One of the fringe benefits of being a Middle East correspondent is that my travels in the region have allowed me to start a decent little collection of oriental rugs. This may sound like a travel fantasy from the age of empire, but rugs are among the most practical pieces of furniture for the modern nomad looking to create a portable home. Originally designed to fit on pack animals, modest-sized rugs easily fold into airplane carry-on luggage; their irregular, hand-made patterns brighten up cookie-cutter hotel rooms; and as exotic gifts, they appease far-flung friends piqued by your absence from their wedding or the baptism of their child.
My collection began with a small prayer rug purchased from a souk in the old city of Damascus, to celebrate the safe completion of a stint working in Iraq. The Syrian capital has always been a particularly good place to shop for rugs, ever since Silk Road travelers from the great weaving cultures of Central Asia passed through this final arc of the fertile crescent on their way to the Holy lands. Those days are long gone, but Iranian pilgrims visiting Shi’ite Muslim shrines in Syria still sometimes bring in rugs as a way to circumvent Tehran’s restrictions on taking hard currency out of the Islamic Republic. s
Even in Syria, however, rug buying can be intimidating for the beginner. Innumerable variations of region, style and quality make establishing the value of any particular rug daunting. And then there’s the relentless bazaar bargaining that can turn any transaction a microcosmic “clash of cultures” between in which straight-forward, naïve Westerners imagine themselves being conned by wily, opaque “Orientals”.
These are simply clichés, of course; Arab traders drive a hard bargain for the same reason everyone else does: money. And anyone who thinks that Western capitalism is inherently transparent should try making sense of the subprime mortgage derivatives mess. Still, there are some lessons worth knowing on how to buy rugs.
First lesson: The seller is going to win, because he invented the game. Friends in the industry tell me that they way to start collecting rugs is to do your homework, by examining catalogs and prices at big auction houses and dealers, then approach smaller shops and look at a lot of rugs. In other words, develop your own expertise. But who has the time? With a job and a social life, no matter how hard I’ve worked at trying to distinguish between an Iranian Kurdish sumac and an Azeri kilim, there’s little chance that I’m going to outfox a merchant with years of experience and generations of rug traders in his blood. One way or another, I’m going to have to pay the pink-face tax. So play your own game: If the rug works for you, it’s a good rug.
Conversely, even if you got a great price on a rug that doesn’t fit in your apartment, you’re still a sucker. Early on, I decided that I much prefer simple, single-knot tribal rugs that have a homespun quality to them, as opposed to the grand, Persian, double-knot silk carpets that go well in a living room full of ivory elephant tusks. This may mean my tastes aren’t very elevated, but it has saved me a lot of money.
Another rule of thumb: Life is unfair, and everything comes a lot easier when you don’t really need it. I did my best-ever bit of bargaining killing time on a layover in Istanbul, last January. A rug trader lured me into his shop and showed me a beautiful Anatolian kilim. “I’m on my way to Iraq, I don’t want to buy a rug,” I kept telling the guy, as the price kept plummeting.
To avoid the embarrassment of an expensive purchase on the one hand, or from paying too much for a rug you wanted too badly, think about the big picture. And the big picture is grim.
The wars and upheavals of the 20th century have largely destroyed the nomadic herding cultures that created these wonderful rugs. And although the Antiques Roadshow hasn’t shown up in Damascus yet, the heavy hand of globalization has almost finished scouring the souks of Syria for all that is old and good, and shipped it off for sale in antiseptic showrooms in London, New York, and Dubai. The rugs offered to you in the souks of the Middle East are almost certainly the best you will ever see, artifacts from a time when humans made things of meaning and value. Why not salvage them? On the other hand, Hizballah has re-armed, Israel could attack Lebanon again at any time, Iran is probably building nuclear weapons, the surge in Iraq is a mirage, and America is falling apart. Is now the right time to spend $1,000 on a wool mat?