Saturday, 29 June 2013


Today is a rainy day or another rainy day, we have had quite a few so far this Spring and Summer.
So not being able to go outside given the steady and heavy downpour I decided to look into our storage room and open the 6 large packages containing all my Oriental rugs which I bought many years ago in Damascus and Tehran. They were all packed when we left Rome and not yet opened.

Damascus has always been a good second hand and old carpet market. The best carpet shops are or should I say were, in the old Souk (Market Place) near the Omayyad Mosque and the old ruined Roman temple. I wonder what has happened to this market place and the people I use to know there. The Civil War in Syria has certainly turned everything on its head and we are now looking at a very bleak future for Syrians.

Tehran and Iran also has a rich carpet culture, many designs from various regions and tribal areas, each with its signature style in colours and patterns, beautifully hand woven in wool with natural dyes.

The origin of the carpet market in Damascus goes back to a time many centuries ago when travellers would bring with them carpets to sell so they could finance their trip to Mecca in the Hejaz. Carpets could easily be sold, sometimes for lots of money if the carpet was a rare design or of a particular high quality weave and so it went to this day, prior to the Civil War.

Travellers came from as far away as Central Asia and by way of caravan would go all the way to the Hejaz, covering several thousand kilometers in the process. Today the trip is done by truck, the whole family piles in and travels for weeks. I remember each year when pilgrimage time came for Muslims, you would meet families on the side of the road selling their carpets. Many would stop in Damascus where they would meet the merchants who had a keen eye for the best quality. Carpets would be bought after lenghty bargaining, it is all a bit like poker, who has the best cards. You could be sure that the merchants did not pay a lot of money for the carpets, the trick is to know not to pay too much because you know that in the shop your customers may be just as difficult in what they think is the correct price.

This is where you can tell a Westerner from an Asian, how many times Westerner show their hand too quickly by asking right out, how much is it. Big mistake, you just lost the game and will probably pay far too much. Another rule was that if you asked how much, you were committing yourself to buying the carpet and once that done you could not back out, unless you saw another rug which was, by agreement of all parties present, of better quality.

Another source of amusement was when Western tourists would walk into a store, husband and wife with kids, wife did all the talking and bargaining, husband looks bored and does not participate or worse find an excuse to step out, leaving is wife to be the man in the family. Merchants know how to reel in that sort of tourist. Later you would here the wife explain how she got a real good bargain by only paying thousands of dollars for a rug worth maybe a few hundreds at most.

When in a carpet market observing and respecting cultural differences is very important. Don't play the affirmative action scenario, won't work and you will be the one loosing.

Merchants of course in a place like Damascus which saw a lot of tourist knew all the angles and how to play Western tourists. After all one has to remember it is exactly like a game of cards and the rules are the rules. I quickly learned from my Arab friends what to say and how to play the game.

If the merchant asked me what I would like to see, I would explain that I was looking for something specific without saying what exactly. What dimensions do you want, a big rug, a small prayer rug, maybe a silk rug.  I never bought a silk carpet simply because I do not like them. They are meant to be hung on walls as far as I am concerned.

In a carpet shop there is no need to explain where you are from or what room you will put your carpet in or for that matter that your cousin Betty Sue has one just like that and how cheap it was. Too much information and you are giving away the game.

The merchant would then start showing me some rugs, one, two, three or more, all the time observing my reaction. Silence is best during this period, showing too much interest and you are again giving away your intentions, showing your hand as it were. Always remember that this is going to take time, maybe the whole afternoon, no one cares about time. You will be offered tea with lots of mint and sugar, too hide the fact that it is not of very good quality. Food may also be offered, don't worry no one will ask you to pay for it.

It is also best to sit while the merchant is showing you rugs, he usually has one or two helpers who do all the manual work while he speaks with you. He will off course ask you how much you would like to pay, it is best to say that it all depends on the carpet and then maybe we can agree on a mutually fair price, NEVER give an amount, you will ruin the game.

After looking at 20 or more rugs all piled up on the ground, you may say to the merchant that one rug did catch your eye, Oh! he will say surprised. Where is it, I just saw it, at this point the merchant will have his helpers sort out the carpets quickly.
So that we can find the one you wanted. At this point I would say that in fact I was looking for maybe 2 or 3 carpets not just one. So I raised the stakes, making this game even more interesting. Funny how merchants love for Westerners to play the game with them, it is more interesting for them than the usual Arab customer.

It is also important to be somewhat aloof and formal, always polite and pay compliments on the quality of the carpets being shown, this will score points with the merchant. Being overly friendly and laughing loudly, talking to much, is not going to work, you are there for a negotiation. So many Westerners have absolutely no patience for this and cannot be bothered, preferring to pay too much instead of playing the game. It is also pointless to ask if the carpets are made by child labour and give the usual speech about child labour. You will only get the usual prepared response to Western concerns.

I would then narrow down which carpets I wanted and slowly start talking price, but first I would do what all serious carpet buyer does, take off my shoes and walk barefoot on the carpet, kneel on it to feel the weave and ask that it be turned so I could examine the weave underneath by running my fingers on it and asking about the number of treads. If you do this without being prompted by the merchant, this will show that you are serious. I heard some Westerner say, oh no need to do that, I trust that it is good quality, obviously not understanding that no one buys a carpet on the word of the seller.

Carpets are bought by men in the Middle East, like meat or sea food at the grocery store. It is just one of those traditions, its a man job. Again it flies in the face of what we believe in the West but you are dealing with ancient cultures and norms change slowly and some do not change at all.

When we finally came to talking price, I would not say how much I was willing to pay, instead making a point that I wanted quality but had limited means and beg the merchant to understand my position again complimenting him on the quality of his shop, quickly adding that I would be paying in cash on the spot if we could agree, God Willing!

The merchant would then announce a price, I would of course say I was surprised and protest that I simply could not afford it. After all I wanted to buy maybe 3 carpets and how could I if I gave all my money on one carpet. Please give me a better price. The merchant now clearly has the ball on his side and he has to know what to say to close the deal. He too will protest that he has children to feed etc...
It is all a big game, keep smiling and pile on the compliments while saying at the same time, what should I do and look a little worried.

Ask again for a better price, never give an amount out because this will be the defacto price and the bargaining will be over. Finally, I would simply say that I will buy this and that carpet but we must reach a good price. The merchant sensing that the sale is imminent will state what he will call his last price, but remember this is not the absolute last price, it is just a last price. Finally you can now announce how much you are willing to pay, remember again to give an amount 15% lower than what you are actually willing to pay being careful that the amount you name does not insult the merchant. If he said 100 you can say 75, for sure he will then lower his price to 90 you can raise to 80 making sure that he understand that you have little room left. Take your time at this point, stay very calm and cool.

Finally you will probably agree to 85 as the absolute last price, at that point you cannot back out of the sale, to do so would show you have no honour and the merchant would loose face, something that must not happen ever. It did happen once to me, I accompanied friends to a shop and at the last moment the wife of said friend decided to walk out of the deal, I was mortified, this may work in Canada but does not work at all anywhere else. She simply did not understand how insulting her behaviour was.

You can be sure that if you concluded a sale in one store, you will always be welcome to return and next time probably treated like family, but that does not mean the prices will be much better, just a little better.

I really enjoyed my time buying carpets and have very fond souvenirs of those days. Something you simply cannot replicate here in North America.


  1. Do I get paid anything for this ?

    1. What? you want to buy a carpet? We have carpets for you.