A Street Called Straight: Rug Shopping in Damascus

Damascene alleyway replete with mashrabiya.

Damascene alleyway replete with mashrabiya.

The Old City of Damascus, which many claim is the longest continuously inhabited city on earth, looks the part. It may be the worn facades of shops and houses interspersed with Roman ruins. Or perhaps it’s the automobiles, mostly dating from the 1970s, decorated inside and out with tassels, ribbons and photos of the now-deceased president, Hafez al-Assad and his first son, the martyr saint Bassel, in full military regalia. The smell of age, not unpleasant, is easy to pinpoint. It is a mixture of cardamom, sumac, and the ubiquitous Middle Eastern dust. I was privileged to visit the city in 2000.

A friendly fish shop. Thumbs up!

A friendly fish shop. Thumbs up!

We arrived in Damascus in the evening, after a long day of driving, sightseeing and immigration delays. Having flown into Jordan two nights before, jet lag was just beginning to get its disorienting hooks into our bodies and minds. We parked our cars at the Sheraton on the outskirts of town in order to avoid the lunacy of city driving. The subsequent taxi ride from that hotel into the Old City was brief but harrowing. We were let off at the Omayyad Mosque whose wonders we looked forward to exploring the next day. Our main goal in Damascus was to purchase a Persian rug, and for that we had to walk. We headed toward the Street Called Straight.

A rug shop with wares typically displayed on every available surface.

A rug shop with wares typically displayed on every available surface.

The sidewalks nearing the western end of the ancient Straight Street became more and more narrow when they were at all distinguishable from the street itself. We passed furniture and brass dealers luxuriantly puffing their nargileh. Several men were hawking spices, meats and vegetables. Finally we came upon an entire block of rug shops, prominently marked by the variety of woven materials hanging outside the doors. In the middle of the block was what appeared to be a tiny storefront—a rug shop run by my cousin’s friend Boulos.

“It is so good to see you,” Boulos smiled at my cousin, hands clasped to his surprisingly western-clad midriff. He wore Levis and a denim button-down shirt. Close-cropped dark brown hair topped his thin but muscular six foot form. Boulos also wore rather trendy-looking wire-rimmed glasses, which rounded out the illusion of a casually dressed American intellectual.

“And it is wonderful to see you, too, Boulos. These are my cousins,” she introduced, going on to explain how we were related to her. Boulos was pleased with the explanation; his Arab worldview would naturally lead him to suspect that we were closely related. We exchanged greetings, and he introduced us to his cousin, younger and much quieter, but smiling and eager to please.

Rug shop facades. Unknown wonders await!

Rug shop facades. Unknown wonders await!

I was rather uncomfortable with the idea that we were going to shop for room-sized rugs in the tiny space that we had entered. The walls, floor and ceiling were completely covered with rugs. They were stacked in a corner for use as chairs, but there was no space to spread one out. A small desk was the only item in the room that was rug-free, and that was covered with papers.

My cousin and Boulos spoke in Arabic. She was explaining why we were there, how long we would be in town and where we were staying. She advised him that we would look at rugs for a little while tonight, and then come back to finish up in the morning.

“Please come in,” Boulos said. He put his hand on his heart, a sign of sincerity in the Arab culture, and pulled aside one of the many Persian rugs hanging on the wall. Beyond was a doorway. We walked through single file. The room on the other side was cavernous. The decor might have been taken directly from The Arabian Nights.

Rugs everywhere!

Rugs everywhere!

Rugs, of course, were strewn everywhere in a seemingly haphazard kaleidoscope of colors and designs. Combinations of rich reds, brilliant blues and crisp summer greens tantalized the mind while dazzling the eyes. There were silks and wools and cottons. Some were small, the size of a bath mat, while others might cover the floor of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, and others for every size in between. The designs ranged from bold geometrics to beautifully wrought flowers, fruits and animals. Each pattern was representative of the traditional style of the tribe who wove it.

Benches were built into the perimeter of the room. They were upholstered with rugs of every description. They beckoned us to take a seat and observe some ritual of mysterious nature. Small wooden tea tables were set in front of the benches at irregular intervals. Their tops were octagonal and they sat on an eight-sided column with an Arabian window-shaped cutout at the bottom of each side. The tables were made of wood, but they were intricately inlaid in geometric patterns with bits of walnut, rosewood, lemonwood, peachwood and mother of pearl.

Boulos invited us to sit at one of the tables. He took orders for tea and coffee. In our short time in the Middle East we had yet to develop a taste for Arabic coffee. We found it to be strong and sweet. A few ounces were served in a tiny glass cup. Unaware of when to stop drinking, you would get a mouthful of what sat at the bottom: a layer of finely ground coffee, sugar and cardamom. Turkish coffee was similarly foreign to us, so we requested the tea.

Boulos chased his cousin off to prepare the refreshments. While we waited he questioned us about how our trip was proceeding. He was truly concerned with whether we were enjoying his country and, more importantly it seemed, his countrymen. We told him that we had never experienced such warm hospitality, and he gratified. We then talked a little bit about what types of rugs we were interested in seeing. Boulos was happy to hear that I had a clear idea of what I wanted.

The mint tea arrived and it was a treat. Arabs are renowned for their way with sweets, and mint tea is a fine example of the art. It was served from a lovely teapot from which a genie was just as likely to appear as the expected tea. Sugar was distributed into each mismatched glass. The beverage was refreshing and helped alleviate some of the more distracting effects of the jet lag. My jittery eyes regained their ability to focus as the hot liquid drifted through my body. The mint and sugar combined into a peppermint stick poking my tired muscles back to life.

We chatted for a while about life in America and life in Syria.  Boulos was enchanted with our description of our country and especially of our hometown. My cousin gently reminded Boulos that we were actually there to shop. This was the cue for the show to begin.

In Arabic, Boulos bleated out an order to his cousin who promptly disappeared to another part of the large room. Boulos himself trotted over to a group of rugs that were piled next to the wall to our left. With seeming ease he lifted a few at a time of the folded woolens and retrieved one about halfway down the stack. Setting this aside he repeated the process on the next group and the next until he had a new stack of perhaps six or seven rugs. He gracefully transported these to the center of the tiled floor in time to meet up with his cousin, similarly laden.

Without hesitation he and his cousin each lifted the top rug on his pile by the short edge. As if shaking out a freshly laundered sheet he and then his cousin snapped the large masterpieces out into the room, gently laying them side by side. Oohs and ahs quickly followed, eliciting a barely noticeable smile from our host. Returning to their heaps, they repeated these actions over and over, covering the floor before us with a solid layer of splendid carpeting.

We were rapt as children at a display of fireworks at home on the Fourth of July. The rugs themselves were amazing, but the accompanying performance was surprising. Like two dancers in a ballet they moved with grace and ease, acting out a piece of choreography that had been rehearsed for years. Bending, lifting, gliding to a new spot, snapping out the work of art, bowing to ease its settling to the floor. Their muscles strained under their clothing and a soft glow of sweat arose on their skin.

When they had reached the last of the rugs Boulos looked over toward me expectantly.
“They’re beautiful, Boulos. Amazingly beautiful. But I wonder if you have some that are a bit lighter in color?”

He smiled. “Oh, yes. Of course.” The ballet resumed.

This time, with no floor space left, the rugs were crisscrossed atop the previous batch. I wanted all of them. When I whispered this to my cousin she replied, “You can never have too many rugs, only too little floor space.”

When Boulos and his cousin had laid down at least two dozen rugs he abruptly stopped and put his forefinger to his lips. He turned to his cousin and spoke again in Arabic. The cousin disappeared, seemingly through a wall. “Come with me,” Boulos prompted.

A lush Damascene Courtyard.

A lush Damascene Courtyard.

Holding aside another rug in the area where his cousin disappeared, Boulos led us into what at first I thought was another room. It was very chilly in this room, walls of stone, cement floor covered with only a few rugs. Two young men were apparently washing these. I gazed around the room and spotted a clothesline in the corner with a red and blue rug dripping from it. Immediately turning my eyes upward I realized that we were not in a room at all, but in one of those fabulous courtyards that are characteristic of a Middle Eastern building. I could make no further observations on this courtyard, however, because Boulos rushed us down a flight of stairs into a brightly lit and rather sterile looking room. It seemed to be a kind of warehouse. There must have been hundreds of rugs in this gigantic space.

Boulos’s cousin was proudly standing next to two of the most beautiful Bakhtiari panel rugs I have ever laid eyes on. The first was a rather large woolen rug. The panels were set as diamonds rather than squares. The colors included green, red, blue and mauve. It was magnificent. I kneeled down on it and ran my hand over the nap. So soft. Taking out my measuring tape, I was soon disappointed to find that the rug would be too large for our house.

When I looked toward the second rug my disappointment dissolved. I measured it immediately. It was the perfect size. The background was undyed wool ranging from off-white to beige to light tan. The designs were created in blues and reds, browns, tans, oranges, pinks and coral. It contained beautiful abrashes. These are the slight changes in saturation and hue that occur as the weaver switches to a new batch of wool. Abrashes can also occur as a result of natural wear. Boulos had informed us that this rug was approximately 40 years old.

One of the guards—the smaller borders—contained the boteh design, similar to the amoeba shape in a paisley. But it was the panels themselves that enthralled me. There were 55 separate squares in all, arranged five wide by eleven long. Each panel contained one of seven distinct designs, but each was rendered in a different color combination, so an image was rarely repeated exactly. I noticed the vase of flowers, the tree of life, the oak branch, the cedar tree, the mihrab. Each of these have special meaning for the Bakhtiari tribe, many of them are dear to the Arab culture or the Muslim religion. I had to own this rug. My husband concurred.

Boulos was pleased with our selection and hinted that we might want to think about it overnight and return the next day. I suspect he was not as pleased to sell us a rug as he was to see that we were happy with our entire experience. We were obviously having the time of our lives.

Boulos suggested that we stay for the evening meal. Having already experienced Arab hospitality at mealtime, we knew that it would be at least a two-hour-long affair. It would be an insult to a Syrian host if you left the table without being absolutely stuffed to the gills. Thankfully my cousin explained to Boulos that we were exhausted and would have to meet the rest of our party later that evening for dinner.

We parted with Boulos, assuring him that we would return in the morning to pay for and pick up our new rug. We had another frightful cab ride to our overnight accommodation, The Convent of St. Paul’s Church right outside of the Old City. We quickly freshened up and took yet another cab back into the Old City to join the rest of the group for dinner.

Minaret of the Omayyad Mosque

Minaret of the Omayyad Mosque

The next morning found us exploring the sites of Damascus. We toured the ancient Omayyad Mosque, the tomb of Salah ed Din, the glistening new Shiite mosque which apparently has no name except that given by the Damascenes: The New Mosque. It was well past noon when we arrived, apologetically, at Boulos’s shop.

“No, no, don’t apologize. I must show you something that just came this morning!” Boulos exclaimed. Now familiar with the hidden doorways, we followed Boulos down to the warehouse room. Next to the gorgeous specimen we had chosen the night before was a creation that defies description. It was red. Bold, luxuriant, deep crimson red. It had red, black and white guards. A beautiful off-white and red main border. The background was a fabulously abrashed crimson and the design was an open palmette and branch design in black, white, lighter red, and gray-green with splashes of orange. The three of us gasped simultaneously.

The New Mosque

The New Mosque

“Now what will you do?” my cousin asked.

The answer came easily, “We’ll take them both.”

Boulos seemed disturbed by this development. “No, that is not necessary. I only showed you because I thought you would like this one better.”

We quickly assured him that we understood this, but wanted both rugs anyway. However, when we began to write out a check Boulos hedged. We had brought enough Syrian pounds for one rug, but we hadn’t expected to buy another, so we were short on cash.

“Please,” Boulos said, “my sister will bring me the money when she sees me next.” This confused us, but my cousin immediately realized that she had been bestowed with a great honor. Her friend was now referring to her as his sister. This came not from the fact that she had brought in new customers. Boulos considered her his sister because she brought her family to meet him. It’s that simple.

Boulos insisted on delivering the rugs to the Sheraton where our cars were parked. We agreed on a three o’clock meeting. As we left the shop, hand to heart, Boulos asked, “Tell your people about us.”

Now, finally, I have.

Courtyard of the Omayyad Mosque.

Courtyard of the Omayyad Mosque.

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