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.

Nothing proves the 'nothing new under the sun'mantra as perfectly as Beersheba's Friday Street Fair. The city's newlyrevitalized street market - which runs the full length of the OldCity's pedestrian mall - isn't new so much as it's very old. Back asfar as 4000 BCE sellers and buyers congregated right about here, intenton making deals. What's interesting is how little any of it haschanged.

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

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

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

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

Today's modern Street Fair takes place just a few hundredmeters from the ancient waterway that first attracted commerce. Veryrecently, the municipality set about rebuilding the Old City's streets,walkways and parking areas. Now, once again, the Friday morning marketis a thriving event, drawing not just locals but people from Israel'sentire South. With the wide pedestrian-only street, shade from tallleafy trees, plenty of benches and other places to relax, thousands ofpeople flock in every Friday morning. Established businesses along themall benefit, too, and new permanent cafes have opened, offering foodsfrom around the world - Argentinean beef, sushi, Thai noodles, Indianfood and pizza to name just a few.

IN ANCIENT times, the hottest trade commoditieswere gemstones, pottery, silk and fine fabrics, musk and perfumes,spices, medicine, glassware and exotic plants like rhubarb. Much ofthat 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 tableswith her own exquisite creations. Sunshine sparkles off diamond-likecrystal, while jewel colors gleam from bracelets necklaces, andearrings.

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

Near Zohar's glittering display stands a small dapperviolinist, valiantly linking one haunting melody to another, in alitany that seems to override the general chaos. The gentleman plays,but prefers not to speak, instead motioning to his open violin case fordonations. 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" isfollowed by "Jailhouse Rock," and then "My Way." Somehow the days ofElvis, although not without their charm, seem almost as ancient asthose of the long-gone Babylonians.

Silk and fine fabrics dominate today just as they did inancient times. One vendor offers glamorous window curtains, pillowcovers and table coverings, many of them in sheer fabrics, bordered indeep bronze or gold, enhanced with elaborate gold stitching. Othersellers hawk scarves - a million designs and fabrics, in everyconceivable style and length. But what's really in demand today areblankets, which is why they - along with linens, bedspreads,comforters, pillow covers and mattress protectors - can be found atseveral stalls.

Exotica can be purchased today, too. Two young men have amassedan amazing array of carved wooden animals imported from various placesin 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 acarved baboon as tall as a six year old?

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

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

Cuddly stuffed animals appear here and there, but probably notso many as you'd see in the US. Interestingly enough, none of thestuffed animals represent any of the seriously non-kosher species.

Antique dealers have joined the street fair in numbers. Itstarted 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 valuablecollection of heavy, old silver bowls and vessels, most likely broughtover from someone's old country.

One very elaborately carved silver bowl, maybe 25centimeters, 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 keepit safe.

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

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

THAT'S TYPICAL. The street fair underscores the true essence ofBeersheba, the city of immigrants. Yaakov Terner, Beersheba's formermayor, used to say that Beersheba was the most diverse city in theworld - and with some justification. Something over 160 differentmother tongues are spoken in the city's schools. Clearly the mainlanguage at the street fair is Hebrew, but several Russian dialects,Arabic, French, Spanish, various Indian tongues and whatever our newestimmigrants from Sudan speak, are occasionally heard too. English israre, 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 relishas consumer goods. Four men, 40-somethings, sit at one outside cafétable, talking and laughing. If you read the news, this wouldn't seempossible, but of the four, one wears a knitted kippa, another wearsvelvet, 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 helpingmen don 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 inbright red glazes, kitchenware for every conceivable purpose, plantstands, wicker tables, craft items, cooking pans and of course theubiquitous Israeli mangels, barbecues. A man decked out in a chef's hatchops vegetables with an odd looking instrument, an Ethiopian ladyoffers to mix "healing scents" to order. Is there schlock? Probably -but one man's junk is another's treasure. Even those stands havecustomers waiting to pay.

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

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

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