt-black aluminum bowl on top of a primus stove. As each piece is cooked, he lifts it out with an equally black spatula and sets it on a flat tray which has probably never seen soap and water.

The eye takes in so much in this colorful market! The bright blue sky and strong sun reflecting off the sandy earth are dazzling enough. Add to this the gaily striped carpets draped everywhere, the richly colored rolls of yarn, the brightly painted ceramic jars and plates, the gleaming brass and copper vessels sparkling in the sunlight, the higgledypiggledy piles of gaudy clothing, and the rows of traditional dresses with their red, blue, yellow, green, and gold embroidery. Together with the noise of buyers and sellers haggling, the bleating of sheep, and the exotic faces and foods, the Bedouin market is like stepping back into the time of the Bible.

The traditional long, black dresses and head coverings are worn by all Bedouin women. The elaborate, colorful embroidery, which relieves the somber black, is painstakingly done by hand and can be very valuable, especially when gold thread is used. Gold is the measure of status. Even in the marketplace, many women wear a band fringed with gold coins around their foreheads and numerous bracelets on their arms. The bracelets and the gold nose rings are traditions noted in Genesis (24:17), where Abraham’s servant puts a ring in Rebecca’s nose when he chose her as a bride for Isaac: “Then I asked her and said, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ and she said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him,’ and I put the ring in her nose and the bracelets on her wrists.”

Many of the women also veil their faces to beneath the eyes. Even those who usually do not wear one will draw a veil across their faces when a strange man speaks to them. Again, Genesis (24:65) provides a parallel, when the servant is taking Rebecca on the journey to Isaac in the Negev. Suddenly, Rebecca sees a man in the field ahead of them: And she said to the servant, “Who is that man walking in the field to meet us?” And the servant said, “He is my master.” Then she took her veil, and covered herself.

While the women are busy buying and selling, many of the men are in the livestock area of the market. The men sit on the ground in a circle or squat on their haunches in groups, arguing the merits of their respective flocks. Bedouin’s sheep are hardier stock compared to Western breeds. Their long, yellowish-brown fleece and a rather bedraggled air belie their strength. Both their meat and their milk are tasty, despite the fact that they graze on stony, desert ground where they may find a bit of scrub or stubble every few yards.

Accompanied by many tiny cups of coffee, the men engage in lengthy bargaining and cajoling before the money and the sheep change hands. The scene is reminiscent of Abraham’s dealing with Ephron the Hittite and the sons of Heth when he purchased the cave of Machpelah (Gen. 23).

The market opens soon after sunrise. By early afternoon most business is completed, and merchants pack up their remaining wares. Some Bedouin have pick-ups in which to return to their tents. Many others still travel home with load-bearing donkeys and camels, a journey that may continue well past sunset.

As they make their way back into the desert, where they live without conveniences such as electricity and running water, they pass high-rise apartment blocks and modern factories. The Bedouin give them barely a glance. They soon disappear deep into the wilderness, itself as unchanging as these people. Both that landscape and its inhabitants preserve a way of life which allows a glimpse into the past and makes the pages of the Bible come alive in a new way.

Gerald Ring, a writer and photographer living in Jerusalem, is a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East.

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