Beersheba's old-new street fair

You can't buy slaves, hashish or women here anymore, but otherwise trade in perhaps one of the world's oldest markets goes on more or less unchanged.

By YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO
January 23, 2010 01:56
Shopkeepers in the south

Shopkeepers in the south. (photo credit: Israel Sun , JRep)

Nothing proves the 'nothing new under the sun' mantra as perfectly as Beersheba's Friday Street Fair. The city's newly revitalized street market - which runs the full length of the Old City's pedestrian mall - isn't new so much as it's very old. Back as far as 4000 BCE sellers and buyers congregated right about here, intent on making deals. What's interesting is how little any of it has changed.

The sound of bubbling, gurgling water welcomes shoppers to the fair area, much to the delight of both children and pets. Water is the perfect metaphor - it was water that attracted the first shepherds to Beersheba, then in turn the merchants and traders, pilgrims, missionaries, soldiers, nomads and urbanites traveling from one place to another.

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In fact, Beersheba may have been one of the world's first tourist sites. During the first millennium BCE, a thousand years after he himself died, the wells dug by the patriarch Abraham were well known. Pilgrims came from all over the world to visit the place where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Elijah spent time.

The merchants were following ancient trade routes running from Asia to North Africa. Because of its water supply, Beersheba became known as a good place to stop, and a market center developed. As traders and pilgrims congregated, protection became necessary, so as early as 560-565 CE, a military garrison was established here.

By 1900, when the Turks took over, Beersheba was the obvious choice for their administrative center. It already was an established trading center, it had water, and it was located at a point in Wadi Beersheba which was low enough to cross.

Today's modern Street Fair takes place just a few hundred meters from the ancient waterway that first attracted commerce. Very recently, the municipality set about rebuilding the Old City's streets, walkways and parking areas. Now, once again, the Friday morning market is a thriving event, drawing not just locals but people from Israel's entire South. With the wide pedestrian-only street, shade from tall leafy trees, plenty of benches and other places to relax, thousands of people flock in every Friday morning. Established businesses along the mall benefit, too, and new permanent cafes have opened, offering foods from around the world - Argentinean beef, sushi, Thai noodles, Indian food and pizza to name just a few.

IN ANCIENT times, the hottest trade commodities were gemstones, pottery, silk and fine fabrics, musk and perfumes, spices, medicine, glassware and exotic plants like rhubarb. Much of that hasn't changed.



Perhaps a dozen jewelry stands offer unique handmade designs, but the queen of bling has to be Karin Zohar, who fills two long tables with her own exquisite creations.  Sunshine sparkles off diamond-like crystal, while jewel colors gleam from bracelets necklaces, and earrings.

"I've been making jewelry for over ten years," Zohar, who lives in Beersheba, says. "During the week, I travel to sell in other cities, other malls - Tel Aviv, Jerusalem.  But on Fridays, I come home to Beersheba."

Near Zohar's glittering display stands a small dapper violinist, valiantly linking one haunting melody to another, in a litany that seems to override the general chaos. The gentleman plays, but prefers not to speak, instead motioning to his open violin case for donations. Since other music blares from loudspeakers down the street, he may just need to concentrate to keep his focus.

The competing music comes from a stand selling CDs and DVDs. Today must be 'All Elvis, all the time' day.  Presley's "Loving you" is followed by "Jailhouse Rock," and then "My Way." Somehow the days of Elvis, although not without their charm, seem almost as ancient as those of the long-gone Babylonians.

Silk and fine fabrics dominate today just as they did in ancient times. One vendor offers glamorous window curtains, pillow covers and table coverings, many of them in sheer fabrics, bordered in deep bronze or gold, enhanced with elaborate gold stitching. Other sellers hawk scarves - a million designs and fabrics, in every conceivable style and length. But what's really in demand today are blankets, which is why they - along with linens, bedspreads, comforters, pillow covers and mattress protectors - can be found at several stalls.

Exotica can be purchased today, too. Two young men have amassed an amazing array of carved wooden animals imported from various places in Africa. There are meter-and-a-half brown and white giraffes, table-sized black elephants, snarling cougars and coiled serpents. Sales don't seem to be brisk. How many of us have a place to put a carved baboon as tall as a six year old?

Perfumes - in all price ranges, all formulations - abound. Free samples pass, hand to hand, among women shoppers, everyone trying a squirt. Then there are room air fresheners and incense, sandalwood, pine, lemon, eucalyptus and clove - probably pretty much the same as those in favor thousands of years ago.

Toys are a huge category. One vendor attracts business by having a man blowing bubbles into the passing crowd. It works - kids can't wait to buy. Another seller hawks battery toys, cars slamming into walls, bears beating drums, monkeys climbing ropes, all in time with jaunty music. Still another specializes in riding toys, big fire trucks and police cars little kids can sit on. Girls dream over dolls, lady-makeup sets, glamorous plastic jewelry for the let's-pretend crowd, while plastic high heels let the women of tomorrow practice vamping.

Cuddly stuffed animals appear here and there, but probably not so many as you'd see in the US. Interestingly enough, none of the stuffed animals represent any of the seriously non-kosher species.

Antique dealers have joined the street fair in numbers. It started with one man who sold all manner of interesting old things, items scavenged from old kibbutzim, coins, books, tools, tchotchkes.  Now several such vendors are around, one with what must be a valuable collection of heavy, old silver bowls and vessels, most likely brought over from someone's old country.

One very elaborately carved silver bowl, maybe 25 centimeters, looks worthy of a king. How much? "How much you give me?"  he says, putting the lovely thing on a back table, the better to keep it safe.

There's no rhubarb in evidence, but there is a cool and misty live-plant stand that's doing bang-up business. The plants look fresh and well-tended, and when one is purchased, a big bow and plastic wrapping is added to make a perfect gift.

Next door a new immigrant from Argentina sells honey - a dozen different flavors and sizes.  No, he says, the honey is not from his own bees, but he bottles it himself and it's absolutely pure and kosher. The range of golden colors makes it hard to resist. He speaks Spanish to about half of his customers, who seem to understand just fine.

THAT'S TYPICAL. The street fair underscores the true essence of Beersheba, the city of immigrants. Yaakov Terner, Beersheba's former mayor, used to say that Beersheba was the most diverse city in the world - and with some justification. Something over 160 different mother tongues are spoken in the city's schools. Clearly the main language at the street fair is Hebrew, but several Russian dialects, Arabic, French, Spanish, various Indian tongues and whatever  our newest immigrants from Sudan speak, are occasionally heard too. English is rare, although many of the vendors speak and understand it just fine. Even so, Anglos are a tiny minority here.

Ideas and opinions are exchanged with every bit as much relish as consumer goods. Four men, 40-somethings, sit at one outside café table, talking and laughing. If you read the news, this wouldn't seem possible, but of the four, one wears a knitted kippa, another wears velvet, the third wears a kefiya while the fourth is bareheaded. They seem to be thoroughly enjoying each other's company.

Even Chabad's Friday morning outreach has grown. In the past, men lined up behind Chabad's single table, with young rabbis helping men don't  tefillin.Now there are two such tables, one at each end. And still, men wait in line at each.

There's more, much more - hand-thrown pottery in bright red glazes, kitchenware for every conceivable purpose, plant stands, wicker tables, craft items, cooking pans and of course the ubiquitous Israeli mangels, barbecues. A man decked out in a chef's hat chops vegetables with an odd looking instrument, an Ethiopian lady offers to mix "healing scents" to order. Is there schlock? Probably - but one man's junk is another's treasure. Even those stands have customers waiting to pay.

Some things have changed, of course. In the old days, you could buy slaves, hashish or even women here. Those things might be hard to come by now, but still, the endless process of trading one thing for another has gone on, right here, for thousands of years. Sellers and buyers find each other, make a deal and part with a smile.

On this warm day in January, noon has come and gone, Shabbat is coming. A few vendors are gone, others pack up. A nicely dressed lady tries to convince one of the jewelry makers to sell her a pair of earrings for something like half price. "You'll have to pack them away," she reasons. "The day is over."

"But next week is next week," he says - but then accepts her shekels and gives her the earrings.


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