How I Entered the Oriental Rug Business
The individual most responsible for leading me to my all-but-perfect occupation was Hajji Gholamreza Rahimpour, a Shiraz dealer with a small shop, a quiet manner, and a deep, complex heart. We met during my first visit to Iran in 1970, when my wife at that time, Patricia, and I bought a number of pieces from him. Though he spoke no English and my knowledge of Farsi was limited to phrases and a few dozen words, a comfortable engagement appeared, from the beginning.

We had visited a half dozen dealers in the Bazaar Vakil, southern Iran’s largest bazaar, before encountering “the Hajji,” as he was known. He stood in his shop, a stone’s throw from the Vakil Mosque, and initially I was struck by the intensity of his blue eyes. Patricia and I both felt something exceptional in him, in his quietness, in the way he stood near us, calm and attentive, but never pressing us to buy anything. He smiled rarely and made no attempt to reduce a natural distance existing between strangers. Yet his company was appealing and even comforting.

Hajji’s inventory favored precisely the weavings I had been looking for: “indigenous” objects, made by nomads for themselves, including flat-woven gelim (kilims), varieties of bags, decorative trappings for animals, and even tiny cross-shaped weavings for the foreheads of camels. Hajji Rahimpour knew about all of these and gave each one its tribal name: “Luri,” “Kordi,” “Arab-Khamseh,” “Baharlu,” “Goshguy-ee,” “Afshar.” No other dealers shared such detailed information and for the first time I found myself sorting  rugs dealers back home generalized as “Shiraz,” or perhaps “Kashkai,” into distinct tribal groups.

His shop, crammed with tribal pieces, also displayed miniature Isfahans, a mainstay of his business with European tourists.

Patricia and I returned to his shop every day of our stay in Shiraz and always found something new: a bag so small that only a few coins could fit inside, or a woven band for the back end of a donkey, under its tail.

Efforts to bargain with “Hajji” (an honorific title, implying having made the requisite “hajj” to Mecca) went nowhere. Unlike other dealers, his asking and selling prices were the same. Years later, he explained: “If I sometimes sell something for too little, does this really cost me anything?  Those who pay less than they expect always come again to buy.  And if my prices are high, who will return then?” 

Like Patricia, I was a school teacher, not a rug dealer. We were on summer vacation and though I had enjoyed visiting rug shops, I had no plans to become a dealer. Perhaps changing occupations crossed my mind, since it was clear that I was not a “born teacher.” But being in the rug business required capital and I had none. What I had—perhaps what had me—was a passionate attraction, to the weavings, to Islamic buildings, and to the wordless force they emanated.

I first discovered Islamic architecture, and rugs followed. In 1967 I found a book on Islamic buildings in a second-hand book store in the city where I lived, Berkeley, California. Opening its pages, I felt an attraction I had never experienced before. The colorful tile patterns, covering entire walls of buildings, seemed perfect in every detail. I felt called, not to ideas or a doctrine, but to something deeper than words. My eyes moved from one harmonious detail to another, then to large symmetrical panels as a whole. Holding this book and turning its pages, I was amazed.

I might still find a friend who knew me then, a follow teacher who I induced to sit with me for a half an hour or more, looking at pages in The Art of Central Asia, the first book I found, or a second, Persian Architecture: The Triumph of Form and Color. Images of mosques filled both books and I expected my friend to see what I saw and feel what I felt. But he couldn’t. Only years later did I realize that such powerful attractions come like lightning bolts that no one else experiences. (Their lightning bolts, when they appear, will be different.)

When summer of 1970 came, Patricia and I flew to Europe on a bargain flight, bought a Volkswagen mini-van, outfitted it as a mobile cabin and headed across Europe, through Greece, and Turkey, into Iran. Patricia’s weaving interests supported my destination, though, like my teaching friend, pictures of Islamic structures did not touch her as they did me.  
Reaching Iran from Turkey and moving from city to city, town to town, we saw­ (­beheld could be a better word) ­scores of lovely mosques, some historic, some modest, yet exquisite. Nearly every building displayed tile work expressing infinity in unique ways. All were appealing and all were, of course, stationary objects. Rugs, in contrast, were portable, and for sale. They also contained hints of what attracted me. Confronting architectural panels, ­and many rugs, ­I saw nothing out of balance, nothing missing, nothing extra. 

A later leitmotif of my career—the search for “design origins”—led me to look for weavings nomads made for themselves. Such objects, I thought, could contain influences even older than Islam, which came to Iran in the 8th century. 

Most towns with a few hundred citizens had someone selling rugs and dealers were easy to find in city bazaars. To my benefit, tribal and village pieces were extremely inexpensive, especially in shops deep in bazaars, where darkened corridors were off-putting for tourists. In such shops I sometimes bought small tribal bags for as little as fifty cents.

By early July, with a dozen rugs and many small pieces in our mini-van, we entered southern Iran’s capital, Shiraz, and soon found the Vakil mosque. Attached was the Bazaar Vakil and there we met Gholamreza Rahimpour, “the Hajji, specializing in goods made by nomads, for nomads, including cloth bags used to carry tribal belongings, since sharp-edged containers would bruise beasts of burden.
Returning to him daily, we continued buying from Hajji Rahimpour and by our final day in Shiraz his shop was our sole destination. Before leaving that final afternoonI asked for his address and took phonetic dictation.
“Gho-lam-reza ­Ra-him-pour, ­Ba-zaar Va-kil, Shiraz, Iran.”

We hurried from Shiraz by way of Hamadan to Istanbul, and, days later, by freighter, to Naples. Adhering to the day and hour of an appointment for shipping the mini-van back home, we reached northern Germany in the nick of time.  (Along our path I had looked for a way to transport all our purchases, but never found one. We thus used the mini-van to transport everything, securing everything with ropes, as best we could.  

We returned safely and our Volkswagen, still packed with rugs and all our other purchases, arrived a month later. Our modest apartment quickly became a small museum. Colorful rugs went on floors; gelims went on walls and saddle bags on the backs of chairs. I especially enjoyed placing a special variety of animal-trapping—flat-woven or pile weavings about three inches wide and several feet long—on a single wall. Like rugs, they had borders and repeating patterns throughout the field.  (There may conceivably have been displays of this kind in Shiraz, but surely none in North America.)

Patricia and I enjoyed all this immensely.

Not needing the Volkswagen mini-van further we placed an ad in local papers to sell it.  Only two men answered our ad.  Arriving together, they inspected the van quickly and were eager to close the deal and paid in hundred dollar bills.  They signed the registration form but I neglected to keep a copy.  

Why I showed these men the rugs and other weavings we had purchased, I do not know. There was no need to do this.  I simply wished to.   

A weekday afternoon two weeks later, returning from our respective jobs, Patricia and I found every single weaving gone—stolen.

The thief—probably the buyers of our V. W., though I could never be sure—had entered through an open window. They rolled up rugs and kilims, removed bags and trappings from walls and chairs, and left. Twenty dollars in cash remained untouched on my dresser top and the only missing item not purchased during the summer was a brightly colored sweater Patricia had finished knitting a few days earlier. Finding it gone, she wept.

A week later, still struggling to digest all this, I recalled the piece of paper with Gholamreza Rahimpour address and found it in a folder with photos of weavings we had purchased. I wrote to him, enclosing all the photos and asking if he might somehow search for similar goods.

Two months passed and, receiving no response, thoughts of Shiraz and the Hajji faded. But my interest in Oriental rugs continued growing as I spent many Saturdays probing local rug stores. Most were owned by Armenians but several belonged to a new breed of dealer then beginning to appear. These were not Armenians but American ­enthusiasts, making their entry into this field. Visiting San Francisco and East Bay shops, I found that Iran, especially Hajji Rahimpour, had thoroughly spoiled me. I admired many items but bought nothing.

Unexpectedly—after I had given up hope—midway in the third month after posting my letter to Shiraz, the postman left six odd-looking bundles at our door. Yellow plastic ropes secured tightly packed flour sacks with faded Farsi printing. Written in bold letters on each sack: my name and address.  Opening them, I confronted dozens of appealing animal trappings, small rugs and old gelim. One package included a handwritten letter in Farsi and a list with Arabic numbers, presumably a price list.

                                                             “Iran House”

An Iranian student in our neighborhood who had taught me bits of Farsi prior to our trip had since returned to Iran. Wondering who might translate this letter from Shiraz, I spoke with a local rug collector who suggested visiting “Iran House” in Berkeley, a center for Iranian students on the University of California’s Berkeley campus.
Knocking at the door of Iran House, a dour, bearded man, perhaps thirty years old, appeared, but remained inside.

What do you want?

I held up Gholamreza Rahimpour’s letter and explained receiving packages from Shiraz, and my need to learn what this was about. I held up a page that seemed to be a price list and this seized the bearded man’s attention. Stepping outside, he examined it.

“This has prices of things woven by impoverished peasants! This Shirazi dealer wants you to sell these things! You are both exploiting rural workers!”

I questioned how buying pieces made fifty to one hundred years earlier could possibly exploit anyone, adding: “Many nomads are leaving their old way of life and have no use for these things. Since they sell them freely and receive money, how can there be exploitation?”

Through all of this I held a five dollar bill in my left hand and the young man’s eyes kept drifting to it. He was definitely interested in the five dollars, but even more in “rural workers,” “injustice to the proletariat,” and “class consciousness.” For the very first time, I was confronting a living, breathing communist.

When he reached for the five dollar bill we began to meet on ideologically neutral ground: his interests and mine. He opened the door to Iran House, gesturing for me to enter.

Looking at walls in the entry area, and in a large adjacent living room, posters were everywhere. Posters depicting grim revolutionaries with cartridge belts draped across their chests, in the manner of Mexican bandits. Each face was fierce and determined and each man wished to get his hands on the Shah.

Proceeding with the translation, the bearded man explained Hajji Rahimpour’s wishes. I was to select pieces I liked and keep them for myself. I would sell the remainder and send a check to Shiraz. A final line read: “In this way you will be close to where you where before the theft you suffered.”

Trusting me on the slimmest of rationales, this distant Hajji was helping to heal a painful wound, and nudging me into the Oriental rug business.

                                                            In Business

A week later I took out small classified ads in Oakland and Berkeley newspapers, advertising my wares. Soon most goods Hajji Rahimpour sent were sold, but, contrary to his advice, I did not keep the best pieces for myself. By far, they were the easiest to sell and I was not yet sure of being able to gather all the money I needed. But this proved easier than expected.  Keeping a half dozen items, once again our apartment was alive with color. I mailed a check to Shiraz, including photos of favorite pieces and a note: “Can we continue in this way?”
Five weeks later the check cleared my bank and a month afterward more packages arrived, with a handwritten letter in Farsi.

Visiting Iran house again, I met the same man and heard the same revolutionary talk. For another five dollars he translated this second letter. Before placing ads to sell these items I phoned previous customers, who came to purchase things. Several brought friends.
Without intending to, yet not against my will, I was in the Oriental rug business. My primary source: a quiet, blue-eyed Hajji in Shiraz. Our shipping system: the postal services of our two nations. My advertising: local newspapers and soon, a combination of paid advertisements and word-of-mouth.  After a third shipment, I visited a neighborhood printer and ordered business cards: “James Opie Oriental Rugs.” I had no store, no plans to open one, and virtually no money. But I was deeply interested.  I had a source of supply and customers. I had . . . a business.

To take a further step--­toward precisely where I did not know--­surely called for returning to Asia.

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