crash course in carpet shopping
Walking by the Blue Mosque, a couple crossed our path. The man turned to us and asked where we were from and whether we spoke English. This kind of interaction happens a dozen times every day on the streets of Istanbul, the inquirer almost always being a seemingly well-meaning local intent on selling something. It would have been an unremarkable moment if both of us had not instantly recognized the man and his female companion.
When we visited Istanbul three years ago, the same happy couple befriended S’s mom. She thought they were just being nice and thoughtful. They accompanied her while we walked around the Blue Mosque and related colorful vignettes about its history, which may or may not have been true. No sooner had we finished our tour than we found ourselves sipping apple tea and looking at rugs. It just so happened that the friendly couple owned a rug shop, and it was their pleasure to help us learn about carpets on the off-chance that we had a few thousand dollars in spare change we were looking to spend.
Selling rugs to gullible tourists is somewhat of an art form. It takes patience, dedication, and a lot of showmanship. For example, our host repeatedly flicked a lighter near the carpets’ corners, telling us how real silk does not burn. (Of course silk does burn — almost everything does — but it burns slower than synthetic fibers and will extinguish itself if held away from the flame.) After spending a polite amount of time looking at his carpets, we finally extricated ourselves. Though we left his store without acquiring any expensive rugs, the experience proved memorable enough that a passing glance on a crowded street several years later was enough for us to instantly recognize him.
Although we ducked the unwelcome advances of this solicitous street salesman, rugs were actually very much on our mind. S had been talking about buying a rug for our living room, and D agreed to dedicate a day to rug shopping. Naturally, the internet contains a veritable trove of information about how to become a discerning rug buyer — how to tell the good dyes from the bad, the natural fibers from the synthetic, the original designs from cheap Chinese imitations. It’s more than anyone can possibly hope to digest in one sitting, so we hedged our bets by soliciting some local knowledge.
A friend’s mother has spent the better part of the last two decades teaching in Istanbul and she agreed to go rug shopping with us. We met her outside the Grand Bazaar and followed as she made her way through the warren of shops inside. Despite having bought several dozen rugs and kilims from the same vendor over the years, she still made a few wrong turns before finding his store. Munchkin fell asleep just as we entered the Grand Bazaar so D wandered around with the stroller while S looked at rugs inside the tiny shop.
The shop owner, by the name of Mehmed, had a store room in the basement of a nearby hotel and we went there next. Mehmed showed us practically his entire stock, but that was actually less than helpful — it was too much, a blur of woven threads and vibrant colors. S did pick out a couple of contenders, but nothing that instantly spoke to us. We also visited several shops recommended by Embassy friends who had spent time in Istanbul.
In the end we decided not to pull the trigger. Given the hefty price tags on Turkish and Persian carpets, we knew we had to be in love with a rug before we could commit to negotiating for its sale. We had no way to judge the extent to which the prices quoted to us in the various shops were being inflated, but it was clear that the one rug that really caught S’s eye was definitely out of our price range. We trusted Mehmed more than the other dealers, but he did not have our carpet. Though we came away empty-handed, our day of rug shopping in Istanbul was time well spent.