Rug Shopping

I have been wanting to buy a rug ever since we moved here…heck, ever since we knew we were going to move here…heck, ever since I moved out on my own! My grandmother had the most gorgeous oriental rug (is it okay to say oriental? I think it still is when referring to decorative objects, yes?) at her beach house. It was red and had animals on it, which is actually very rare. I remember staring at that rug a lot when I grew up, always finding different things in the patterns. My memory is a little fuzzy. Maybe there weren’t actual animals; maybe I just found animal-like figures in the decorative motifs. Anyway, I’ve always wanted a rug just like it. But we all know how expensive those rugs are.

Since I live in the Middle East now, I have access to rugs at much better prices than in the States. Also, I’m a little bit older and more ready to make the investment. Yeah, just because I’m closer to Iran and Afghanistan does not mean they’re cheap. Just perhaps ever so slightly less expensive than in the States. Jeff and I bought IKEA furniture, because we’re only here for a short while and won’t be needing or wanting to ship that crap home, but figured it was worth putting some real money towards a rug that we could use and cherish for a lifetime.

Community Life organized a bus trip to the Blue Souk in Sharjah, the emirate on the other side of Dubai. (Quick geography lesson: the UAE is made up of seven emirates, each with their own monarch. Abu Dhabi is the capital and by far the largest emirate by size, though it is mostly desert. Dubai is the most populous emirate in the country and the city is the largest, so that Sharjah is practically a suburb of Dubai, however, Sharjah is a much more traditional emirate and has the strictest alcohol and “decency” laws in the country.) The bus ride took about two hours (one hour to the near side of Dubai, one hour to get through Dubai to Sharjah – Dubai is that big!), so I figured it would be best to do the trip without the kids. They stayed home with Jeff and I went on a very serious solo rug buying mission!

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Any guesses on why they call it the Blue Souk?

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I tried to do as much “homework” as I could. I was able to find lots of information online about how to tell the difference between a handmade and machine made rug, how to test the quality of the rug pile, how to barter, how to “read” the traditional motifs, etc…but nothing on suggested prices! Not even ballpark figures. Basically, every article said the same thing: the right price is the price you are willing to pay for a rug that you love. Okay, I agree. But I had no idea if the amount of money I came prepared to spend was any where near what I would need for a rug the size that I wanted. The best I could do was look at rug prices in online showrooms, which I figured were the upper limit of what they could cost, and at cheapo websites like overstock.com or on Ebay, which I figured was the lower limit.

This picture shows the back sides of the rolled carpets. You can tell how high quality the rugs are by how perfect the knots are even in reverse.

This picture shows the back sides of the rolled carpets. You can tell how high quality the rugs are by how perfect the knots are even in reverse.

My time on the internet served me well, I believe. The single most important piece of information I came equipped with was a recommended vendor. Thank God for that, because there are like a hundred carpet vendors at the Blue Souk. I would say that 90% of the difficulty of shopping in a souk is deciding which merchant to patronize. Granted, shopping in the Emirates is no where near as hectic as I imagine it to be in Turkey or Morocco, where the vendors harass you in an uncomfortable attempt to lure you into their shop. In fact, the shopping experience in Sharjah is supposed to be one of the quietest, because it’s less a tourist trade and more a source for professional import/exporters.

I had the name of the shop I wanted to go to: Al Mashi. The next step was finding it. The Blue Souk is like two giant train stations connected with a few pedestrian bridges.

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I walked from one side to the other, politely ignoring all the other men who called out to me (not too aggressively), and finally found it.

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Thankfully, it was empty, because it would really be impossible for these sellers to serve more than one patron at a time. The showrooms are very tiny, and most of the rugs are kept in a second location, from which they trudge back and forth, hauling the heavy rugs on their shoulders. There were two men working there, one of whom, George, had been named in an article in The National as a very trustworthy salesman.

Originally from Bangladesh, George has been working for Al Mashi for over twenty (or maybe he said thirty) years

Originally from Bangladesh, George has been working for Al Mashi for over twenty (or maybe he said thirty) years

The other thing that was so great about having a single shop recommendation is that I didn’t have to go into the experience assuming that I was going to get screwed. It certainly doesn’t mean that I made myself an easy target, but it made the whole thing fun and more about following my own personal tastes rather than fear.

I walked in and told George exactly what I was looking for: a living room-sized rug with bold jewel tones, mostly red and blue, no beige, that would withstand the wear and tear of young children, and that would last a long, long time. The first rugs he showed me were Afghan rugs, which featured deep, dark reds on top of even darker reds.

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They were truly stunning rugs, but the background reds tended a little more to the terracotta side than I like. So he pulled Persian rugs for me instead, which are the more traditional assortment of colors. Unfortunately, mustard yellow is a very common color for these rugs – I’m sure they tell themselves it’s gold, but no, no, no, it’s mustard. So I made George hunt high and low for the rare Persian with little-to-no mustard!

It’s quite a process for them to dig through all the rugs. Sometimes they have to climb on top of these little towers of folded carpets and fling twenty to the side to get to the one underneath that they think might be what you would want.

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But you can’t feel guilty about it! It’s all part of the exchange. You just sit back and enjoy the sweet mint tea they bring you and say no to the ones you do not like and maybe to the ones that strike your fancy. They showed me so many rugs that the floor of the tiny showroom started to get closer and closer to the ceiling! And, of course, after all that work, it turns out that the third rug that they showed me, all the way on the bottom of that mountain of carpets, was the one that I couldn’t get out of my mind.

I had them go through all the rugs they had showed me (about 30?) and I quickly sorted them into absolutely nots and maybes. I was left with four maybes to consider.

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This rug was a stand-out. I had never seen an all-over pattern this intricate. It looked “Indian” to me, but it is a very old, traditional Tabriz motif. Damn it, I didn’t get this one, because it was a little too psychedelic for me, but now I want to go back and buy it too.

That point was the very first time we even spoke about money. I needed to know how close (or how terribly far away) we were from what I could afford. Luckily, they really weren’t too bad! I know I complained earlier about how nothing I read online gave any indication of price, but I am also not going to share what I paid. It just doesn’t seem right. Actually, let me amend that. I will share how much he originally quoted me, but I won’t say exactly how much I paid. That’s fair, right?

In the end, I fell in love with TWO rugs. I was only looking for one rug for the living room, but ended up liking one that I thought would be nice in the girls’ bedroom. They really do need a carpet in there, since the floors are so hard.

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What’s very special about this rug is that the red dye has matured into a magenta over time. They do not use pink vegetable dyes, so you can’t create this color new, except by machine. I suppose it’s kinda hard to tell by the photograph, but it really was a color unlike anything else in the entire showroom. The only other pink they had (I asked) was a pure silk dusty rose wall hanging. George said he wouldn’t let me buy that to let the kids trample!

I guess I didn’t snap a photo of the main rug that I bought. It was buried under these others. But the colors are very special as well. It is primarily red and blue (a true red and navy), but has small elements of turquoise, sky blue, and peach. Both this rug and the magenta one above are pure wool and certified antique, meaning they are over 80 years old. One advantage of an old rug is that it has already shed as much as it is going to. I did a rub test on both (something I read about online – if you vigorously rub a patch of carpet for a minute and collect all the fuzz into a ball, the ball should be less tall than the pile of the carpet) and these rugs gave off no fuzz at all, no matter how hard I rubbed. George sourced both rugs himself, one coming directly from Iran and the other Iraq, but originally from Iran.

I told you I would share the first price I was offered: 12,500 dirhams (approximately $3,400) for both. I paid substantially less than that. I’m pretty proud of myself, because I was told you should start your counter offer between half (a low ball) and a quarter less than the original offer. Our negotiations went quite smoothly and politely. I was able to get a good price in part because I could pay in cash and did not need to arrange shipping, but also because he seemed to like me (I knoooow that sounds naive) and I represented the university, which could mean a lot more business for him based on my recommendation. And I do recommend him. I have nothing to compare the experience to, but it was a load of fun and I am very happy with my haul!

I said he didn't have to ship it, I never said he didn't have to schlep it

I said he didn’t have to ship it, I never said he didn’t have to schlep it

I’m going to have to publish this post without pictures of the rugs in situ, because I want to clean the floors before I roll them out, but I’ll do a follow up post soon, so you can see my beauties!

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8 thoughts on “Rug Shopping

  1. The minute I saw the picture of the “psychedelic” one, I immediately made th verbal comment (to myself, mind you, as I was the only person in the room), “Ooooh! Love that one!”

  2. Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. The reds were so vibrant and I can’t help but wonder what the dusty pink one looks like. I don’t have any kids… 😉

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