2010
03.18

SYNOPSIS:  We strolled around the famous Imam Khomeini Square in Esfahan.  We had fun at two carpet shops and I finally spent a lot of money buying a lot of stuff…  We met some interesting people.  Cotton, wool, camel hair, and silk – weaving, knotting, and needle-work.

Of course, they have a reputation for ripping you of and of course they will.  Taxi drivers are crooks, too, and lawyers are notorious the world over.  Not even Mozaffar, our contact in Teheran, wanted to recommend a carpet dealer to us, knowing that he could not vouch for anyone.  What do you do?  The bottom line for me is this:  What is it worth to me and what am I willing and able to pay.   And so I bought a lot of stuff today…  Nicola has better feet to stand on – she knows a lot about carpets and can tell when somebody is pulling her leg                                    .

Our goal was not to have a goal, but to stroll around the huge Imam Khomeini Square in Esfahan and to get a feel for it.  This square is probably as famous and as beautiful as the San Marcos Square in Venice, but it is even bigger.  My fist impression was disappointment as we approached the square at the Northern end:  There was traffic going through it!  But as it turned out only on that end and only cutting through the short side from West to East.  The square is really a huge rectangle of shops accented by a palace and a few famous mosques and shrines.  The shops double up into a covered bazaar which occasionally opens up into beautiful little court yards.  The middle is landscaped with greens and flowers and a large fountain.  We started around 10 AM and were done around 5:30 PM doing one circle.  Of that, we probably spent almost 4 hours in two carpet shops…

The first carpet shop just caught my eye because of a wonderful display of rugs of all kinds in reds, oranges other rich natural colors.  We walked in and were welcomed to tea.  Before we left, we had several refills of tea and looked at dozens and dozens of gorgeous and rather expensive silk rugs.  Oh, if you had just all the money in the world!  We kept the shop owner Saeed and his assistant Shantir going for over an hour.  Nicola was in her element – happy as a clam – with her magnifying glass inspecting threats and counting knots!  Both of us were on the floor, shoes off, having fun.  She even got out her baby pictures and made Saeed sit through a whole session of looking at photos.  It’s not that they had anything else to do.

We kept on strolling.  This is finally a bazaar of the type, David, you have been waiting for:  You want to buy it all!   One shop after another is full of beautiful, touristy, and useless items:  Miniature paintings on paper, or camel bones, embossed silver ware, a variety of textiles and boutique style clothes, local blue ceramics, traditional block prints and on and on and on.

At the other end of the bazaar we ran into Bahrooz; rather he must have sought us out.  He saw me taking pictures of one of the arches and cut right in:  “4 PM is the perfect for this arch!”  I could see that he had a point.  Bahrooz is about 35, and one of those enthusiastic, animated, extroverted guys who cracks a joke every 10 minutes and who is full of good stories.  If you could just capture him without him knowing it – his facial expressions and gestures are endlessly varied and vivid.  He is very funny and very entertaining.

From here it was just a matter of shaking him off, or going with the flow which he would direct.  He told us he was on call from his wife who was spending his money at the bazaar.  Until the call he was our “free guide” and would show us some of the real culture of Iran.  We went with him.  First, he showed us a workshop of a traditional block-print maker who had a certificate by the UNESCO recognizing him as authentic old school.  He had glasses full of pigments which he ground for colors.  He had a whole shelf of wood blocks which have to be put on top of each other with different colors and with the utmost precision to create some of the most intricate designs you can imagine.  This is right up my alley – traditional handicrafts.  I know I have to go back and buy some…

This old guy – we did not even get his name – also had some 100-200 year old huge block prints in his possession.  This was the real fun.  They were not for sale and he would not let us photograph them.  But one of them was of clearly Christian origin with a Madonna and child.  The other one had a bizarre design of a horseback rider with multiple animal heads coming out of the horse.  We were allowed to take some photographs of that.  Most of his contemporary designs were geometric and floral designs.

At this point, Nicola was tired and wanted to have a rest, but, she was persuaded to come along for just a few more minutes to see a couple of carpet-related things “behind the scenes”.  First, Bahrooz took us into the warehouse district of the bazaar and into a four storied building.  He took us up onto a terrace from where we could see the domed roof-tops of the individual shops in the bazaar.  Great view!  Without him, we would have never seen this.  He told us that he is in the carpet restoration business.  He has been all over the world to museums to repair unique pieces.  His workshop was on the first floor of this building.  He comes from a family of restorers and his next trip will take him to Australia.

He showed us a workshop where carpets were prepared for sale:   First, the access hair on the back of a carpet is burned off with 20 and 40 pound old irons!  Then the carpet is placed on a big table and sheered down to an even height, and then it is stretched, literally stapled to the ground to make it a perfect rectangle.  Fascinating!  And finally, he took us to Mr. Akbar, the expert on Nomads.  That was my downfall!  Mr. Akbar was very welcoming.  He is in the business of buying and selling tribal artifacts and rugs but also in the process of writing a book on all the tribal designs, materials, patterns, etc.

Mr. Akbar showed us a variety of types of textiles from almost all different Nomadic groups in the country. Aside from functional tribal textiles he had loads and loads of woolen rugs and tribal carpets.  And guess who woke right up and was not tired any more at all…?!  Nicola had a great time sifting through the rugs while I was looking at the artifacts.  We spent so much time there, that Bahrooz ran out to get lunch/dinner for us.  Supposedly, his wife had called to let him know she was visiting her mother.  He was in no hurry.  We ate the most interesting paste of eggplant, saffron, rice, and sheep’s neck – yes!  Mr. Akbar could not explain it any better than that; a part of a sheep’s neck is part of this mixture; which one, we could not figure out.  It is all meshed up into a slimy green mass, topped with yoghurt sauce and fried onions.  Once again it is eaten with bread.  It was delicious!

Mr. Akbar confirmed that there are about 1 Million Nomads left.   It was good to hear that he said the government has slowed down, if not given up, on settling these remaining tribes.   Under the latest government financial aid, medical treatment, and fuel has been given to the Nomads to ease their existing lifestyle and to support it, rather than end it.  Well, there is one thing Mr. Ahmadinajad is doing right.

There are the salt-bags, the saddle bags, the camel trunks, the baby cradles, the bread cloths, the hand bags, and the straps for wrapping a big load onto a donkey, the various tribal coats, and the of course, the hats…  And every piece he had was not only authentic, but old.  The bread cloths were one of the most interesting things for me:  The Nomads have a square cloth on which they put grain and water and all the bread ingredients they might have.  They fold the cloth over on all four sides to let the dough rise. When the dough is ready, they roll it into the desired shape and bake it.  The same cloth is then turned over and serves as a table cloth for eating.  I bought… let’s just say a lot.  And I paid… let’s just say a lot; but certainly not too much if you measure it by American standards.  Each one of these pieces will end up in the classroom for show and tell, of course.  And in between it will hang somewhere on my wall.  I can’t wait.  The package Mr. Akbar rolled up for me was heavy.  I was grateful that Bahrooz carried it back for us to our hotel.  His wife still did not seem to need him back.  How I will carry it from here will be seen.

Our last stop on the way home was Bahrooz father’s store.   He is another famous restoration artist but also a miniature painter.  He paints on old restored paper, or on camel bones:  Beautiful scenes of war, hunt, landscapes, ladies, and much, much more; all in the Persian miniature tradition.  I know, I will have to go back to buy some…

You could say we went shopping today.

To be honest, I think Bahrooz has an agreement with all these people – if he brings them customers to their remote locations and if they buy something, he will get a cut.  And you know what?  Bahrooz has great people skills.  He lead us to some very interesting things which were tremendously enriching for our understanding of Iran’s culture.  He is educated and has people skills.  He deserves his cut.

Good night.