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"How to Buy a Turkish Rug" By Laura Billings

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Posted 22 December 2003 - 08:55

"How to Buy a Turkish Rug" By Laura Billings

How to Buy a Turkish Rug

True shopping is a bonding experience

NOT LONG AGO, A FRIEND CALLED TO INVITE ME ON A CHEAP, off-season tour of Turkey. She promised that I would see the ruins of Ephesus and the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia, that I would wake each morning to the sound of the Muslim call to prayer and go to bed each night with a belly fiiH of aubergine. Yeah, whatever, I said, just as long as I get to buy a rug. The truth was that ever since I bought my first car and was introduced to the delirious back-and-forth of negotiating, I had dreamed of going toe-to-toe with the guys who invented the dealer showroom. Since flying carpets were our first automatic [email protected] if you've read The Arabian Nights or seen Aladdin you know this is true rug merchants were actually the world's first automobile salesmen.
And they're outstanding salesmen, living as they do in the busy confluence between Europe and Asia, a ripe spot for studying hu- manity and perfecting the first salesman credo: Tell the customers what they want to hear. On my first day in Istanbul, I nearly fell prey to a green-eyed charmer who accosted me in the Kapah Carsi, the famous covered bazaar that holds more than 4,000 shops. (Take that, Mall of America!) "You are a great beauty," he said so wolfishly that it was clear the antiseptic threat of harassment charges hadn't drifted into this pungent corner of the world. "You must be Italian," he added for extra measure. Actually, I'm a poster girl for the corn-fed Midwestern look, and was so pleased to be deemed Continental that I was opening my wallet when my Turkish tour guide dragged me away.
After another half-hour in Istanbul, I discovered that merchants' flattery flew almost as quickly as the prices they quoted, but it was the numbers I had to pay attention to. At the time I visited, each US. dollar was worth about 35,500 hre, a complicated ratio, but one that gave me the heady thrill of announcing, "A million? No prob!" I spent the week learning, but it wasn't until I passed the souvenir stands outside the ruins of Ephesus that I felt I had hard- ened myself to the Turkish marketing come-on. There, a young man bearing an armful of dolls and a striking resemblance to Johnny Depp deliberately bumped into me. "Excuse me, madame," he said, his voice as warm and rich as ripe olives in sunshine, "You dropped something."
I looked to the ground and then to him. "What did I drop?" He paused for a moment, searching my face soulfully. "It was my heart," he oozed, but I kept walking. I was finally ready to buy a rug.
So we went to Oba, a veritable rug ranch of low-slung build- ings and grassy courtyards,just down the road from the House of the Virgin Mary. A hawk-browed Turkish man in a double- breasted suit greeted us and gave a lesson about rug craftsmanship designed to dispel any notions we may have had that a good rug could be purchased on the cheap. He showed us baskets of tobacco leaves, onion skins, and indigo used for dying fibers. He showed us the silkworms boiled alive for our textural pleasure-a sacrifice that Doublebreasted assured us the worms were only too glad to make. Same went for the young girls in the weaving room whose hands shuttled and knotted wool with the fluttering speed of hununingbirds. Doublebreasted promised that the girls got full health coverage, nutritious meals, and a good wage, and that they didn't complain when the small-motor demands of rug weaving forced them to leave the work by their late teens. "It is a privilege and an honor to make something so beautiful," he said, but I couldn't stop the piteous look that swept across my face as I watched a young girl squatting and squinting before an intricate Persian pattern. An equally sympathetic look crossed her face as she saw us herded into the carpet showroom, lambs to the slaughter.
We were led through a series of rooms where vibrant rugs and kilims were layered like sheets, rolled into columns, and tacked to the walls each room duplicating and expanding upon the previ- ous room's treasures. At the end of the procession was a ballroom- sized showroom where we were offered Turkish apple tea, soda, beer, and wine (American car dealers should reconsider the pop- corn and Coke routine, I thought). While we were served by a long-lashed girl in harem pants, her counterpart-a sulky John Malkovich look-alike in Western clothes-quietly shut the heavy wood door that was our only escape route.
Like a Turkish caravansary floor show in which a shm-hipped belly dancer preps the crowd for the heftier model and finally for the cartilaginous creature who shakes her extra-wide-load hips to tambourines and thunderous applause, the rug show started slowly. Malkovich and Harempants lifted each rug by the ends, walked to the center of the room, and let gravity unfurl it, the bright colors of Anatolia, Kars, and Kayseri washing over us. As the pacing built, the rugs started to cover the shining wooden floor, then over- lapped one another. Soon we had left our perches on the wooden bench that lined the wall and begun crawling around on the rugs, examining their fine weaves and lustrous textures. The climactic crescendo arrived with the unfurling of a massive silk Persian of geranium reds and robin's-egg blues. Though we were already breathless, Doublebreasted clapped his hands and Malkovich and Harempants, moving like choreographed game-show models, picked up either end of the carpet and turned it by 180 degrees, shifting the rug's palette to crimson and cobalt. Amazing! we cried. Astonishing! we clapped.
At that, a cluster of salesmen who had been gathering in the room suddenly converged on us and pulled us to separate corners. Three men whisked me into another room. Their leader was a raven-haired fellow with cheap shoes and a wistfiil expression. His name, Ogiin, means "That Day" in Turkish, a fact that was the source of huge laughs for his two squat henchmen who clearly un- derstood my English, but spoke only in Turkish with Ogiin. I started to say that I was in the market for a five-by-seven kilim with a lot of red in it, but Ogiin shot me a pained look that sug- gested such a request was as d6class6 as demanding that an Old Master painting match my sofa. Instead, he ordered the henchmen to unroll a series of rugs at my feet. When I shook my head at the choices, the henchmen tossed their arms up in disgust, but Ogiin had a more courtly approach. With each selection I dismissed, he nodded appreciatively and moved closer to me, as if irresistibly drawn to my aesthetic.
Soon he began dismissing rugs for me "Can't you see she won't like that? She wants real beauty," he would scold the hench- men. He asked if my husband would like my choice of rug, and I said I didn't have a husband. He shouted in Turkish to the hench- men, who eyed me up and down, and again tossed their hands up in disgust. "They think this is a tragedy," Ogiin said, and then sighed toward his cheap shoes," and so do L" At this point he asked if I had a credit card with me. I said yes. The haggling began.
The rug I selected, or that OgUn had selected for me, was a jewel-toned affair of blacks, pomegranate reds, jade greens, and deep blues. Ogdn explained that normally he would start the bid- ding around $1,000, but since this was the end of the season, and since I had no husband, he would start at $500. 1 shook my head at the price, and though my blood was racing, I couldn't coax out a counteroffer. Ogiin strode away from my side with his hands thrust deep into his pockets, his shoulders hunched. He nodded his head and Henchman No. 1 scurried to the other room. Ogiin smiled, puffed out one side- of his cheek, and slowly blew out a low whistle of air. A few minutes later, the henchman returned and whispered in Ogiin's ear. Ogiin told me that Doublebreasted had insisted that I leave with a rug [email protected] did $260 sound? Well, it sounded pretty good to me, now that my lust for bargaining had flagged. Ogiin wasn't a shrewd creep, I thought, he was a fellow connoisseur. just then, my friend walked in and saw me handing off my credit card.
"What are you doing?" she demanded, and I explained the sit- uation. "No way," she said to Ogiin. "Two of 'em for $260!"
Quickly, my friend's bad-cop display made me realize I had al- lowed myself to be swept along too easily. Ogim looked to me. "Two for $260?" he asked, and I nodded. He held his hand to his heart. He walked to the corner of the room and sighed. "We are friends, Laura?" he said, coaxing a small tear to the corner of his eye. "Why do you hurt me like this?" Finally, I understood the the- atrics required here.
"Ogiin " I said, so forcefully I convinced myself I was truly af- fronted. "i don't think you're being honest with me..." and I

snatched back my Visa card. At that there was a very pregnant pause in which Oon and the henchmen bored their Turkish eyes at me. They huddled and Henchman No. 2 threw his hands up in the air and pointed at me. Henchman No. 1 made a spitting noise. Ogdn looked over his shoulder. "So you want two rugs?"
"If the price is right," I said. Henchman No. 2 sniffed and ges- tured again. Ogiin came back to my side and put his arm around me, hand to his collarbone in a gesture of sincerity.
"My friend, you know that I must make a living?" I clenched my fist around my plastic. He let out a heavy sigh. "My friend, you may have two for $400. No lower please."
"Three hundred," I said. "Three sixty," he said.
"Three hundred," I said. "Three twenty-five '" he said.
"Sold," I said, and at that there were cheers from the henchmen and from the small crowd from my tour bus that had gathered for the final negotiation. As I handed off my Visa, Ogiin took my hand and wrapped it under and over his forearm as though we had been wedded by this exchange of currency. He lovingly folded and packed my rugs in brown paper and then in a nylon case he promised would fit nicely'under my plane seat. It did. Now I come across my twQ rugs, one in my living room, the other in my bedroom, and I feel a wave of pleasure at my pur- chases. But the souvenir that pleases me most is a photograph I have of Ogiin and me. We are standing in the courtyard of the rug ranch-I have my hands clasped and my head tossed back in laughter; he gazes at the camera with the smallest trace of a smile. We both look so satisfied-like we each ripped off the otherjust a little bit.

Laura Billings is a columnistfor the St. Paul (Minnestota) Pioneer Press.

"How to Buy a Turkish Rug" By Laura Billings

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