How to Buy a Turkish Carpet

My friend Lisa has said, in reference to Turkey, “You know what happens when you go into a store to look at spices…you leave with a carpet.” Well, that’s what happened to her a year ago, when she and her friend ended up buying carpets they did not realize they were in the market for. How many visitors to Turkey have done just that? When I came on a tour of Biblical archaeological sites in Turkey just over a year ago, the only non-historical, non-food-related stop we made was at a carpet shop, where we were fed a lovely meal, given a demonstration of silk-harvesting and carpet-weaving, and then entertained with a massive rippling rug-unfurling performance while we sipped sweet apple and pomegranate tea. Carpets are the big-ticket item in Turkey, and I’m pretty sure every tour has to end with a carpet show, capped off by passengers filing back onto the bus with shocked looks on their faces, giggling with each other about the carpet they now own, showing pictures of their new treasure that has been tightly wrapped into a bag or is being shipped back to the States for them. They reveal in low voices the price that they paid and reason out loud to their listener and themselves why it was a good purchase. I scoff at such vulnerability to the merchant’s wiles, to checking credit limits or making money transfers to facilitate this unintended purchase. I shake my head at those who fall prey to the reciprocity technique, feeling they need to somehow compensate the accommodating seller who has just pulled out fifty rugs and described each one. I had not come on the tour to buy a carpet, and no one was going to catch me in their net. I have gone this whole year, smiling at people’s stories of carpet-buying, smiling at merchants who attempt to turn my attention from candle-holders or bags to carpets, smiling at myself for my resolve. Until yesterday.

It was a hot day, and when I say hot, I mean 104 degrees of hotness with the sun splattering off the hot stone walkways and the hot block buildings. Lisa and I had been exploring the ruins of St. John’s Basilica, where the remains of John the Disciple are likely interred, and the Selçuk Castle, because what better thing to do than wander among bright white stone on a bare hilltop with masks on in such heat. If you think I’m mentioning this as a means of rationalizing my behavior, you would be correct. We had had our third drink stop of the morning and were now dizzily wandering around the shops in town. I had been looking for a simple shoulder bag at the bazaar in Izmir and now saw some hanging outside a shop. “Lisa, let me just take a look at these bags,” I said. This immediately set off a highly predictable chain of events: The storekeeper at the doorway of the neighboring store scampers over. “Hello! Come in! You are welcome! Take a look is free! Where are you from?” I say, “I’ll just come in for a minute. We’re from Izmir.” Look of amusement, which fades to surprise when I try out some Turkish on him. He switches to Turkish and I catch a bit until he realizes he’s totally lost me and switches to English. He builds rapport with me: “I have cousin in U.S. Very nice. He likes there. I like American, really. I know many American travel here, come to my shop, but this year, nobody…” We look at the bags hanging from hooks on the ceiling and walls. The shop is dark, and he runs to turn on some lights so I can now better see the lovely, dusty items in this tourist-starved shop. None of the bags catch my attention. “Come next door! I have many. Store next door also mine. Come, take a look, please.” I follow him out one doorway and into the one from which he had spied me, a room full of carpets and Turkish fabric. He squeezes himself into a pathway between piles and begins to pull out bags. I learn that he is Kurdish, from Eastern Turkey. Like most Kurds I have met, he loves America for helping them in The Persian Gulf War — and this, despite our compliance last fall with Turkey’s aggression toward them. They are a mistreated minority in this country, so he already has my support. As I examine some of the bags, here comes the predictable turn to the carpets. A misguided endeavor, I typically muse. But that’s where the script veers off course this time.

I have wondered from time to time if I might regret not buying the hallmark souvenir during my year here, but have not been willing to spend a lot of money for one. Skilled seller that he is, he reads me and begins to show me tablecloth-type pieces of fabric for those people who want something Turkish to put on the floor, but are happy with something much cheaper and easier to transport. Even before I start to show interest, they are being unfurled and laid on the floor, and now as I display a grain of interest, he takes that grain as a seed and begins to water it. As the pile of rugs grows, I take off my shoes and walk on them, feel them, sit on them. We exchange names at this point, and he orders us some tea from the local tea service. Soon a young man comes in with tea cups on his swinging brass tray, and Lisa, Vedo, and I sit on the rug pile, sip, and talk.

Transactions in the Middle East, large transactions that are more traditional in style, take time. In the U.S., salespeople — most notably car dealers — certainly have their techniques of building rapport, establishing trust, etc., but multiply that and add in claims of special treatment, sharing of life stories, and rounds of drinks, and you start to get the right flavor. Vedo uses my name practically every time he speaks to me, which I could do without, but his sense of humor is winsome. He is the youngest of 10, and when his mother comes to visit from Eastern Turkey, she fills half the bus with the food and items she brings. “Sugar! Bread! Chicken! Not special, just like sugar sugar. I can get here, anywhere, but she wants to be from her. I say, ‘Mom! Please! No chicken!’ I mean — chicken! But no, she need to bring chicken. I meet her at the bus, I say sorry to everybody on the bus. They have this look, you know” — he makes an exasperated face — “and driver say, ‘You tell me, please, when your mother come again. I leave my job.’ You know, she cannot take whole chicken, they tell her, chicken must be cut. So the bus stop, she go to butcher, he cut the chicken. She don’t speak Turkish, she speak Kurdish…she make them crazy. Chicken!”

Deftly, he is giving me time to sit on the somewhat scratchy tablecloth rug, look around the room, consider the lasting benefit of getting something nicer. Here I am in Turkey, and why not spend some of my money on this? I delve into higher-level inquiries, asking him: what is the cost for that rug hanging there on the wall? Ah! I have to hear about the rug, how it is made, what value it has, how it is the only one of its kind; I nod my way through a significantly long prelude before hearing the cost of $1000 (U.S.). He then moves on to the other types of “real” carpets hanging on the wall, rolled up on the floor, laying some out on the growing pile in the center. I have told him a few times not to convert to U.S. dollars for me, because I pay in lira, I am paid in lira, I live in lira. Gradually I realize that the prices on the back of the rugs are set in the more stable U.S. currency, and he has to look up today’s exchange rate to calculate the price in lira for each carpet I ask about. I don’t ask very often, though, as each answer must go through a twirling dance before presenting itself. I ask about having a carpet sent to the States, but he is hesitant, saying he would need to charge more. He assures me that he can fold it up to fit into a small bag to carry on the plane, but he clearly has no concept of the challenge I am facing in getting items back to the States. I almost laugh out loud at the thought of being so unencumbered that I could just take something additional now as my one carry-on. I make it clear that one of us will have to ship it, and I would rather it be him.

Now in a more advanced stage of deliberation, he initiates another round of drinks. This time, he scurries out to pick up a bottle of sweet iced tea, and gives me time to confer with Lisa. When he comes back, I am feeling quite comfortable going with the smaller, creamy-golden carpet we are currently sitting on. But we sit, and drink, and chat. He tells us about a woman from Canada who was looking for a flying carpet, who believed they may be real. His brother, who was tending their store, showed her one that he said was a flying carpet, but she wanted to be shown its power. “So he tell her, ‘Sure! You can see!’ She is amaze, can he really show her a fly carpet? He say, ‘Sit here, sit on the carpet. You must close your eyes or the fly carpet will not fly.’ Then he and me and my cousins, we all pick up a corner and walk around like a circle. Then we put down. My brother say, ‘You feel that?’ She say, ‘Yes! It move! I will get this carpet!'” Vedo shakes his head and laughs. Lisa wonders out loud if the woman is now sitting on it at home in Canada with her eyes shut, waiting for it to work. “But it only work in Turkey,” Vedo says.

During this time, I have been pondering my payment. This unintended carpet purchase may require a transfer of funds onto my virtual credit card. There is a bit of back-and-forth about how I can pay, and ultimately we arrive at a solution. It has been about two hours since we came to the store. Vedo wonders if we would like to get something to eat; he has been so bored, he says, and is happy to talk to us. We do want to eat, but truthfully need to extricate ourselves. He says he has been getting about one customer coming to his shop each day since opening back up, and the rest of the day he sits and waits. This day was Kurban, a holiday in Turkey where families sacrifice a lamb or cow and eat together. Vedo says his sister sacrificed a cow that morning, and what a mess! She told him to stay, spend the day at her house, but he said, “No; maybe I will have a customer today!” She said, “Who is going to come on Kurban?” But he wanted to try, so he sat and waited for hours, and was just thinking about whether he should have listened to his sister when suddenly we walked by, and I stopped to look at the bags. I tell him that since he has had this great purchase, and has had his one customer, now he can close shop and go to his sister’s. “No!” he says with a sparkle in his eye. “Maybe today, I have TWO!”

We say our goodbyes, and our hopes to see each other again. I giggle to Lisa that I just bought a Turkish carpet. We admire the picture I took of it, and she affirms my claim that it was a good purchase. It should go very well with my things. And you know, it was good to spend the money to give Vedo some business, right? Besides, he’s shipping it to the U.S. for me. And so it goes –one more Turkish carpet suddenly finding itself to be a flying carpet, soaring to a new land.

Atatürk: The Man, The Legend, The Tote Bags

I wrote last November, on a day commemorating Atatürk’s death, of the tremendous regard in which he is held here in Turkey. Personally, I have never seen such reverence for someone within a whole society — seemingly sincere and of free will — one hundred years after he departed this earth, no less! I must admit that before coming to Turkey, I really knew nothing about him except a vague familiarity with the name.

So, here’s the deal: the Turks credit him with the fact that the country of Turkey exists, and that it is a modern society. You see, in the First World War, Turkey chose the Wrong Team, the Central Powers. They had to fend off the Allied Powers on pretty much every side, and their greatest success was in holding off British, Australian, and New Zealand forces for eight months on a peninsula near Istanbul until the wounded forces finally retreated. The Turkish commander in that great victory was a guy named Mustafa Kemal. Of course, they were still on the losing team, and in 1920 their sentence was handed down by the Treaty of Sèvres: they were to be cut up and handed in pieces to various Allied Power countries, with a little sliver left for them. Well, I’m not sure if the Allied Powers understood the Turks. Military organization and force is central to their identity, and that idea just didn’t fly. Mustafa Kemal rounded up troops from around the country, and they fought off forces until they made their point. In 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne let them keep their country.

Kemal was once again the hero, credited with saving the country. He continued to ride his wave of power and popularity: he got rid of the sultanate government and became the first president of a secular republic. He wasn’t one to allow opposition, and managed to push through an amazing number of reforms in business, dress, language, you name it. He was big on Turkey being purely Turkish, and there was a bizarre trading of populations between Greece and Turkey: all the Greek people in Turkey and all the Turkish people in Greece more or less swapped places. He also took the title “Father of the Turks,” or in Turkish, “Atatürk.”

Now, you might be thinking, “That sounds like how we think of George Washington: the Father of Our Country! First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen, and all that!” But tell me, do you have a framed picture of George on your desk at work? Is he hanging from your rearview mirror? Do you drink out of a mug with his signature on it? Atatürk’s signature and about a half-dozen profile pictures adorn most anything you can think of. I began to muse on this about a month ago, and decided to issue myself a challenge. I recruited my friend Lisa to assist me, and we went to our nearby shopping area of Forum Bornova to see if we could find one hundred different items sporting his name or signature. We went into four different shops: a bookstore, a clothing store, a kitchenware store, and our supermarket, and took pictures of all the items we could find: a total of 95 different items. From just four stores. Notebooks were the winner, with enough to keep you selecting new ones your whole life. Glasses were next. There were also mugs, tote bags, coasters, T-shirts, plates, books, bookmarks, bottle openers, magnets, calendars, stickers, albums, vases…but alas, we had not reached 100 by the time the shops closed for the evening. However, we, like Atatürk, would not be defeated. We took out our collection of bills and coins — because not just one bill or coin, but ALL of them, feature Atatürk — and took pictures of them to surpass our goal.

It’s enough to make George Washington feel a bit slighted.

Rules and Conditions: Items must display image and/or signature of Atatürk. Items must be physically present at Forum Bornova mall. Items in a packaged collection may be counted separately, provided they are neither identical nor physically joined. Purchase not necessary.