Peace Canal Across Northern Sinai to Turn Barren Acres Into Farmland : Bedouins: Change in their nomadic lifestyle is sure to come along ancient caravan trade routes.


It's market day in El-Arish, a Bedouin stronghold along Egypt's northern Sinai coastline.

Surely one of the country's most colorful pageants, going to market Sinai-style is Egypt's least-heralded tourist attraction, a treasure awaiting discovery.

But an endangered treasure.

Through 103 miles of dunes along the Mediterranean coastline, a canal is coming to turn what ancients called "The Land of Turquoise"--for its turquoise mines--into a land of green.

Pharaoh's armies have been replaced by new intruders: construction engineers and laborers relentlessly digging their way along an ancient caravan route north of Kantara at the edge of the Suez Canal, to a wadi south of El-Arish.

The El-Salam, or Peace Canal, envisioned by the late President Anwar Sadat, will carry Nile waters from the Delta port of Damietta under the Suez Canal, to flood Sinai's famed wilderness.

When the canal is finished four years from now, farmers will begin greening 500,000 barren acres. Some will be Bedouins, traditional kings of the desert whose caravan tracks have given way to highways, camels to Toyota pickups, black goat-hair tents to concrete houses.

But in the El-Arish market, the heritage of North Sinai and its Bedouin keepers lives on.

"We hope everything will stay the same, but we fear it won't," said Gamal Mostafa Gazar, 30, who owns a Bedouin handicraft store in downtown El-Arish. "We like the way it is. Quiet. Good people living here. We don't like strangers moving in."

An early casualty of change could be the Thursday market, where traditional handicrafts likely will suffer in the face of outsiders' undiscriminating appetites. Already silver and gold bangles are being replaced by plastic beads, rich embroidery by simple stitches, camel saddlebags by woven, wall-hanging letter holders.

But the marketplace has withstood change before. Change, say the locals, has made it bigger and better.

The Thursday market has been a local tradition for more than 100 years. First it was small, a few women selling handicrafts to buy necessities. Under 15 years of Israeli occupation that ended in 1982, the market expanded to welcome Israeli tourists enamored of the intricate stitches sewn into dresses or pillowcases or purses, hand-woven wool turned into carpet dreams.

In the last five years the Thursday market grew still more, offering commodities to please not only the 35,000 Bedouins living in the area but also new residents and a smattering of tourists.

From plastic buckets to homemade goat cheese, from chickens, donkeys and goats to fresh vegetables, flowers, used clothing and the heart of the market: gold and silver jewelry for Bedouin women, young and old.

It's 8:30 a.m. and already the cry of the marketplace is shrill, deafening. Donkey-drawn wagons lumber into the town laden with Bedouin women, their finery in place, and husbands and children. Sometimes goats and sheep stride alongside.

Hawkers walk the narrow lanes along the ancient El-Arish fortress, calling out their trade. Tomatoes, cucumbers, ripe melons, hot tea by the cup.

Most tradesmen sit and yell at passersby from makeshift stalls. Animals are tied in the midst of the mayhem. Owners and prospects haggle and haggle until smiles cover sun-drenched faces. Deals are dealt with a handshake.

Bedouin women in coin-draped veils chatter and barter for new ornaments.

The market is an encyclopedia of colorfully garbed Sinai Bedouins: the Masaid, Qatia, Suwarka, Ayaida and Terabin.

On this Thursday only four foreigners press their way through the hordes. By comparison, Pharaonic monuments in Cairo or Luxor beckon several thousand visitors daily.

The market's best customers are peacekeeping troops of the United Nations and the U.S.-organized Multinational Force and Observers. With few duties, they have little else for entertainment, few other ways to spend money.

"Burky, burky," yells an aged Bedouin hawker, holding a veil laden with gold and silver coins into the face of a foreign visitor. Swinging alongside are ropes of amber beads, more coins and long silver chains flowing into diamond-shaped pendants,

Suwarka women wear red veils, Qatia yellow, Muzeina black. Girls of the Suwarka and Ayaida tribes wear a bonnet-shaped cap-- shebeika or waqaya --edged with rows of overlapping coins. More are added each year until three full rows show that the young woman is marriageable.

Costume and jewelry tell much about the Bedouin woman. The color of her veil and the way she hangs it reveal the tribe. The richness of her dress embroidery and her jewelry signify social status.

Prices at the market depend on bargaining power. A dress sewn with cross-stitched patterns sells for $45. A waqaya costs a foreigner $13.

Bedouin wares are big business, and dealers from Cairo prowl the market. As tourism became one of Egypt's most lucrative industries in the last decade, strong-armed buyers pillaged the countryside for jewelry, carpets and Bedouin finery to sell at inflated prices in the capital's hotels and private shops.

Despite a shortage of Bedouin masterpieces nowadays, the variety still on show is stunning.

One seller shields her jewelry from a torrid sun by hiding under an umbrella. The richest seller spreads her wares over half a side of one corner of the market, her rows of gold blatant evidence of success.

By 11 a.m. the wagons pull out of downtown El-Arish and head slowly eastward toward Israel, westward toward the Suez Canal.

A long processional of Sinai tradition that will meet again, on another Thursday, in the marketplace of El-Arish.

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