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Turkish Rug Dealers

There’s a significant subculture in Istanbul. Actually, it appears to a visitor sometimes like it’s a superculture, dominating everything else: the rug dealer. Rugs have been weaved in Turkey for centuries and some are undoubtedly of excellent quality. Some are undoubtedly not. My vast carpet expertise has taught me that I usually can’t tell the difference. Carpets were originally used for warmth in the home, as dowries for new brides, and even as donations to the mosque. Today, they form an industry that’s a floating tourist trap of major proportions. When I was in the navy stationed on an aircraft carrier, I once momentarily walked into the jet blast from an idling airplane and became instantly disoriented, not knowing exactly what happened, where I was, or how to get out. Being collared by a Turkish rug dealer is a similar experience.

Our first day in Istanbul was a Friday. Lynn went to work and I went out to wander around town. Just up the street from our hotel was the Arasta Bazaar (another, and a third), a relatively small bazaar, so in my first moments as a tourist, that’s where I went. You know what fish do when you throw food in the bowl? They swarm around, each trying to get his share of the goodies. The rug dudes were the fish; I was the food. They were all over me but there were so many that I didn’t see them as individuals, just a herd, so I kept going. Eventually I was almost alone when one man came out of a store and without so much as a word of greeting, began to teach me how the rugs were made, how to tell quality, and letting me know that I was under no obligation to buy (that was very nice to know) so why don’t I just walk into his shop and see his goods. Several months ago when our son Bruce was visiting, he and I went to Brussels to an area where there are restaurants of every stripe. Each one had someone in front with a figurative cane that was extended around the neck of the passerby to "entice" him to enter. Bruce is a good guy and at first he tried to politely tell each one that we weren’t interested. After a while he said he was having difficulty being polite and just started to ignore these folks which he found difficult to do. For the same reasons, I walked into this shop and before I knew it, 15 rugs had been unrolled on the floor and I was supposed to choose which among them I wanted even though, I assume, I was still under no obligation to buy. I was able to extricate myself by explaining that in our home, I had veto rights over a purchase but not enough taste to unilaterally choose furnishings. He may or may not have really accepted that but I was near the door when I said it so it became an exit line as I moved stage left.

Soon I was standing near Hagia Sophia when a very friendly man greeted me and began pointing out all the destinations in the immediate area. He very deliberately let me know that he wasn’t a guide. I didn’t immediately understand why he would make that distinction but I subsequently learned that guides charge 10 YTL per person for a tour. This friendly fellow was happy to give me all this information for free and all I had to do was accompany him to his rug shop. I gave him the same song and dance I gave the other guy and went on my way. After about an hour of checking out the Cistern and Hagia Sophia, I headed toward the Topkapi Palace and I encountered this same fellow again. I really liked this guy and we started to talk about a lot of other things. He invited me to this outdoor café on the grounds of the Palace where I had a Turkish coffee. He then told me of the legend that sharing a cup of Turkish coffee means 40 years of friendship. This was a legend I was to hear about several times from several rug dealers in the next few days. We had our coffee, talked about our respective families, heritages, the effects on Turkey of World War II and also the current Iraqi debacle. We spent about an hour or so together. When it was time to go, he again suggested I visit his shop, no obligation. After spending all that time together, I thought I owed him that. When we got there, there was a team of about four including Raphael, my new best friend. Shortly there were maybe 30 rugs on the floor. Once again I did the same "I don’t make unilateral purchases" story. He said that maybe I could get a rug as a gift to one of my kids and showed me a beautiful silk carpet. I asked how much. This was possibly a big mistake as it showed interest. He got out his trusty calculator, did his YTL to Euro conversion and this little rug, maybe 4x6, was only €14,000. You can imagine how heartily I laughed. He told me I was supposed to negotiate. I told him negotiating would get me down to maybe €10,000. For me to take this rug home, I’d have to steal it and neither of us wanted that. Shortly after, I again pleaded the "unilateral decision" defense and then departed.

After that it became easier. Dealers would frequently start with, "Where are you from?" "Bangla Desh." Politeness was becoming an increasingly valueless commodity. One guy was honest. "Good morning, how can I separate you from your money?" That earned him a smile and a big applause as I walked away. Another asked me to come in because business wasn’t so good. Not enough tourists. I commiserated but explained that it wasn’t my problem. Another wanted to know what he could do for me. I said I was a little tired of people trying to get my money so maybe he could send a little money my way. He pulled a 1 YTL coin from his pocket and handed it to me. I said thanks, took it, and kept going. That was the second best experience with these rug vendors.

On Saturday, Lynn and I were together again walking in the same area because she hadn’t yet seen some of the things I had seen alone. I heard my name being called from behind. That would not be too strange in Philadelphia or even in Delft, but I know nobody in Istanbul. Nobody, except my new best friend Raphael. The unilateral decision defense was no longer operative and back we went to his shop. Some of the stuff was actually pretty nice and he showed Lynn the €14,000 rug from the day before. Still no sale on that one. We eventually found something we liked, he offered a price, we countered, he declined, and that ended the process. I gave Raphael my e-mail address when we left, but, damn, he still hasn’t written.

The best experience, though, was when we were going to the Blue Mosque. We went by it several times but we always seemed to be there at a prayer time. This time was one of those. A man approached, said he wasn’t a guide, no obligation of course, and pointed out that the Mosque was currently closed for prayer. We asked when it would open and he asked a security guard who answered him in Turkish. He told us he could get us in if we followed him. We were leery of this but he seemed to be walking in the right direction. He continued to give us lots of free information. When we got to the corner, he suggested that while we waited for the Mosque to open, we could visit his rug shop. We abruptly stopped, thanked him for his time, and said we weren’t interested. He said, "That’s cheating!" Hah! I cheated a cheater. I don’t often get that experience.

As we returned to the hotel on the last evening, a man, presumably not a guide and just someone being friendly, approached us and started pointing out all the sights. "We know, we know. We’ve been here for several days." "Then I guess you know that I want to sell you a rug." "You betcha, pal, and I’ll bet YOU know that I’m not buying." "Okay", he said, "well, have a nice day." We surely did.


© 2008 Rick Wexler   last updated February 21, 2008