It’s an overcast October afternoon when Cynthia and I decide to walk down to the Jaffa Flea Market, known here in Tel Aviv as Shuk HaPishpushim, literally, a market of fleas. We’re a day away from leaving Israel, we’re nearly completely out of shekels, and we don’t really want to think about leaving this place, not yet. As we enter the old port-side neighborhood of cobblestone alleyways and outdoor verandas and pass by the corner kiosks, I see a man’s face emerge from behind the strands of hundreds of dangling necklaces. The necklaces are strung up on a long cord between the two walls of the makeshift dividers that mark his stall and the next one and dangle above a counter piled with hundreds of silver rings, bracelets, bangles, and earrings. The turquoise beads studding so many of the pieces, so reminiscent of the jewelry I’m used to seeing in Arizona, catch the light of the lamp and sway in the breeze on their thick silver chains.
The man, standing there, arranging the necklaces with his large fingers from behind the counter, locks eyes with me. I know exactly what’s about to happen. In the next few seconds, Cynthia and I go from new friends, chatting about this country full of layers upon layers, to batting off the advances of the shopkeeper, this man who spotted me from between the necklaces. Even though we can’t speak the same language, he invites the dance of bargaining (which, by the way, is a dance I absolutely adore), we banter back and forth, lowering and raising prices, until I take our cue that he’s not going to budge and we should start slinking away. As expected, the necklace Cynthia has her eye on—a gorgeous two-inch long silver box flecked with colorful gemstones—immediately goes down from 60 to 40 shekels. She looks up, both surprised by the price and the fact that now she has to buy it from him. “Well, I suppose it’s going to be my statement piece!” she says, walking back to him, holding it up to her chest, and imagining it flush against a black sweater. The man smiles wide, and I notice his peppery white hair, square-shaped face, and even teeth.
As she finishes the transaction, I look a little more carefully at the jewelry. There’s something different about it; I haven’t seen jewelry quite like it in Israel. It isn’t new, that’s for sure—the chains are grimy, tarnished, kind of like they’ve traveled a long way, sat in the sun a long time, been handled by a good many people for too long. The edges are blackened, and, when touched, feel almost sticky, home to layers and layers of soot, dirt, natural oils from human hands, and transport. In the midst of rows and rows of kiosks stuffed to their brims with hamsa ornaments, antique furniture, bulk-ordered stacks of women’s clothing, dusty Arabic pottery, local ceramic pots, pans, and dishes, and all the other knick-knacks so reminiscent of flea markets everywhere, they look unmistakably out of place.
The man is still standing there. “Bedouin,” he manages, pointing proudly to his chest. I notice his hands tremble when he tries to hold them still. “It is all Bedouin. I’m Bedouin.”
I say shalom to the best of my still self-conscious Hebrew-speaking ability. “Kristin,” I say. Cynthia pipes up. “Cynthia.”
He smiles wide and says, “Josef.”
As I would later learn, Bedu, the Arabic word from which the name Bedouin derives, simply means “person of the desert.” And yet, when someone calls themselves a Bedouin, they are referring to much more than that: in literal terms, they are referring to people who are the direct descendants of Abraham. They aren’t entirely nomadic anymore, as the Israeli government began building seven Bedouin towns in the late 1960s in order to encourage them to consider a more permanent settlement. Though this is, of course, controversial on many levels, what it has affected rather dramatically (and rather quickly) is the Bedouin’s livelihood of nomadic sheep-herding and the raising of livestock, camels, and goats.
Now, you can see settlements of tents and shacks scattered over the hilly countryside in the more rural parts of Israel, camels marching by in a line, men wearing turbans herding sheep, and women weaving cloth on large looms outside in a common area, but the lifestyle of the true nomad is slowly becoming a story of the past.
Today, like here in the Jaffa Flea Market, some families sell jewelry from their homeland in flea markets. Some play chess outside while they wait for customers; some make their own jewelry; some sit and talk and drink coffee with their neighboring sellers. I can’t imagine what this must be like, going from shepherding to street selling, and I wonder how many other people have thought about these people, the men behind the necklaces, the women arranging the antique furniture, the elementary-aged school children helping out their parents after classes. In my academic work on tourism and bodies, I’ve often grappled with this idea: that although so many of us who travel have the privilege to meet local people from all over the world, people who all have stories worth telling, so few stop to think about how extraordinary it is, for instance, that a Bedouin and an American are interacting like this, both so displaced from their original worlds. I don’t want to exoticize him; as a writer, I’m interested in him.
I don’t know much about Josef; how could I? We don’t speak the same language, we don’t come from cultures that are much alike in any way, and he probably sees me as just a tourist. And, really, I am—I’ve been in his tiny part of the world for just one week, and I’m set to leave tomorrow, to return to a completely different world of students, teaching, and grading. I am here to see, to observe, and to write, and I look a lot like any Western girl he sees, blonde, blue-eyed, big sunglasses, short skirt, camera slung over her chest like a large messenger bag.
But I don’t want to leave—for some reason, I like this man, even though I know nothing about him except that he comes from the descendants of Abraham. Cynthia and I turn back to the rows of necklaces. “I like this one,” I say to her, pointing to a blue pill-box shaped necklace studded down the center with three clear beads surrounded by little turquoise ones. Cynthia, with whom I’ve only been traveling for a week but someone I know I’ll be friends with for a very long time, nudges me and tells me I should buy a pill-box sized necklace too.
So when I try my best to gesture to him that, sadly, I’m basically out of money, he waves his hands in the air, jumps out from behind the kiosk, gives us a huge smile, and starts running away, down the street and around the corner. When we finally reach him, he’s standing proudly in front of a bright yellow rectangular ATM machine on the street corner. He, Cynthia, and I all collapse into laughter. “You know I could have just run off with this necklace, right?” I say, holding up the necklace and pointing in the other direction. As I clasp it in my hand, part of the chain slips through a few of my fingers.
Josef smiles, nods toward the machine, and reminds me I owe him 60 shekels.
“You mean 40 shekels,” I tell him. As we shuffle back and forth, pivoting around the 50 shekel mark, him refusing to budge at 60 and me refusing to go any higher than 40, I realize exactly how funny this must seem to him. I said I didn’t have the money (I can only imagine how often he hears that excuse….), so he literally took me to the money. What he doesn’t know, of course, is that my American card won’t work, that this machine won’t accept the new cards with the fancy chips embedded inside them. What I don’t know is that he’s playing me, that his friendly demeanor is one excellent sales technique. In a way, it doesn’t matter what we know and don’t know–we’re here, and it’s now.
So I dig into my purse, convinced I’d have to have change somewhere in there. My hand touches a 20 shekel bill, and enough rummaging around leads me to three more American dollars. I hand it out to him. Josef nods toward his shop, so we all walk back together. He accepts my offer and starts wrapping the necklace in a clear plastic wrap. And then he stops. He turns to the cash register, picks out two sheets of crumpled paper, and looks for a pen. His brother, a much larger, demonstratively more aggressive salesman, stomps in and asks us, in strong English prose, what we’re doing. The brothers’ voices continue to rise and they begin arguing in Hebrew, and we don’t know if Josef is in trouble because he left his merchandise completely unmanned or if his brother is upset with him for other reasons. In any case, the brother finally trudges out and returns in a few minutes with a pen.
Josef wants to share something with us, but his hands tremble so badly that his brother finally grunts and takes the pen and paper and scribbles, ostensibly, what Josef has told him to write.
“He wanted to write you something in Hebrew,” he said dismissively to us, blowing air out from his mouth and turning to walk back to his side of the stall. Josef returns to picking through the piles and piles of uncatalogued jewelry. We peel ourselves away from the flea market and head back to the old clock, where our group should be waiting for us.
“I hope my children don’t find this in forty years, pop it open, and see this love note from Josef!” Cynthia laughs. “They’ll think I was having an affair!”
“That will make the story that much better,” I tell her, grinning. When we finally get back to our group, we show off our love notes to the other writers and our guide, Amir, who just shakes his head in amazement.
All week, everyone has been teasing me for my unabashed love for bargaining. “You’re just so sweet when you do it,” Amir tells me, “like you’re trying to be friends or something.”
That’s the secret, I tell him. I am trying to be friends. Or something.
And most gracious thanks to Weill and the Israel Ministry of Tourism for hosting our stay in Israel and for introducing me to some of the world’s great street markets. If you’re interested in visiting Israel, they are a fantastic resource!