One World, Many Beads: A Journey in Bedouin Jewelry

In The Beginning

There came a moment when I realised that I had to make a business with the jewellery that I kept buying for myself in Sinai. Everytime I returned to Tel Aviv with a new bracelet, a fancy anklet or a ‘jada’ for the hand, a stranger on the beach, in the market, even on a bus would say to me “Ooh where did you get that from?” and sometimes I would end up selling the jewellery I was wearing at the insistence of the admirer.

But it was a whole different world having to buy many bracelets from the bedouin women in Sinai who make them.

For one thing it takes time for them to make each item, and once the women knew i was a bulk buyer, there were no longer three or four sellers but maybe a dozen who had come to cash in on the 100s of Egyptian pounds it looked like I was throwing around.

When The Going Gets Tough

By my third shopping spree, overwhelmed by a constant crowd of eager women flashing necklaces in my face and repeatedly calling my name to get my attention, unsure whose stuff to look at next and perhaps forgetting to take a tea break, I considered dropping this business.

I took some time out and in the silence of Sinai, hypnotised by lapping waves and starry nights, I realised that it was up to me to know what i wanted and to have faith in my peaceful purchasing play.

I determined to no longer feel pressured or stressed by women who could make quite a din when quarreling with each other over who was selling what to me. Here was I – my own boss starting my own business – and that wouldn’t be true if I was feeling less in my interactions with the bedouin women.

So I radically changed my attitude. I no longer reacted to them calling my name. I didn’t feel bad if I bought more from one person than another (especially as i bought the most from the six women who were the core group of regulars living locally.) When a woman got angry with me for only spending 20 Egyptian pounds, I wasn’t phased and I would give her the line which made them all chuckle, “I am not the bank of England.”

New Techniques

When inside of myself I realised that this was my business and these women were the magicians making the jewellery happen, and it didn’t matter that we couldn’t really explain ourselves and know how to react to each other, then all i had to do was keep my cool, my intention, and respect for everybody.

Most of all I followed my instinct, spacing the buying over a few days, and taking time to also get to know the women over chai. Me, a British new immigrant to neighbouring Israel with very basic Arabic, and them with their fluent Hebrew, we mainly converse in Hebrew which i think is poetic.

I try to ask them about the jewellery – where the ideas come from, the wonderful designs that are popular with so many people, and only common in South Africa too. The jewellery making is a generational skill, passed from mother to children, and the women whose husbands have left them, may largely rely on selling bracelets to feed their fatherless children.

A man travels the area selling them beads. Once it used to just be white and turquoise beads, and now there are so many colors. Even bright orange – but this is the only colour I never buy – most people want white, black, brown, gold, turquoise or pink.

These days the women buy necklaces from the nomadic beadman to sell to me. “Why don’t you make them yourselves?” I ask. Apparently one of these necklaces can take two days to make. I try to understand how these necklaces are made, but that is their secret.

In Harmony

Every month I travel to Sinai to buy more, I imagine that the women will have made tons of bracelets, in anticipation of my return. But no, they have made what they have made and maybe only one of them has plenty for me to buy.

The most wonderful thing is how much they are in tune with the colors that are in fashion in Tel Aviv. When everybody wants white, light, crystal anklets so that’s what I am getting there in Sinai and when natural metallics and earthy tones started being in vogue so too in the bead making village.

Often the bedouin women know more than me. I remember one time, a seller called Selwa insisted that I buy a whole heap of bracelets for children. She also convinced me to buy bracelets with the protective eye on them though I insisted that few people would be interested in that style.

On my return to Tel Aviv, I had an unuusal amount of requests for children’s bracelets and the bracelets with the eyes were a big success, and gave me something to sell to men.

Perhaps the bedouins are telepathic. Once I arrived in the beach camp where i meet the women and, in the twenty minutes that i planned to be there, though it was too late in the day for bedouin sellers, the particular woman i needed to see, was there!

As she doesn’t speak Hebrew, I couldn’t ask how she knew to come at that precise time with the jewellery I needed to buy, so we got on with the business of exchanging our cheek kisses, and then I crouched in front of her sheet of trinkets. After I had chosen the jewellery I wanted, she took the money note I gave her, kissed it, and as usual, gave me a gift of a necklace and a look of such gratitude, that I know I will want to return.

This article by Nicola Manasseh first appeared in “Essence of Life” at www.eolife.org.

For a place to shop for Bedouin-inspired jewelry, see the Most Original website.

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5 thoughts on “One World, Many Beads: A Journey in Bedouin Jewelry”

  1. johannabartley says:

    I love the Bedouin bracelets and I'm just sorry that we can't all wear them as they're representative for their culture and not for all cultures in general. Another thing related to jewelry that bugs me is the fact that more and more men have a mens diamond ring which is weird because in my opinion the only jewelry a man should wear is the wedding ring.

  2. johannabartley says:

    I love the Bedouin bracelets and I'm just sorry that we can't all wear them as they're representative for their culture and not for all cultures in general. Another thing related to jewelry that bugs me is the fact that more and more men have a mens diamond ring which is weird because in my opinion the only jewelry a man should wear is the wedding ring.

  3. nice sharing for the love of jewelry!
    just like me…

  4. Fantastic post, I love jewelry beads very much. I found your blog a few days ago on Technorati and have been reading it over the past few days.

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