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A Biblical Marketplace

text and photos by Gerald Ring

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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.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Women (rights/issues) Arabs Bedouin