Like Woody Allen’s parents, I share a belief in traditional values – God and Wool Carpets. In my case oriental rugs. Whenever the opportunity arises and I am in a carpet country, I look for a souvenir to bring back. The rooms in our house are dotted with assorted carpets and rugs, the product of trips over the years to places as diverse and exotic as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The attic contains more – those that did not pass muster with my long suffering wife- including two venerable and faded items sold to me as cosmetic pieces used to adorn the sides of a favourite camel.
I picked up the camel sides and two others in Turkmenistan during the era of the late unlamented dictator Niyazov, or Turkmenbashi as he preferred to be known. It was National Carpet Week and the main square in the country’s capital, Ashgabad, was given over to numerous examples of various kinds of carpet together with yurts and other structures to demonstrate that carpets belong on walls as well as floors. The whole scene was dominated by a huge carpet bearing an image of the then President-for-life. Like most tourists I headed for the Sunday bazaar which offered a bewildering choice of carpets to suit every pocket and taste. Here I found the camel sides after lengthy bargaining with two formidable Turkic women.
Pride of place in my sitting room goes to a very fine Turkish carpet, orange in hue. It picks up light magically, giving warmth to its surroundings. I found it, or it found me, in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and it was love at first glimpse. My wife and I were cajoled inside the dealer’s shop and plied with tea while family members showed some of the stock “with no obligation”. My teenage sons were appalled at the spectacle of their father haggling unashamedly with the dealer and eventually arriving at a price that suited both parties, i.e. a massive profit for the dealer and certitude for the buyer that what he had bought was worth the money .
Two prayer mats also rate highly. One is a rich gold, fringed with red which I bought in Baku. The other is an exquisite delicate silk and textile piece which, incredibly I found for 50 old Belgian francs – about IR£1 – in a junk shop in Brussels in the late 90s. Badly stained, the owner felt guilty about even charging me. Two good sessions in the washing machine did not harm the cloth but removed the grime in its entirety. If not as good as new it is certainly something on which visitors remark. Its provenance is not clear; one enthusiastic carpet buff described it as possibly a Bokhara Suzani, which I doubt, but, whatever, it was a bargain!
Haggling is an integral part of the game, particularly with street or bazaar traders and it was in Samarkand that I finally made the grade in that area. I was visiting the Registan, that magnificent collection of buildings, including three venerable and historic madrasahs which marked the centre of ancient Samarkand. A street trader was displaying some rugs outside one of the numerous stalls and shops dotted in and around the Registan and the accompanying Chorsu. I was by then under strict instructions from home on no account to bring back another carpet and had resisted temptation personfully. However one rug in particular caught my eye and the trader sensed it immediately. “$400” he announced; “special price.” I laughed, offered $100 and consigned the rug to memory as my companion and I walked on.
There was plenty to see, from a fascinating carpet weaving shop, where rugs were being woven slowly to order, through some fine and pricy antique shops to stalls selling brightly coloured Uzbek cushions and fabrics. We must have spent an hour in the complex, and, at every twist and turn, the trader was there with a fresh offer on the rug. I told him several times I simply was not interested, and did not care if it had taken six or nine months of a family’s time to weave it by hand. The price reached $200, then $150 and then lower. Finally, our tour ended and the bus beckoned. As we prepared to board, the voice from behind said “All right. $110.” It was too much; his persistence deserved a reward. I turned to my companion; we laughed. “Done”.
My friend, who was Dutch, congratulated me on my bargaining skills, though he did point out that perhaps my opening bid was too high. Was the carpet worth it? Well, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about owning carpets, as with many other collectibles not easily convertible into cash, the value is in the heart of the owner. In any event, I like it and, more importantly, so does my wife!