On the Border: Peshawar Bead Bazaar, continued

[back to Part 1] The bazaar was an area where 3- and 4-story buildings had gradually grown together through a crazy quilt of canopies that turned narrow alleys into dark mazes.  

We were disappointed. All we saw was shop after shop of shiny new jewelry, all gemstones and gold. The rows of tiny shops gave way to even narrower gangways. In a honeycomb of workshops the size of walk-in closets, men squatted at their anvils fabricating perfectly dull gold chains.

An old man in a turban beckoned to us. We ignored him. He beckoned again. We were suspicious. What did he want? The whole bazaar was dark and creepy enough, with the kohl-eyed men and the women in shadowy floor-length burqas. And yet there are those moments in life when you have to stop worrying and follow a beckoning stranger.

Pakistan Peshawar Afghani bazaarWe slipped behind him into the passage. A sign said Afghan Jewelry — it was a miniscule shop festooned with beaded necklaces — lapis lazuli, carnelian, and ancient faience. "Beej," the old man said. Next to that shop was another, and another, and another. We found ourselves in a decrepit little shopping mall. Men and boys lounged on carpets and pillows, drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and inviting us to browse. "Old," they would say. "Old."

I was dazzled.

Two observations: seeing scores of old beads strung in nearly identical necklaces makes them loose their charm. What would look unique seen solo in a Soho boutique suddenly looked ordinary. What I might have paid $200 for in Manhattan didn't seem worth the $25 these Afghanis were charging.

On the other hand, I also realized how superficial my knowledge was. I was seduced by environment and price tag, but had no feel for value.

Well, almost no feel.

I was drawn to strands of etched carnelians. The price went up to $250. I walked away. But I couldn't forget the bit of magic I felt and the niggling sense they might be special. We returned the next day. We bargained over hot tea, the sweat dripping, the dealer insisting.

When I got home I found them instantly -- a full page in Dubin's History of Beads. They were very ancient products of the Indus Valley, found also in Iran (in that proto-city Ur) and Afghanistan. Perhaps they'd been etched in A.D. 600. Perhaps they were a thousand years older. Why didn't I buy more? Why did I waste so much money on cheap baubles?

Bordertowns are chaotic places. You better know what you're looking for. You better know value without your reference library in your pocket. The border between knowledge and ignorance is a risky place indeed.

Mad In Pursuit, posted 12.18.02

[Headlong: Over the Edge in Pakistan and China]

mad in pursuit home / beads /amber

Etched Carnelian Beads