We walked purposefully through the crowds, eyes front, weaving our way along the bustling sidewalk expertly dodging cars, trams, tourists and shop touts vying for our attention.
"Hello, madam. Yes. Please. Come inside, have a look. Beautiful carpets. Very nice. For you, good price."
It had been a long and tiring day sightseeing in Turkey's massive and sprawling cultural hub, and the last thing on my mind was buying a souvenir. Studiously, we avoided eye contact and kept up the brisk pace.
"Hello! Where are you from?"
Another tout emerged from the shadows. How these places stayed in business I will never know, for Istanbul seemed to have a carpet shop on every corner!
My mother paused, looked back. "Canada," she responded.
"Ah, Canada. Very nice country, Canada. I have a cousin in Toronto."
Of course he does! They all do!
"And how do you like Turkey? Where have you been so far?"
I was literally tugging at my mother's shirt sleeves to hurry her along. Why was she talking to this guy? He was only feigning interest to lure us into his shop and sell us a carpet. Darkness was falling and my stomach was growling.
My mother somewhat hesitantly proceeded to explain how we would have liked to see Cappadocia, that fascinating central region of Turkey known for its networks of underground villages, but we did not have enough time, so we would be spending the week only in Istanbul.
"Really! My family is from Cappadocia!"
Of course they are!
"Would you like to come in and see some pictures?"
And, quite simply, that is how I found myself sipping hot apple tea in an Istanbul carpet store, a multitude of colourful rugs spread out before me.
Carpet selling is big business in Turkey. It is an ancient craft that is thought to date back thousands of years to a time when nomadic tribes roamed the steppe regions of central Asia, where land was abundant for herding sheep for their wool. Rug weaving in Turkey may have begun when tribes arrived in Anatolia from central Asia, settling the region. The oldest pieces date as far back as the 13th century. As they age and are used, the carpets increase in value. Novice carpet buyers should avoid the pricey antique rugs, as they are likely to get swindled by a smooth-talking salesman!
Our smooth-talking salesman seated us on a plush couch. Every inch of his shop was adorned with some manner of colourful rug and on the shelves, carpets were stacked from floor to ceiling. He introduced himself as Tayfun (pronounced typhoon), a name that induced some inappropriate giggling from my mother. As he flipped through an album depicting "the family home" in Cappadocia, we were shown pictures of weathered Turkish women weaving rugs on simple looms in a barren and fascinating rocky landscape, and swarthy Turkish men shearing sheep for their wool. He explained how the natural dyes were made from vegetables and some of the more intricate carpets took many months to finish. He studiously avoided the looming topic of actually selling us a carpet, and I soon found myself reluctantly warming up to the guy.
He was young and reasonably attractive with olive skin and longish, shiny black hair. Clad in a dapper suit and polished shoes, he kept the banter playful and light, waiting for us to steer the conversation toward the business of actually buying a carpet.
I must admit, I was intrigued, and had considered a carpet purchase while in Istanbul. And I had questions about the multitude of colourful rugs that adorned so many walls in the city. Also, I was curious to closely inspect some of the carpets, something that we had not done previously. Whenever we stopped to admire a carpet displayed in a window, some over-zealous salesman would inevitably pop out of the shop, eager to show off his wares. I am the sort of shopper that is easily chased off by an overbearing salesperson and am more likely to buy if left in peace.
Thus, as Tayfun was undoubtedly waiting for, I did eventually steer the conversation that way. And that was when the tea came out. Little glass cups of steaming apple tea. I knew that this carpet buying endeavour was getting serious!
One after another, Tayfun whisked carpets off the shelves, arranging them on the floor for us to admire and inspect. He casually lay down on them, caressing them lovingly, extolling their virtues, enjoying the game. We laughingly complimented his not-so-subtle sales tactics. He grinned playfully and called for more tea.
He was clearly an experienced salesman, correctly taking my mother for the thrifty sort who would not think of spending a few hundred lire on a Turkish souvenir for her living room floor. I was the weakest link, his glimmer of hope for a sale, and thus, all his tricks and charm were directed at me. Finally, he pulled one out that caught my eye.
"So, what would something like that generally cost?" I queried casually, acutely aware that I had no inkling of what these pieces were actually worth or any ability to determine their quality or authenticity. And carpet salesmen have subtle ways of discerning this information through seemingly innocent questions. "Where are you staying?" is a common one. This gives the salesman an idea of your financial situation.
Do not say The Four Seasons!
"How long have you been in Turkey?" is another. In other words: Are you going to be a complete pushover, or have you been here a while?
I had been in Turkey for a total of three days. A literal greenhorn. And thanks to my mother, here I was, preparing to haggle over a carpet whose value I had no idea, with an experienced salesman, oozing charm and wit. Thanks, mom!
Tayfun adopted a stance of careful consideration; stated a price in the range of a few hundred dollars. These rugs are not cheap. I laughed and shook my head. Countered with about half what he was asking. He playfully rolled around on the floor, pretending I had stabbed him in the heart. Refilled our tea. Countered again. And so on.
My carpet is an excellent addition to my living room. Did I get swindled? Perhaps. Did I get a good deal? Who knows! And the pictures: I'd like to think they really were of his family. Perhaps his sister toiling over her simple looms in Cappadocia, his grandfather shearing the sheep for wool. Not just a compilation of random strangers, a mere ploy to make their products appeal to the naïve tourists. Only one thing is certain: In the cutthroat business of carpet selling in Istanbul, it is every salesman for himself!