BEERSHEBA, Israel — Just before the desert sun rose, a small breeze blew and the little campfires flickered as the Bedouins prepared their morning coffee. In a few minutes, the sky turned a lighter blue and the Bedouin men, who had ridden through the night, began making deals.
A new day had begun at the Bedouin market on the outskirts of Beersheba, gateway to Israel's Negev Desert.
Nearby, in an adjacent and equally dusty field, the central business of the day--the buying, selling and trading of sheep and goats--coincided with the first real sunlight. Talking more with their hands than their mouths, the robed Bedouin men made a trade here and a sale there as their sons herded and sometimes dragged the animals to their buyers.
Some would be that evening's dinner, some would be fattened for a future meal, some used for breeding and some for investment. In addition, a few of the best would be used for the Bedouins' ritual slaughter in the cemeteries where their ancestors are laid to rest.
With the sun fully up, Bedouin women--dressed in black, with only their eyes and noses showing--set up their displays of crafts on blankets in the market area closest to the road.
Down the slope was the regular Thursday Arab market, where merchants offer ersatz crafts, some real antiques, bolts of cloth and blue jeans. Local food products were sold from semi-permanent booths.
Likewise, on the side of the field closest to town, Jewish flea-market dealers displayed their mostly European wares and European and American clothes.
Welcome to a 5,000-year-old institution. Desert nomads have traded here with each other and the merchants of a nearby village since prehistory. It was here that the desert tribes could sell their animals and goods, purchased along ancient caravan routes, and buy the agricultural products from the settled farming region to the north.
Because of the wells that made this an oasis, it was a natural stopping place of the caravans traveling the wasteland between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to the south and west, and Moab and Gilead (now part of Jordan), and Aramea (now part of Syria), to the east and north.
Rubbing sleep from your eyes, it's best to start the day with a glass of strong Arab tea, with either mint or the local herb nanna , or a cup of mud-like Arab coffee.
Assuming that your stomach is up to it, try some of the best falafel in the Middle East, which is available from carts in the Arab quarter of the market and in the goat and sheep field.
If falafel for breakfast is more than you can deal with, vendors in the Arab quarter sell small, sweet Israeli pastries and Arab candies. This is also the place to buy the local dates, both the sweet kind sold in American markets and the golden, leathery, less-sweet Arab variety, plus figs and local produce.
Don't miss the olive sellers, whose goods are of an astounding variety. Favored are the small, cracked olives that are salty and sweet at the same time.
For shopping (assuming you're not in the market for livestock), there are two standouts: the small, flat-weave rugs and the handcrafted jewelry, both sold by Bedouin women.
Language should not be a problem. When you show serious interest in an item, an agent--a Bedouin or an Arab man (or two or three) competent in English--will appear, as if by magic, to handle your side of the bargaining. He is paid a commission by the seller after your deal is concluded.
And deal you will. Never accept the offering price. A typical negotiation for a small rug, about 2 feet by 3 feet, hand-woven by the seller from the wool of her family flock of sheep and dyed with the pigments of the plants and minerals of the desert, might start with an asking price of 200 shekels.
A good first offer would be, say, 75 shekels, while disparaging the quality of the cloth, coarseness of the weave and the poor taste of the colors.
Stick to your offer for no more than five minutes. An increase to 90 shekels for an item you're really interested in is about right. This will be rejected with a dismissive wave of the hand. It's time to walk away for a while.
Your second trip to the seller (maybe dealing through the same agent or maybe another one who has appeared on the scene) is the time to get down to business. A fair conclusion in this case would be about 125 shekels.
Carefully count out the money. It's best to have exact change, because the seller may claim not to have change and then try to keep all the bills in his or her hand. Shake hands with the agent--never with the Bedouin woman--and exchange smiles all around.
For a large transaction, a floor-size rug for instance, two negotiating sessions are only the beginning. One purchase we made entailed half a dozen trips back to the seller over a period of almost four hours.
The final price was quite reasonable. Then again, we took a chance that the carpet would be sold to another customer during our absence.