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May 20, 1998
As I stood in Turkish sunshine outside a tidy carpet showroom, set just across the main road from the freshly blooming peach orchards and gentle hills around Ephesus, I had not the faintest intention of buying a carpet. But I was curious about the rituals of selling, and about how the carpets were made. And this was a beguiling setting in which to abandon my resolution against even entering a shop -- a resolution that had protected me from dozens of carpet touts in Istanbul the week before.
We moved on to a large square room hung with huge, stunning carpets, off which opened smaller rooms. Over the doorways of these were painted the names of the women who had made the carpets inside. At our request Sinan spoke to his assistant, who unrolled several carpets with a flourish; by some magic in his wrists he could make the fringe lie flat with a single twitch. I walked around the rugs (I couldn't bring myself to step on them) to admire the subtle changes in color from one angle to the next, and knelt to feel the pile. Glasses of apple tea arrived on a silvery tray, as they do in seemingly every shop in Turkey. We sipped and listened as Sinan described the patterns unfurling at our feet and showed us the differences between silk, wool on cotton, and wool on wool. His apparent reverence for the carpets was such that he might have been lining up his own children and watching them deliver word-perfect recitations.
The assistant presented a midnight-blue carpet with a lacy floral pattern. "This is the Thousand and One Flowers," Sinan said. "My favorite. May I tell you the story of this pattern?" Of course he might. "There was once a young man who fell in love with a beautiful carpet weaver. He asked her to be his wife, but she did not believe in his love -- so she gave him a condition: he must bring her a flower every day for a thousand and one days. Faithfully he performed his task, and in the end they were married. Afterward, in their joy, they cast the flowers, which she had dried one by one, down onto the ground -- and the flowers made this pattern."
He paused and then said, "I did the same to win my wife -- but not for quite so long."
I wanted to see every single one of the rolled carpets that leaned against the walls of these rooms -- but even the extraordinary patience of this gentle, soft-spoken man (not to mention that of my companion) would have been unequal to it. Lulled by the deliciously slow pace of the visit, I gave in to the inevitable. Though I admired the Thousand and One Flowers, the Watermelon pattern (named for the leaves of the plant, not the fruit) kept drawing my eye back to its sinuous dark vines framing dozens of individual bouquets, its unusual touches of apple green, rose red, and slate blue.
In Turkey salesmen at every level -- from nut vendors on the street to spice merchants in the bazaar to silk dealers in upscale shops -- are skilled in the art of mercantile seduction. Some, like the carpet weaver's swain in Sinan's story, are ready to pull out all the stops. More than one young man with soulful eyes had said "You are breaking my heart" when I declined to enter his shop. By comparison, Sinan seemed almost like a docent in a storehouse of beautiful treasures. I was caught by his Old World charm and reserve. But it might have been modern efficiency that set the hook:
A little giddy, I watched as the rug was folded into a rectangle the size of a dress box, trussed with brown paper and tape, and slipped into a vinyl bag with handles -- ready for airline carry-on status. Flying carpets, I saw, are more than a storybook notion.
Martha Spaulding is The Atlantic's assistant managing editor.
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