Conversing with a carpet connoisseur
We live in a world of sameness. We read the same menus in the same restaurants, drink the same coffee in the same cafes, eat the same food from the same supermarkets. We buy the same clothes from the same shops, the same furniture from the same stores, the same electrical goods from the same retailers. We drive the same cars, visit the same places and do the same things.
Although all this sameness can sometimes feel a bit tedious, the alternative, it must be said, is highly impractical. For example, a business plan that proposed designing and making something from scratch, with the aim of selling just one for purposes of individuality, would be somewhat flawed in that the venture wouldn’t generate a great deal of money. Indeed, the business would quite likely make a considerable loss. And if every business did that, you might as well say goodbye to capitalism and prepare for the social apocalypse that would follow.
No, sameness is the lesser of the two evils, for that much we can be sure. The flip side of this situation is that many of us find uniqueness, in those rare instances it presents itself, utterly bewitching, not to mention highly desirable. Everybody wants something that nobody else has.
If you happen to find yourself shopping in Istanbul, the cultural heart of Turkey, that something will most likely take the form of a carpet or kilim, those exotic items for which the country is so famous.
I must confess, before my visit to Istanbul, I had never before heard the word ‘kilim’. I was, however, lucky enough to spend some time with an enlightening lady called Engin Demirkol in her textile shop, Hazal Kilim, which she runs with her husband and their daughter.
“Carpets and kilims are like women and men – just some small technical differences,” Engin said, smiling patiently as I scribbled in my notebook. “Carpets are piled, kilims are flat-woven.”
I feigned recognition at the differentiation, only later discovering that it means this: carpets, with their stitched on tufts, can only be used on one side, whereas kilims do not have additional tufts, meaning they can be used on both sides as they will look and feel the same whichever way up they are placed.
Clearly, I was not up to speed on the subject of Turkish rugs. Or any rugs for that matter. But what I very quickly picked up on was Engin’s burning passion for her trade. This is more than just a business for her and her family: it is their life. Indeed, the shop itself, a restored Ottoman mansion, doubles as their home. She spoke of her wares with a kind of parental pride, using emotive language and assigning them human characteristics. When I asked which was better, a carpet or a kilim, her face turned sad, and she said:
“Kilims used to be completely out of fashion. They were seen as inferior to carpets, the poor men of carpets – even among Turks. I find this heart breaking. They are different, yes, but both are precious, both are as durable as each other, both are works of art. But luckily attitudes are changing – the younger generation are coming round. I decided I might like a kilim. But more out of a mixture of pity and a desire to be trendy than because I felt pressured by Engin to buy one. There was no hard sell going on here: she was simply relishing the opportunity to show and talk about her hobby.
So, what of those people who come to Istanbul intent on returning with some sort of floor covering, but who haven’t done their research, or been tipped off to reputable places like Hazal Kilim, as I had? Many will find themselves wandering around Sultanahmet and the Grand Bazaar, the most visited areas of the city and where it seems every other shop is a carpet store. In these places, touts lurk on every corner, and should you allow yourself to be talked into a shop by one, you can expect to pay a hefty commission on any purchase you make. But even if you enter a shop of your own accord, it is still an absolute minefield. Unfortunately, carpet dealers in Turkey aren’t generally seen as the most trustworthy folk, and while some are as honest as the day is long, others won’t hesitate to mislead you – and then fleece you.
The obvious question then, of course, is how do you know if the carpet or kilim you are looking at is of decent quality, that it is as old as the dealer says it is, and that it is worth the asking price?
Engin shook her head and smiled. “There is no way for a non-expert to know whether a rug is old or new.”
It should be noted that, generally, the older the rug, the higher the value. Assuming it is in good condition, the reasons for this are threefold. Firstly, because it is in good condition despite its age, it is clearly very well made and robust. Secondly, it is much more likely natural dyes have been used to colour it, rather than artificial ones, which will fade much quicker. Thirdly, the older it is, the less likely there will be any others like it.
“If you are a lover,” she continued, “you will just know. There are so many misconceptions – I just wish there was a way of warning people.”
About what in particular?
“So many things. For example, many people think that orange and pink are the dangerous colours, that they are proof of artificial dye, that these are the colours to avoid. This is simply not true! Also, you must never, ever burn the fibre to see if it is synthetic. And size means nothing – bigger does not mean more expensive.”
We moved on to the patterns on the rugs, something I had always just taken as a given, like the patterns you see on a car seat, or the ones on high street clothes. I turned to a large kilim hanging on the wall behind me, clearly a showcase piece, which I noted with some satisfaction was mainly pinky-orange in colour. Small symbols were dotted randomly all over it.
“All of these symbols are from protection against Nazar – the devil. And this one in the middle symbolises water, the purity of life.”
How could she possibly know that? I was impressed.
“This is an Anatolian piece. We specialise in Anatolian pieces coming in from the countryside, made by country folk. Think of these patterns like tartan. Each tribal village has its own style, its own colour combinations. All use the same symbols – like using the same alphabet – but they will make different words. I think of it like learning a language – I am always looking for something I haven’t seen before. And the more I learn, the more exciting it is when I find something new.”
I began wondering where Engin’s customers come from. I was slightly concerned that no one had entered the shop in the hour or so we had been in there. It’s located in the quiet, riverside neighbourhood of Ortakoy, far away from the tourist-thronged areas of Sultanahmet and the Grand Bazaar. I didn’t ask for fear of offending, but later found out her visitors tend to be a mix of locals, expats and foreigners who had heard of the store by word of mouth.
Engin and her family have clearly built up a strong reputation during their 25 years in business, but it’s a shame that a few dubious characters threaten the credibility of everyone in Turkey’s carpet trade, which is something not lost on Engin.
Just before I left, she said: “Carpet dealers have a bad name. But we are not all the same. We are not all bad guys. We are trying. We are really trying.”
many of us find uniqueness utterly bewitching, not to mention highly desirable
"One of the great things about travel is that you find out how many good, kind people there are " - Edith Wharton