Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Carpet sellers, cosmetics, and the circle of life (minus Simba)

We’ve been to Deira quite a few times before.

But confidently assuming we’d find it easily this time may have been our first mistake. Leaving the map behind? Possibly our second. While it’s not always helpful (or accurate) at least it’s in English, which is more than the motorway and street signs.

Getting lost can be interesting, however. We discovered a whole backwater of colourful streets, including one that was full of toys. There were shop fronts decorated with balloons beside dusty alleyways, where the only modern thing was a random assortment of air conditioning outlets. The line of cars in front ground to a Saudi crawl. Interesting and "tempting" merchandise walked right in front of us. 

Just what any small Saudi lad would love for his birthday? Forget the Lego and the Playmobile.

Another street was full of perfume and cosmetics. Street signage was of the ‘nearly correct English’ variety. Adding “the” and a final “s” could have made all the difference to the ‘Beauty of Sense’ shop selling ‘perfume, cosmetics and sunderies’. 

Finally we spotted the familiar fortress-like exterior of Al Musmak at the end of a road. We had reached Deira – just a short walk from our shopping destination.

Inside the carpet-seller greeted me like an old friend, standing so close I could see the individual hairs of his bushy eyebrows. He grasped my hand firmly and made attempt after attempt to guess my home country. America? UK? Ireland? Australia? It took the usual prompting to produce New Zealand. 

The carpet seller's traditional white robe and trousers were accessorised with grey scuffed sneakers. His heels squashed down the back of the shoe - ready to be slipped off for prayer, perhaps.

This morning we’d set out with two important things in mind.

1. We wanted a kelim-type carpet.
2. We had A Budget.

So when I pointed to a carpet on the wall and was told it was 35,000 riyals, I knew I had to lower my horizons.  

“Something less expensive?” I asked. The floor was soon littered with kelims and I was suddenly in a Bedouin tent somewhere in the middle of the Empty Quarter desert.

“These are special carpets,” the carpet-seller told us.  “All unique pieces. I give you special price because you are my very special customer.”

(The word ‘special’ seemed to crop up a lot. Pretty much every carpet we looked at was ‘special’, although as yet we hadn’t got to a price that was ‘special’ enough for our budget.)

At  15,000 riyals we were getting closer. We'd narrowed the selection down to two. Now it was time to drop the bombshell of how much we were prepared to spend. (That "b" word again...) Then the real haggling started: he at 15 and me at 6. Of course, both of us knew that (realistically) we would end up somewhere in the middle.

At 9,800 (from him) and 9,000 (from me), we reached a stalemate.  Clasping my palm between both his hands, he moved close - almost too close - just an arm-width apart. He said slowly, sotto voce, “I give you my very best price. Not for any other customer, just you. Special price.” 

He waited. The air con hummed in the background. This man was master of the art of the dramatic pause.

Then, even softer, “for you…9,300 riyals.”

He dropped my hand and I glanced sideways at my husband. His eyes said yes. So, eventually, did our credit card.

The carpet was wrapped up. As our receipt was hand-written, I looked around the shop, wondering. So many carpets, so many stories.

Later at home I googled some of the words he had written down on the receipt: 
Tribal Afshar.
Qashgai Persian. 
North Anatolia. 
I’d hoped to get some idea of our kelim’s value, but it seemed impossible.

With our new purchase on the floor of our home, I concluded that it was enough to just enjoy it for what it was, as well as the unique experience of buying it. For a minute I was taken back to Iran and India where I’d lived as a teenager. I could see my mother in the local souks bargaining for goods: brass, silk, jewellery...

It’s a funny thing, the full circle of life.