Carpet Baggers in Turkey
THE OLD ECONOMY: THE ART OF THE TURKISH BAZAAR
by Hanson R. Hosein, NBC News

September 7, 2000

I can finally breathe a little easier.  Those silk rugs I paid a fortune for in Istanbul?  They're real.  I've just completed all the tests that the experts recommend.  I plucked out a thread from the underside of each carpet and burned them - they glowed but did not flame, the odor was more organic than acrid, the silk turned to crumbly ash.  I rubbed a white cloth against the dark-colored dyes and the blues and greens did not rub off.

It didn't have to be this way.  I'm usually the most prudent of consumers, someone who does an intense amount of research before opening his wallet for such a large purchase.  And yet, I'm only doing my homework now, days after returning from my trip to Turkey.  What happened?  And why does it have to be so difficult to acquire these beautiful handicrafts?

The answer is simple: two Turkish carpet salesmen bewitched me.  These creatures make North American used car salesmen look like stuttering amateurs peddling their rust buckets.  These agents of desire are wily, charming, and keen students of human nature.  Their perseverance will make you pine away for the beauty of the fixed price back home but the adventure of hard bargaining will leave you wanting to do it more often.  So please, listen to my tale from the Turkish bazaar, which, happily in the end, is more compelling than cautionary.

My travel companion Heather and I were already lost in the small streets of Sultanahmet, the touristy side of Istanbul.  And we had only been in this magical city a mere few hours.  A fatherly-looking white-haired gentlemen in spectacles asked us gently if we needed directions.  We had received this offer twice already since our arrival.  I knew that he was a carpet salesman, trying to engage us in conversation.  The invitation -- to come inside his store, to look at his carpets, to sip some apple tea -- would soon follow.

But there was something different about Zeki.  He wasn't pushy.  He told us where the restaurant that we were looking for was located - embarrassingly, it was immediately adjacent to his shop.  When we came out after a wonderful two-hour meal, Zeki was still standing outside.  I told him maybe we would return in a few days.  He smiled and told us if we did, he would look forward to chatting with us, even if we didn't want to buy a carpet.

We both liked Zeki.  The next day, we even discussed returning to the store, just to get an education in carpets and have a discussion about Istanbul with a "local."  We decided to do exactly that.

It was getting late when we tried to enter the majestic courtyard of the 17th century Blue Mosque.  The security guards told us it was closed.  But a young man who looked like he was going to pray saw us, and told us to follow him, he would get us in.  He led us right to the front door, and as we were thanking him for his help, he suggested that after we had visited, we could come back to his shop and take a look at a few of his carpets.  We were trapped.  Oddly enough, I decided to take the plunge.  I would look at his shop, and after that, go to Zeki's with a better sense of what the prices were like.

"It must be fate," Heather said to me as we approached his store.  It was the red facade of Onur Carpets - the same shop where we had met Zeki.  And he was inside.  I decided we had fallen prey to either an incredible coincidence or tightly focused direct marketing.  I shrugged my shoulders and decide to face my destiny.

We sat on a comfortable bench.  Heather's apple tea tasted like warm cider, I opted for a small cup of dark Turkish coffee.  Zeki's colleague Nufel joined us.  We were being double-teamed, and yet our initial conversation had nothing to do with carpets.  Kindly Zeki went for Heather, macho Nufel took me on.  We talked about ourselves, Nufel told me he had spent a lot of time in the States and in fact had a store near Seattle.  So that was comforting.  I told him that I had covered the earthquake last year in Turkey, in Golcuk, near the epicenter.  He quietly remarked that Zeki was also in Golcuk that day - his son had been killed in the disaster.

Half an hour later, we began to talk carpets.  They brought out about twenty of them, throwing them down onto the ground before our feet.  Zeki explained how to bend the rug back to you could see the knots (if there were no knots, it was machine-made).  Nufel called me brother and patted my knee a lot.  I was mildly enchanted.  They showed us the crudely-made ones with pure wool, the more refined rugs with better dyes and glossier wool from the area of the sheep's throat.  And then, they brought out the Herekes.

The Hereke silk rug is the Rolls Royce of oriental carpets.  Hand-woven in a town outside of Istanbul, they take at least six months to complete.  The finest Herekes are heirlooms and appreciate in value over time.  They are priced by the number of knots (up to a million per square meter) and design, and run well over a thousand dollars.  When Zeki pulled out one that was about the length of my arm, I was instantly entranced by the incredible detail.  A run-of-the-mill silk rug had six hundred knots per square inch.  This one, had over twelve hundred.

I had told our newfound friends earlier that I was not going to buy anything today, and they had accepted that.  I said that we would return in a couple of days.  My later Internet research revealed that promising to return means death for a carpet salesmen: the customers never return.

But we did, and Zeki and Nufel were not surprised.  They showed us the carpets again, I added another Hereke to the mix for my parents.  Once I had narrowed down the selections, I knew I was ready.  Proper etiquette required that you didn't start to talk about the prices unless you were serious about buying.  I was serious.

"Let's begin the dance," I said.

They looked at the price tags of the two that I had in mind.  Of course, the prices were outrageous.  They instantly halved it, "special" for us.  Because of our warm rapport, I almost believed them.

I had spent about twenty minutes the day before at an Internet cafe on a painfully slow computer researching carpet buying, so I did know that whatever their first offer, I should come back with half of that, and expect to pay about 70 percent.  I figured that because we were on such good terms, that I would tell them of my approach - perhaps honesty would reap its rewards through a better price.  They nodded knowingly.  They had been through this before.  That didn't mean they were going to go quietly however.

Nufel went upstairs and brought back a red binder with their "wholesale" prices.  He showed me how they were slightly higher than what he was offering me.

"I'm only prepared to pay so much money," I said.

He lowered his offer by twenty percent.  Zeki looked surprise and said that it was a steal to get two such beautiful specimens of Hereke craftsmanship for such a price.  But it was still too much for me.

I increased my offer, they lowered theirs, but the two did not meet.  I added another two hundred dollars to mine, they came within a hundred dollars.  At this point, I stuck to my guns.  Suddenly, they were rolling the rugs and Nufel was asking for my credit card.  We had a sale.  The final price was a quarter of their list price, and yes, about 70% of their first offer.  They kissed us both on the cheek, and it was over.  Zeki once again assured me that I had gotten quite a bargain, and that if I came back in a few years, I would not see rugs of such quality (carpet-making is slowly diminishing in Turkey).

The night before my big Old Economy purchase, we had dinner with Timur Altop, a friendly Turkish-American New Economy entrepreneur.  He told me how his CEO had come to Turkey to address the problem they were having in finding news sales personnel.  Timur said that one tour of the carpet shops and the CEO was convinced: no one could be more qualified for the position than a carpet salesman.

This special breed of humanity challenged and intrigued me.  My interaction with Nufel and Zeki was one of the most memorable of my trip to Istanbul.  That didn't stop me from having the odd anxiety attack upon my return home: Had I been suckered? Were the rugs authentic?  Had I been too hasty?  I concluded that they were the real thing, but ultimately it didn't matter. I possessed two beautiful carpets and I had experienced the pleasure of surviving the Turkish rug salesman.