Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 

 

Carpet Pazarlık

 

Every car I ever drove, Mustang, Cutlass, Celica, my dad bought. An immigrant from Turkey and good at bargaining, friends, coworkers, even friends of friends would call on him when they needed new cars. He loved it. Naturally I thought haggling was in our blood.

When it came time to replace the ’93 Camry, Dad was no longer alive, so I bought the new-car issue of Consumer Reports, test drove the ones I liked, and headed over to the Lexus showroom ready to make a deal. I shook hands with the salesman and smiled smugly to myself when I learned he was Turkish. We made small talk about the humidity and traffic, and between the GPS and sound system quotes, I asked for a discount. What I got was a dissertation about waiting lists for a “hot” car, followed by me paying FULL price to get it. He threw in window tinting at the end, but I didn’t even want it.

“Look at it this way,” my husband said. “You saved on tinting.”

“You married a loser,” I said, flashing him the L-on-the-forehead sign.

I was mute the rest of the day. Instead of being happy about my new red car, I was miserable and humiliated. I flunked the rite of passage, failed my cultural roots. The lion had rushed me, and my spear never touched him.

“Lighten up, honey. The guy was a jerk,” my husband said. “It’s only money. Get upset if I get pancreatic cancer, not this.”

“Just thought I could do better,” I said. “Only an idiot pays list. Dad must be rolling over in his grave.”

Why did I expect to be successful at this? I didn’t grow up in Turkey. I grew up in the States, home of the bar code, where everything is tagged, even an onion. It’s not like Turkey. There, the concept of pazarlık is so ingrained, price tags are meaningless. They’re someone else’s idea of what you should pay.

I buried my embarrassment, even forgetting it, until we were in Turkey visiting my dad’s sister, Bilge. She asked my husband Matt if we wanted to buy a rug.

Even in Turkey, rug merchants are viewed with a bit of disdain, seen as particularly aggressive and deceitful, even in a culture where bargaining is part of everyday life.. The stereotype: mustached men asking if you want a carpet, in several languages. They specialize in luring victims into traps if they pause, even for an instant, to look at the bait hung in the windows or spread out in doorways. The price to get out of the steel jaw is to gnaw off the foot, buying some rug at a ridiculous price. Matt looked at me for an answer. I wanted a rug, but all I saw was a bloody stump.

“I don’t think we’re very good at this,” I said. “Those guys’ll eat us alive.” Bilge volunteered to do all the bargaining.

Bilge abla, which is affectionate for “big sister,” is legendary for her rug bargaining. She has an artist’s eye, great people-sense, and uses all those weapons to her advantage. She’s petite and older, and opponents are apt to underestimate her. She is quick with math, an Ergun trait, I believe, because both Dad and his mother were speedy with numbers too. My grandmother kept such a sharp eye on every lira that came in and out of the house that even my grandfather called her an abacus behind her back.

Gülçinciğm, when will you be here again? A carpet is as good as gold. Better than your stock market, and you can sell it any time,” Bilge said, searching our faces for a reply. “Shall we go buy a halı?”

“Now?” Matt asked.

“Why not?”

Hayde gidelim,” and with an off-with-the-slippers-and-on-with-the-shoes bounce, we left the apartment to Şark Halı Pazarı.

We took a taxi up Ataturk Bulvarı to Ulus, the market district, and one of the oldest parts of Ankara. The small cars were inching along like a swarm of beetles, through the clouds of bus and car exhaust. The taxi smelled like old Marlboros fused with sweat, and the cushions were itchy from the padding poking through the upholstery in the August heat. We wanted to open the windows, but the handles were missing. So we suffered, sweating and scratching, as the car moaned uphill through hordes of people ignoring traffic signs, just walking around the vehicles. It was a short ride to the statue of Atatürk in his saddle, which told us we were almost there.

We stepped out onto the narrow street. Outside the store was a shoeshine stand made up with brass and decorated with charms protecting against the evil eye. A  kid sang an ad for fresh simit, sesame bread rings which he balanced on his head. We paused to look in the window, ahhed over the beauty of the elaborate prayer rugs, then stepped out of the noise of the street into the calm of the store.

Buyrun, welcome,” the owner greeted us. “Nasılsınız? How are you, Bilge hanım? While he knew Bilge, I wasn’t sure he recognized me, and I felt we were being sized up. His eyes took in our clothing, our American shoes, the jewelry—all the clues about how much we might spend.

Hamd olsun,” Bilge said as she shook his hands. “Hasan bey, you remember my niece? She’s visiting from America with her husband.”

Tabi,” he said and nodded his head. “How are you?” he said in English, shook our hands, and offered us something to drink. “Gazoz, Coca-Cola, maybe hot tea?” and motioned to an employee whose job it was to run for beverages. “Looking for anything special today? Rugs? Kilims? Handmade? Silk?”

Our nods and head-shaking were enough hints to start, and a salesman took us downstairs. The bigger rugs, the sizes you’d find only in hotels or American homes, were two floors down. We descended via broad cement steps into a large room devoid of any decoration. The man flipped a switch, and after wake-up groans, the room was lit by humming fluorescent lights.

There were about five or six metal chairs loosely arranged around an empty section of the floor. Surrounding them were stacks and stacks of rugs folded long ways, like books on their sides. Stacks were loosely grouped by size so that longer rugs were piled separately from shorter ones, none higher than my chest. The salesman motioned for us to sit, then signaled for help. The helpers were two boys with closely shaven heads who couldn’t have been more than fifteen. Normally I’d have wondered why they weren’t in school. They didn’t look at us or say anything.

Şunu indir,” our salesman ordered, pointing to a rug in the middle of a stack. Then he went around the room pointing to rugs he wanted brought down. In unison, the boys methodically grabbed the ends of the rug, moving the upper layers onto other stacks, and then heaving the desired carpet onto the floor with a thud. The boys unfolded the carpet, as if it were a bedsheet, and placed it at our feet.

We got up to get a closer view while the boys continued to heave-ho other rugs. In short order we had about twenty rugs forming a crazy quilt on the floor, and the boys were sweating with the effort. The wetness under their arms coalesced with patches on their backs as our salesman continued choosing which rugs were to be brought forward.

 We got up to inspect the first one, circling the carpet to take a look from every vantage. I may have had some color schemes in mind before coming in, but any preconceived notion was quickly subverted once we saw the kaleidoscope of styles and colors. The confusion made iteasy to decide what we didn’t like. . We started pointing to those to be removed.

Hayır, we don’t like the orange.”

“The red one is nice, but the turquoise in the border is too loud.”

Evet,” Bilge agreed, “goze batıyor.” Too gaudy.

“This one’s pattern is uneven, and the medallion’s not in the center.”

We sorted through every design, even decided to incorporate some silk, until we narrowed down choices to three or four.

During this process, we asked the usuals and he told the usuals. The rugs were wool. They only used the best: the softest wool shorn from the best sheep that ate the best food in the best climate. They were knotted by young village girls who had the best eyes and the fastest fingers. Sharp eyes and quick fingers meant tight knots. The girls generally wove patterns to order, but often picked colors on their own, creating subtle variations of standard motifs.

“If you turn the rug over and it’s tightly knotted, the pattern should look as good underside as it does from the top,” the salesman said and kicked the corner of the rug over with his foot.

“This is a master rug. It has at least two hundred and fifty knots per square inch. Persians use the senneh knot. This is the Turkish or ghiordes knot. You could use this upside down and it would look just as nice.” He squatted down, getting closer to reemphasize, “See, just as beautiful from the back as the front.”

Are we supposed to count the knots? crossed my mind, but since we didn’t have a magnifying glass, and couldn’t tell the difference in the knots anyway, we took him at his word. “What’s this pattern?” I asked.

“That’s the yedı dag çiçek, the seven wildflower pattern. Everything on the rug means something. See the triangles? They are mountains. These little circles on the stem are wildflowers on the hill,” he said, and perked up to show off his knowledge. He pointed to another symbol on a different rug. “These are birds. You’ll see them on rustic rugs from Caucasus villages.” He pointed at another. “This is a prayer rug. Green is important in Islam. The arch is a door. You see that in religious themes.” It was probably the most he’d said as he generally stood aside, fingering prayer beads as he watched us sort through the merchandise.

Although we’d done this before, we still asked if they used vegetable dyes or chemicals, and he knew that we knew the difference. Of course they only sold naturally dyed rugs. The red color came from beets, blue from indigo, and saffron or chamomile stained the yarn yellow. Other colors came from other plants, even crushed insects. We weren’t interested in the “antiqued” rugs, which were made to look old by leaving them outside to fade.

Bilge casually listened to this interchange and asked what a rug like that would go for. “Just an estimate per square meter,” she said. She wasn’t just gauging him, but judging our interest too. She thought we needed time to talk, so she told them that we were ready for soft drinks. The salesman let the command roll downhill, and the young boys ran to get our drinks as Bilge, Matt, and I narrowed down the choices.

She asked the critical questions. Which ones did we like the most? How much could we spend? If they did a better deal with cash, did we have it? The last thing she said was “Don’t say anything once I start. Nothing. Not you or Matt. Not a word.”

We decided on the Hereke, an Uşak pattern in a palette of foamy greens and coffee. We asked each other if it lay flat, if the edges looked straight, and if we noticed any creases. We knelt down, checking for color variations. We talked about the fringes, whether we liked them plaited, untied, or woven.

Olum, biz şunu istiyoruz, she said . “Son, we want this one. Let’s go talk to Hasan bey. It’s time for pazarlama,” Bilge said, flashing what I could only describe as glee.

We headed upstairs and parked ourselves in his “office,” which was just a desk, an old metal one, near the entrance of the store. The top was cluttered with clumps of loose papers, an old rotary fan, an Iş Bankası calendar, a framed picture of Atatürk, and an old-fashioned calculator with a roll of paper. We took our seats in the chairs next to the desk, and the assistant motioned to get Hasan bey.

Hasan bey was typically Turkish. He looked like he was in his sixties, with graying hair fringing his baldness and a mustache. He was compact, not very tall, and well fed. He wore a short-sleeved white shirt and dark pants, but no jacket or tie. He leaned over to clear some room for the calculator, then positioned himself in the chair behind the desk. The assistant told him which rug we were interested in, and Hasan told them to bring it up to the main level and measure it. Of course they had already done that, and he asked us, again, if we would like something to drink, perhaps Turkish coffee. We declined with the usual pleasantries, and he said something about how hot it was this summer and twirled the knob on the side of the calculator, clearing it for the next transaction. It was not run with batteries.

“How is your family?”

“We’re fine. Thanks for asking. Just getting older.”

“Yes, you can tell as the children get bigger. How are your sons?”

“They finally finished university. One just got married. Thank you for asking. I see that you built a new store in Lodumlu. Very upscale area.”

“Praise God, but I stay down here most of the time.” Meanwhile an assistant gave him the rug measurements, and he started punching numbers into the calculator.

“So what can you do for us,” Bilge said, more than asked.

He punched in more numbers and without looking up said, “I can start with 35,680 lira,” speaking to the calculator.

Bilge laughed in a chiding manner. “We’re just starting. Surely you can do better. That’s nothing for a businessman like you.”

There was another twirl of the handle and more flying of fingers on the keypad. “Prices have gone up. It’s much harder now. I can do 29,520,” and he tore off a piece of paper from the adding machine and slid it to her.

“Yes,” she nodded in agreement, “everything has gone up, but bőyle olurmu? How can this be?” Bilge announced and pushed back the scrap of paper with an “I’m not budging” groan.

“Times are tough. Gas, electric, petrol, everything is more expensive.” He still didn’t look up, but tapped the top of the desk with his fingers. He cleared the calculator with a few more twirls of the handle and hit a few more keys. “Sizlere şoyle yapabiliriz. I can do 26,440 for you.”

Bilge pulled the chair in closer to the desk and got nearer to the calculator. “You can do better than that. I know that you didn’t buy all your rugs last year. You remember my father and brother? My nieces and nephew have gotten rugs here too. They’ll be here next year, inşallah, if God is willing.”

He rubbed his balding head back and forth with his right hand before attacking the calculator again. More paper rolled onto the table. Finally he came up with 25,790.

Bilge took a glance. This time she opened her purse and took out her reading glasses as if the previous offers weren’t worth looking at. She took her time, then said, “Drop these numbers and round them down. Make them zeroes and we’re done.”

“I can’t do that, Bilge hanım. We’re trying to make a living here too. We all have families.”

Alaşkina, for the love of God,” she said with a shake of the head and an ah-ah-ah that-won’t-do sigh. She crossed her ankles and leaned back in the chair. “Are we really having a discussion about a few zeroes?” with a shame on you tone. Yet she interjected demurely, “We can pay in dollars or euros, cash, check, whatever is better for you, Hasan bey.”

“It doesn’t make a difference.” He fiddled with the dials on the fan. “I just can’t go lower than this.”

“Of course you can. Let’s finish this business,” she insisted, and she leaned over to loudly tell Matt and me the price she decided we would pay. All of this as if I hadn’t understood any of the conversation that had just occurred. She repeated the rounded-down 25,600 as the final price, then straightened her back and closed her purse. We were done with the negotiation. She asked if we accepted this price and simultaneous with our yes reported we’d agreed. “Go ahead and package up the rug,” she instructed them and told me to write a check as if deaf to his last comments.

He bent his head a little, saying nothing, and paused, still staring at the calculator. Finally, he turned his head to us and gave a little nod to say “pek iyi, very well,” pushing back from the desk. “Maybe you, your niece, or her husband would like some coffee or tea as they prepare the rug?”

“Yes, Hasan bey, thank you. We don’t have much time, we have errands to run, but we’ll have coffee. Medium sugar. Maybe the young men can vacuum the rug and make a package small enough to fit into a suitcase? It’s going to America.”

“Yes, of course. We can fold it directly into their suitcase or even have it shipped.”

“That’s not necessary. They want to take it with them.”

“We’ll make up a receipt for customs. It’s always nice to see you, Bilge hanım. Güle güle. My regards to your family.”

We sipped our coffees waiting for the rug to be packed. I thanked Bilge for getting such a good deal, but admitted that the experience reminded me of something else. Then I told her about the car-buying disaster.

“Pathetic, couldn’t bargain,” I said, “Here an eight-year-old would’ve done a better job. You wouldn’t know that we actually make important decisions at home and are good at it.”

She leaned in to my face. “Of course. You’re both successful doctors. Just like your parents. We’re all proud of you.” Then she asked, “Did your father ever tell you his elevator story? The one when they first came to the United States?” I shook my head.

“It was their first night in Chicago. Your father wanted to look around, but your mother was very tired after the trip and fell asleep. So he decided to go downstairs by himself and climbed down the ten or twelve flights to the lobby. When he got there, he realized that he couldn’t read any of the signs, no one spoke Turkish, and inside or outside, he couldn’t understand a thing.

“He was going to climb back up the stairs when a door opened, and he recognized the elevator. He stepped in and found a man sitting on a stool. The man looked up at him and asked, ‘Up?’ Your father took a chance and said, ‘Yes.’ Then the man asked, ‘Which floor?’ No answer. When they reached the top floor, he asked, ‘Down?’ Your father said yes again. Down they rode, back and forth, up and down, for twenty minutes until the door opened and your father jumped out. He found the stairs and climbed back to their floor.

Gülçin canin, you grew up in America. You would have known how to ask for your floor. After your father learned English, he learned how to ask his questions. The man who sold you the car was rude. It is courtesy to come down, even if a little. In pazarlık, both give up something to win. But sometimes, there is not so much to give, and you have to understand that. It is a matter of agreement. Just business, not friendship. They have to sell. But you don’t have to buy. Unless you really want it, next time you get up and politely tell him that you will buy your car from someone else. There is no shame in that.”

We gathered up our bundle and stepped out into the street. Strolling down the sidewalk, arm in arm, we stopped every few steps to relive the hunt. We rehashed the turns and twists, congratulating Bilge for capturing the best carpet. Matt hailed a cab, and we snacked on simits on our way home.

 

 

 

 

 

Gulchin Ergun’s essay “Sleeping with the Dead” won first prize at the 2013 Literature and Medicine conference, and her nonfiction has been published in several journals. A Turkish-American from Ohio, she received her MD from Case Western Reserve University. After completing her residency, she pursued a fellowship in gastroenterology at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. Gulchin is a member of the Inprint Writers Workshop at the Houston Methodist Hospital. She has work forthcoming in WomenArts Quarterly Journal, Concho River Review, Jet Fuel Review and Sou’wester.