An under-the-rug look at selling Oriental carpets

Ossama Lahham spends hours rhythmically tossing carpets in a neat stack.

His carpet shop is a mere stall in the souk (market) called Hamidiyeh. There is just enough room for two or three visitors to perch on a carpeted wooden bench at the end of two parallel stacks of folded rugs lining the walls from top to bottom. His ''front door'' is an enormous draped carpet.

He is amazingly quiet for a ''salesman.'' But this is deceptive. In a soft voice and in pidgin English, he kneels on the carpet to point out either its finer points or reparations.

Instead of a sales spiel, he painstakingly watches his clients' reactions to each piece displayed. It is rarely more than 30 minutes before he has zeroed in on the price range, design, and color range that will part a customer from his money. More often than not, it is that last carpet he had set aside at the very start that sends the buyer head over heels.

Among those who have fallen prey to the lure of his wares are a good many Western diplomats, journalists, and the few businessmen who travel to Syria. Lahham's attraction for many Westerners, either unskilled or inept in the ways of Oriental bargaining, is that he sets one price and sticks to it. He can afford this because his onetime price is still below that of his colleagues in this tumultuous souk.

Lahham, a Syrian of Iranian origin, agrees with his fellow merchants in both Syria and Lebanon that getting carpets out of Iran since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the Islamic revolutionary regime were installed is virtually impossible. He buys primarily from private households in Damascus.

Many Syrians have been selling in the last nine months, anticipating the need for cash in the face of possible internal unrest and fear of losing their valuables should Syria go to war with Israel. Just after the war in Lebanon, many dealers admitted they had stockpiled carpets but the war had scared off potential foreign buyers - both dealers and tourists.

Dealers in both Syria and Lebanon worry about the dearth of old carpets coming out of Iran. None like to be quoted on how those carpets that do get out do so. They fear the Iranian embassies in their respective countries will cause trouble for them.

''Certain people . . . smugglers . . . put a number of carpets on a ship which takes them to Dubai. The Iranians have caught a few of these ships. The smugglers stop for a while when that happens and then start up again,'' one merchant says.

Very occasionally individuals making religious pilgrimages outside Iran or nomads who wander across the border smuggle out one or two carpets, according to several carpet sellers. Buying new Iranian carpets legally increases the cost by about 50 percent because Iran demands payment in hard foreign currency. It makes them almost too expensive to sell except in wealthy countries such as Saudi Arabia and some parts of Europe, says Beshir Maktabi, one of seven brothers born into the trade in Beirut.

As a result, old Iranian pieces are about 100 percent more expensive than before the Islamic revolution. People have turned more to Pakistani and Turkish carpets as substitutes, Mr. Maktabi says.

Certain Iranian rugs such as Nain, Isfahan, and Tabriz have doubled in value, says Krikor Nalbandian, another one of the few still in business in Beirut after the 1975-76 civil war. He adds Bulgarian and Indian rugs to the list of those selling better because of the situation in Iran.

''Egyptians are making imitations of Iranian designs and workmanship, but the wool is not as fine,'' Mr. Nalbandian says. ''If you are not a specialist in this business, you can't judge if it is Iranian or Egyptian.''

Beirut, too, had its souks teeming with rug traders. The souks burned during the civil war and there has never been enough stability since then to encourage the trade to rebuild. Now there are only four respected families still in business, Maktabi and Nalbandian agree.

''The choice in Lebanon is still better. Syria is good but the quality is lower,'' Nalbandian says from his tiny repair workshop in west Beirut. He long ago stopped keeping valuable pieces in the shop because he wasn't willing to hire gunmen to protect him. He shows his goods by appointment only.

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