‘Democracy’

James
James McLeod
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How one intrepid reporter put aside his bow tie for a Panama hat as he haggled for a rug in Istanbul

Bülent sipped his tea and casually mentioned it’s his birthday tomorrow.

“Kismet.”

On the floor in the middle of the shop, there was only one rug left.

Bülent offered me another cup of tea, and placed the calculator he was holding in front of me, and then said something in Turkish to Hamid, his nephew, who was in the kitchen behind me.

Switching back to English, Bülent said said that he wanted me to take the calculator, and punch in a number that I would be willing to pay for the rug.

“If it was too little, I say no, and is no problem. I say my number, you say your number. If we don’t agree? OK. Democracy.”

But don’t say anything yet, he told me. First, just think about it for a few minutes. Think about what you would be willing to spend on that very fine rug. And first, let’s just drink tea.

“Apple tea, or the Turkish tea again?”

I went with the apple tea.

•••

I swear, I was really only in it for the tea.

It was the end of my first full day in Istanbul, and my feet were aching. I’d wandered around the Grand Bazaar for more than an hour accosted by pashmina sellers and rug merchants. One kid who looked like he was about 14 years old walked up to me in the street and said, “Hey friend, you look just like Tom Cruise!” I didn’t break my stride. I just smiled and kept moving. I was too smart to be taken in by that sort of thing.

After the Grand Bazaar, I ended up down at the Spice Bazaar, where I think I got hosed by a spice merchant selling me sumac and Aleppo pepper. You’re supposed to haggle, right? That’s what all the guidebooks say. Whatever the man says, offer him half, and don’t cave under pressure. Don’t be afraid to walk away.

Well, there I was with a shopping list of spices from my friend, Jonathan, and the man was only too happy to oblige, opening drawers and scooping out the brightly-coloured powders. And when I mentioned that I was buying for a friend back in Canada, he happily had his helper, Hamid (the helpers always seem to be named Hamid) vacuum seal the spices so they’d be easier to transport. All packed up — vacuum packed, so I couldn’t ask them to take a bit of spice out — the total came to 106 Turkish lira. At a 2:1 exchange rate, that works out to about $50. When I balked at the price, the shop keeper dropped it down to 100 Turkish lira. And then I paid.

“Got your spices. Not sure how much it all should have cost, but based on how the transaction went down, there’s a 60% chance I was a chump,” I said to Jonathan over Twitter direct message.

“Fantastic. Thank you. They love it when you haggle. But everyone’s a chump if you’re a tourist,” Jonathan wrote back. It didn’t exactly bolster me.

But $50 bucks isn’t too bad, and I’d get paid back when I got home. Not the end of the world.

More walking, more exploring, back to the Grand Bazaar where I bought a new belt — said 85 lira, I said 40, we went back and forth a while and we landed on 60 lira. I felt OK about myself.

I got dinner, and then ended up wandering around in the snaky old cobblestone streets of Sultanahment near the Blue Mosque.

Earlier in the day, I’d found an alley-way cafe where a man sold tea from a cart, and served it up to little tables. These setups were all over the place, and I was looking for another one to sit and read my book and rest my feet for a few minutes.

•••

That’s about when Bülent Sevim swooped in, and offered to show me his fine selection of rugs — best price, from a shop that’s been in his family for three generations.

He wore a grey suit and a red tie loosened and had his top button undone. He seemed confident. A lot of the sales tactics around Istanbul amount to pleading, but not this guy. I figured it’d be tea and a bit of entertainment.

“Sure. Yeah. I’d love to see,” I said.

All the guidebooks say that you should go rug shopping, just for the experience. They serve tea and show you their wares. There’s no obligation to buy. Just look. That’s about what Bülent said, too. Just come in and see.

Bülent peppered his speech with Turkish words, and he had a thick accent, so I missed little bits. Once we were inside the shop, he stretched out his hand and asked where I was from. I told him I was from Canada, and I shook his hand.

He didn’t let go. Still grasping my hand — not too firmly, but not so gently that I could extract it without at least a bit of awkward tugging — he led me to a couch at the back of the shop. He offered me tea, and told me he was just going to give me information. He was just going to teach me about rugs. There was no obligation.

Oh, and don’t even think about price, he said. What matters is material, and quality, and age. I just sort of sat there. I had my little glass of tea. I had what I came for.

Meanwhile, Bülent was unrolling rugs in the middle of the floor — a wool one here, a silk one there, a kilim wool one, and a traditional tribal one, with different pieces stitched together.

Bülent and I walked around them, observing the quality and discussing the differences. The silk carpets actually change their colour dramatically depending on which angle you’re looking at them. The different wool rugs feel very different. Bülent told me to get down and actually touch the material to feel it for myself. I felt the rugs, and agreed that yes, indeed, they felt like rugs.

The kilim wool one felt coarse, but it looked very nice, I said.

Right away, Hamid started rolling up the other carpets, and Bülent went to get more in the style

that apparently I was interested in. Those got laid out on the floor, and we spent another round looking at rugs and comparing.

After a little while, Bülent again asked me which one was my favourite. Of the ones I was looking at, the very first one still caught my eye.

The colours looked good together — earthy reds and greens — and the pattern was nice.

Hamid went back to rolling up rugs, and Bülent ushered me back to the couch.

He asked me if I had a wife. No. How about a girlfriend? No.

This is a favourite tactic of the sellers in Istanbul. At least a few times, “You have a girlfriend?” was the opening line they used at the Grand Bazaar. Maybe it was just a quirk of the accent, but I swear I heard one guy started his pitch with, “Your ex-girlfriend will like.” I almost stopped and heard that guy out.

Bülent, though, fell back on the old standby: What about sister or mother? Buy it for them.

He asked me how long I was staying. He asked me if I was here alone. Just small talk, really.

“I am a singer on television and Internet,” he offered, without any real segue. I laughed.

Then the calculator came out, and he was ready to talk price. I was ready to let him know that I really wasn’t going to be buying anything, but he breezed right past that.

The rug. One thousand six hundred lira, he said, punching the numbers in on the calculator. No bloody way. That’s around $800. That’s my rent for a month. For that kind of money I could buy a shitty car. Even half that — according to the TripAdvisor crash course in haggling, half is a good starting point — is more than I’d spend. I said as much.

“You tell me how much you spend,” Bülent said. “You tell me a number. My face will not change. Democracy.”

He kept saying democracy. I think he meant free speech. You know, like, freedom to suggest whatever price you wanted to suggest. I think he also kept saying it because it’s one of those good words that people like. Democracy. Everybody’s happy. Now let’s try to sell you that rug.

“Listen, I don’t want to insult you,” I said. “It’s a very nice rug.”

He shrugged. You say what you want. Democracy.

I said I would maybe spend $200 on a nice rug. Say 400 lira, at the very most. His face didn’t change, but it told me that I wouldn’t be buying the rug for 400 lira.

This is about the time he mentioned that his birthday was tomorrow. And at some point, he mentioned again that he was a singer.

He said he was in a good mood. Happy. Lucky. Kismet. Birthday tomorrow.

He said this wasn’t business. This was just us, just talking. I didn’t understand what he meant. Not business. Much later, he tried to sell me another rug — a beautiful, massive silk one for more than $3,000 — and he tried to entice me by saying that I could sell it for easily twice as much in Canada. I guess that’s what he meant by “business.”

He said that he believes that if you sell to someone for a good price, maybe they come back and they pay a little more next time. Or maybe they tell people they got a good price, and then other people come. He said just as friends — no business — if he sold me the rug, I had to promise to tell lots of other people.

I laughed. I wasn’t going to buy the rug.

He handed me the calculator and told me to punch in a new number. Think about it. Come up with a number I would pay. If it was too low, then we go our separate ways. But maybe ... maybe ... kismet.

Then he got Hamid on the apple tea, and pulled out his phone.

He pulled up YouTube and searched for “Bülent San.” He made very sure to show me that’s what he was searching for. Then the video started to load and he handed me the phone, and sure enough, there he was, on the Internet, singing. In Turkish.

I laughed again. What the hell do you say to that sort of thing?

After another minute or two of small talk, and a few more sips of tea, he said it was time to put in a number. I grimaced. I said, again, I didn’t want to insult him.

I figured 500 lira would be low enough that I’d get out of there unscathed. Thirty per cent of the original price? No way he’d let it go for that.

I punched in 500 and handed him the calculator. His face changed. He was disappointed. He said 700 lira, maybe. I thought I was home free.

We had a few more minutes of hemming and hawing. I said even 500 is more than I wanted to spend. He said some more stuff about friendship and business and recommending to all your friends.

Then, oh God, he said OK, 500 lira, and he reached out to shake my hand. I shook it — I mean, at that point, what could I really do? — and had this sinking feeling in my stomach. After the $1,200 on a flight to Turkey, the hotel, the food, and everything else, I didn’t have money to be spending on rugs right now.

But Hamid was already rummaging behind a stack of rugs for a roll of brown paper, and Bülent was on the floor, folding it up. He had trouble getting one of the corners straight, so he asked me to help, and all of a sudden there I was down on my knees helping to pack up the rug I didn’t really want to buy.

I tried to bail, and it briefly got ugly.

“Are you a man?” Bülent asked me reproachfully.

“When you make agreement, is your word nothing?”

Not long after that, my Visa card was in the machine, and I was buying the rug.

Once the transaction went through, Bülent spread his arms wide and hugged me. He filled out a Certificate of Guarantee. He said I could bring it back any time for a refund. I don’t even want to know what sort of tactics he’s got for those transactions.

The rug was placed into a bag with woven plastic straps and a zipper — the same sort of material you’d make a gym bag out of, but more basic.

Bülent offered me another cup of tea. Defeated, I said yes.

I asked if I could take his picture, and when he saw the result, he smiled and said he looked like “mafia.”

We sat and made small talk, while he rolled a cigarette. I thought to myself ruefully, “Smoking after a good f--k, eh?”

While we sipped on the tea, I idly asked how much one of those big silk ones hanging on the wall cost. Moments later, cigarette dangling from his lips, we were back at it again, with two different big silk rugs rolled out on the floor, walking around them to see how the fabric changed colour at different angles. Right back to selling.

Before I left, he gave me five of his business cards, and told me again to recommend him to all my friends. Sure, I said, I’ll do that.

•••

On the way back to the hotel, a Turkish man came up to me on the street, and observed that I’d just bought a rug. I guess the navy bag is a dead giveaway. He asked me if I’d come to his shop. He had other rugs to show me. Maybe even a better price.

I politely declined, and he started asking me questions about what kind of rug I bought and how much I paid for it. I told him 500 lira for the rug, medium size.

He looked surprised, and asked who I bought it from, so I reached into my breast pocket and gave him one of Bülent’s business cards.

“Very good price,” the man said, walking away from me, “Go in peace."

Organizations: Apple, Spice Bazaar, TripAdvisor Visa

Geographic location: Istanbul, Panama, Canada Sultanahment Turkey

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Recent comments

  • Carla
    July 07, 2014 - 11:50

    Great story!

  • Harry
    July 07, 2014 - 09:35

    Great story, James. Brings back pleasant memories.

  • MARC
    July 07, 2014 - 05:44

    Hand Tufted rugs are hand made by skilled artisans. Weavers loop wool through a primary backing. A natural latex adhesive is then applied to the back of the rug to secure the wool loops, and a secondary coating is added for finishing. Although the process of manufacturing Hand Tufted rugs is shorter than that of a Hand Knotted rug, each rug remains a unique, handmade work of art.