Not Looking for a Carpet? Perhaps I Could Help
This is a tale of intrigue - of subtle, cat-like stalking, of a mind confused and whirling, of a thousand carpets in a thousand enchanting colors, and of the halogen lighting that sets them off so beautifully.
It is, in short, the tale of a carpet I never intended to buy.
Few visitors to this ancient city emerge without at least superficial contact with the world of carpet and kilim purveyors.
It's not that the carpet shops along Istanbul's old streets are so enticing, but that so many agreeable Turks one meets seem to have uncles who own these shops, just around the corner, and why don't we stop in for a cup of coffee?
A colleague who had arrived in Istanbul the day before me had been befriended by one such fellow.
"I met some terrific Turkish people," she enthused. "We have a dinner invitation."
"Great," I said, thinking: Local color. (As a reporter, making such informal contacts is often useful.)
"Don't worry," she added, "I told them we're not interested in buying any carpets."
It was the prospect of dining on a rooftop overlooking the Blue Mosque that persuaded me to risk it.
We arrived in the rosy twilight, were fulsomely embraced by the proprietors, and whisked up four flights of stairs to the terrace.
Carpets kept coming back
The view was lovely. As the sun sank, we ate lamb kebabs and watched a light show turn the minarets of the Blue Mosque green and then yellow.
The conversation with our hosts, Nufel and Zia, ranged widely and entertainingly, but, somehow, kept coming back around to carpets.
We joked about the Kalashnikovs (Soviet rifles) woven into some Afghani prayer rugs, chuckled at the gullibility of tourists, and shook our heads grimly at the guerrilla war in southeast Turkey, where many of the finest carpets are made.
It grew chilly.
"Let's have tea downstairs, where it's warmer," Nufel suggested.
As we descended the narrow steps, two junior cousins flitted past, and suddenly the room was bathed in golden light. We settled on a banquette surrounded by mounds of carpets, as tea in little bulb-shaped glasses appeared on a silver tray.
No one spoke.
Silently, mercilessly, the beauty of the carpets begin to work on us.
At last I spoke, as much from politeness as curiosity: "Since we're here, you might as well tell us about some of these carpets."
Nufel flicked an eyelid, as imperceptibly as an Onassis at an auction, and the junior cousins sprang into action.
Out whirled half a dozen magnificent silk Hereke carpets, lapped one over another on the wooden floor, alternately shimmering and glowing in the rich light.
We exclaimed with delight, and laughingly asked the cost of such beautiful things.
"The finest ones, if they are old, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars," Nufel replied.
I felt bathed in reassurance. If they were that expensive, there was no danger, certainly no possibility, that I could be tempted to buy one.
"But the price of this," he went on, holding up a length of exquisite teal and gray, "is $4,000."
We laughed again, less comfortably.
The cousins were still busy, rolling out silk carpets and flipping them over so that we could see the pattern perfectly replicated on the back. This is the simplest way to distinguish hand-made carpets from those churned out by machine.
An unexpected craving
An hour passed. We had more tea, then some melon. My friend's face fell serious.
Actually, she confessed, she needed a carpet for her hallway. Nufel tipped his head slightly and the silk carpets disappeared, to be replaced by cascading red and blue and yellow woolen runners.
Each would have looked wonderful in the average house, and we studied them closely. But somehow, coming after the intricately worked silk, they seemed dull and workmanlike.
It was then I realized how skillful our hosts had been. By dazzling us first with fine silk carpets, they had instilled an unexpected craving which we began to feel compelled to satisfy.
Of course wool looked pedestrian in comparison, and we, like countless patrons before us, quickly lost interest in looking at it.
"Let's just see that teal carpet again," said my friend, "the silk one."
The atmosphere in the room had changed. The jaunty camaraderie was still there, but I was more keenly aware of Nufel's sales prowess.
In many countries, the hard sell is harsh and unpleasant; in Turkey, the approach is so friendly that it short-circuits hostility.
Turkish salesmen use the classic con man's technique: Create a sense of fraternity, which binds the customer by the ties of his own politeness. How can you walk out on someone who has just fed and flattered you?
As the clock ticked past 11 p.m., I realized that I, too, had been dazzled by the exquisite silks, and actually began, absurdly, to feel disloyal for not considering a purchase.
I found myself confiding to my close personal friends, the carpet-sellers, that my husband would just love a silk carpet as a birthday present.
Out spun more finely knotted Herekes, which can take a year to make. I knelt on them, rolled them out, and rubbed them against my cheek, especially a pale blue one.
The $4,000 had shrunk to $2,500, a figure that still horrified me. Out came a dogeared black ledger. See the label on the carpet? Well, here in the ledger, we could read that its wholesale price was $2,000.
"All I'm asking, bottom line, is wholesale plus 10 percent," said Nufel, shrewdly appealing to our sense of fairness, and swiftly disappearing up the stairs to leave us alone.
It all happened so fast
We looked at one another, pinioned between the desire to finish this ordeal by buying, and the suppressed awareness that it was all happening too quickly, and that experts would counsel - as they do - never to buy the first carpets you see.
Would you believe, another hour passed? It did.
The junior cousins were draped on bales of carpets. Nufel jingled his worry beads. The blue silk carpet beckoned.
What was the price again, $2,200?
Suddenly, I felt cold. This was absurd. Here I was, well past my bedtime, dickering over a carpet I could scarcely afford, wasn't sure my husband would like, which would "go" with nothing else in our apartment.
"I'm sorry," I said finally, "I just can't decide. I'll have to come back tomorrow."
The despair in my voice had an immediate effect.
"Okay," said Nufel, "$2,000."
I bought it, and oh yes, my husband loved it!