This will come as somewhat of a shock to many people, I suspect, but I shall say it anyway: to the carpet merchants of the Middle East, tourists can be a trial.
I say this knowing quite well that to some visitors to the Middle East it is rather like saying that for sharks, swimmers are a nuisance. Travelers who have had only casual experience with the teeming suqs—bazaars—of Middle East cities undoubtedly will have vivid memories of clamoring merchants, indifferent merchandise, and most unrealistic prices. To such a tourist the very suggestion that he might be a bother to them would be hilarious if it were not absurd.
(I should insert here, I think, that this is not what the editors had in mind when they asked me to write an article. What they wanted was a sort of thumbnail guide to buying carpets and this isn't going to be like that at all. I decided, you see, that these decidedly personal—and obviously exaggerated—observations would really be of much more value than a few lines on patterns and knots which would, probably, be forgotten long before readers ever get to the Middle East and which would in any case be discarded immediately upon confrontation with one's first genuine Oriental rug. These comments, of course, may be discarded too, but in hopes that a few faint echoes may linger and be of comfort, if not of help, I offer them anyway.)
I will start by saying that buying carpets, like selling them, is an art. It is an art, true, in which the instincts of a pirate are as important as those of a poet, but an art nonetheless, that is not easily mastered. To practice it properly requires extraordinary patience—especially at the beginning. A skillful buyer begins with a casual stroll through the bazaar, a very casual stroll. It is a stroll totally without purpose, entirely for pleasure. During it, he exchanges greetings with one and all, pauses frequently, wanders aimlessly. Suddenly, with surprise, he notices that he has chanced upon the shop of Ahmad, the carpet vendor. Ahmad, of course, greets him effusively and serves coffee or tea, and they launch into lengthy and presumably pointless discourses on any subject of interest, except that of carpets. Eventually, however, during this discussion the buyer blandly inserts an ever so casual and most disinterested inquiry as to whether, by some strange chance, Ahmad happens to have just received any new carpets that might be worth a quick inspection. Or, if he is particularly adept at the game, he might even wait until Ahmad, as a matter of general interest, mentions that a carpet of almost priceless value has just fallen into his hands. It is a deft, light exchange, but it is also the beginning of what is in effect an ancient ritual with prescribed, if unwritten, rules, in which, like in courtship, both parties desire the same thing yet begin with expressions of mutual disinterest.
Once it is established that there does indeed happen to be in the shop a carpet which is priceless to the vendor and of at least casual interest to the seller, there begins a discussion of the rug's merits. It is a long discussion touching, naturally, on the carpet's beauty and pedigree, but also on such factors as the intricacy and regularity of the pattern, the depth of the pile, the number of knots per linear inch, and perhaps the number of threads between the rows of knots—this being of great importance since it determines the strength of the carpet. Lastly, there comes the matter of price.
The price, of course, is the point of the game, and so naturally this stage of negotiations must be conducted very skillfully, for it is understood that once an offer is made and accepted, it is final and binding. Not even a handshake is necessary. At that point the game ends. Thus it is vital that the cycle of offers and rejections, counteroffers and rejections be timed just right, and that offers be neither too low or too high, but just enough to keep the negotiations going until the moment when both buyer and seller know, instinctively, that the game is finished, that this is the best that either is going to do, and that the time to close the transaction is at hand.
That is the way one buys a carpet. It is a ritual established a very long time ago and smoothed and polished by years, perhaps centuries, of practice. To the vendor, who has probably spent most of his life perfecting his skill at it, the ritual is as important as the profit and, be he Arab, Turk or Iranian, he would, I'm certain, prefer to sacrifice profit rather than change it.
Is it really surprising, then, that brusque, bustling tourists dashing into shops for quick looks and quicker purchases are a trial to carpet vendors? Consider a scene I witnessed many times in Istanbul as I sat in a shop with merchant friends sipping coffee and discussing, probably for the tenth time, the good and bad points of a certain rug. It would always begin with the blast of a steamer whistle—the announcement that a cruise ship was coming in. Almost immediately, the merchants, suddenly tense, would withdraw from the conversation, and would nervously begin to check their carpets or prowl nervously in front of their shops. Soon after the tourists would appear—men in bright shirts, women in brief shorts (a breach of etiquette in most Eastern circles), or, at best, tight skirts and sleeveless blouses. And always, of course, in sunglasses. They would come from Birmingham, Düsseldorf and Milwaukee. They would have nothing in common, yet they would act exactly alike—which is to say, naively, and without judgment. And my vendor friend would be ready. He'd leap to his feet and pull down rugs from the shelves. He'd heap them on the floor and pour forth a torrent of words in any of the four or five languages he knew, and the spiel would always be the same—that this rug—of decidedly inferior quality I would note—is a prize that Monsieur, Mister or Meinherr should not pass by. "It is not only fit to grace a Sultan's palace, but indeed may have once done just that and yet—please note this, Madam—has retained such a freshness of color that it might have been dyed just last month..."
And so it would go on until, most often, the visitor succumbs and pulls out his wallet.
On seeing such scenes I began to wonder how the man from Birmingham, Düsseldorf or Milwaukee could possibly be taken in by such a blatant approach. Why is it that a man who at home would be a cautious, hard-headed buyer, becomes in the Middle East, a feverish bargain hunter? At home he would not, I hope, go forth to a major furniture store to buy anything of comparable value without first of all being decently dressed and seeing that his wife was too. Nor would he really expect to complete a transaction involving hundreds of pounds, marks or dollars without making comparisons or seeking advice. He would take his time, visit several stores and compare prices. Whether success even then would be insured is questionable, but at least he would have a chance. Here in the carpet bazaar he has none, yet he proceeds in this unwise fashion. Why?
In some cases it is because he desires to decorate his home with an item that is recognized around the world as a thing of beauty. But the strongest motive, I think, is that a tourist believes that he has a better chance of getting a "genuine" carpet in the country of its origin and also of getting it cheaper.
It is true that the chances of getting a genuine carpet in the country of its origin are better; machine-made carpets are rarely stocked in a carpet bazaar of the Middle East. But as to getting it cheaper, it is most unlikely. In the first place a tourist is in a strange country negotiating in a strange currency for a product about which, as a rule, he knows little and the merchant knows all. In the second place, time, as I've tried to suggest, is of the utmost importance in buying carpets, and that is precisely what the tourist doesn't have. Under such circumstances is it any wonder that his demands are a source of annoyance to a truly dedicated vendor?
I must add that the vendors are not always on the side of the angels. They are not really waiting eagerly to bestow their friendship, their knowledge and their carpets upon visitors, even visitors who have respect for their traditions and reverence for their wares. I, for example, made regular visits to the carpet bazaar two or three times a week for most of a year before the merchants began to bring out their really excellent carpets, the Kazaks and Shirvans from Caucasus, Yuruks and Koulaks from Turkey, and Baluchis, Kashans and Bakhtiaris from Iran. These were all kept carefully out of sight because I was not, for a whole year, considered sufficiently knowledgeable to appreciate them.
In fact what I've said adds up to this: tourists rarely have much of a chance to find bargains in the bazaar and if you wish to enjoy your holiday in the Middle East I suggest that you simply make up your mind that although you can get your money's worth if you're careful, and can make excellent purchases if you take your time, there are few bargains to be had. In carpets, anyway.
The late Dr. Kurt Erdmann was director of the Islamic Department, West Berlin State Museums, and an authority on carpets and ceramics.