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Iran returns to Persian carpet gulf

By Tom Hundley
Chicago Tribune
August 3, 2000

The bazaar in Tehran is a vast and immutable universe unto itself, a labyrinth of blind alleys and dimly lit, closet-size shops. More than 1,000 years old, the bazaar conducts its business according to rhythms and rules of its own making.

The section given over to commerce in rugs is the size of a small town, and accordingly it has its high aristocracy and political class as well as its rogues and scoundrels. On a recent afternoon, when the outside temperature was pushing 100 degrees, the elders of the rug bazaar began and concluded their monthly board meeting with a heartfelt entreaty to Allah. In between, it was all sweet tea and business.

These days the main concern of Tehran's rug merchants is recapturing their share of the American market. In April, two months after pro-West reformers swept Iran's parliamentary elections, the Clinton administration nodded its approval by lifting the 1987 import ban on Iranian carpets, caviar and pistachios.

This means that Iran's vast and arcane rug industry will again have a crack at what had once been its second-largest export market after Germany. The opportunity comes at a critical time. The export value of handmade Persian carpets has plummeted from a high of $1.64 billion in 1994 to $688 million last year.

But as Tehran's rug merchants are quickly discovering, much has changed in the American rug market during their 13-year absence.

For one thing, their market share has been taken over by low-cost competitors from India, Pakistan and China who advertise their imitations of traditional Persian designs as "Indo-Persian" or "Persian-Pak."

"We once had 48 percent of the American market. Now we have nothing. To recover this is almost impossible," said Akbar Baradar-Herischian, a third- generation rug merchant who is chairman of the Union of Iranian Carpet Exporters, the organization that represents the 1,200 rug merchants in the Tehran bazaar.

He is a precise and formal man, more the small town bank president than the stereotypical rug merchant. In the spartan room where the union's executive board does its business--a room surprisingly absent of carpets--he offered his visitor dainty glasses of tea, slices of melon and a rare glimpse inside the closed world of Tehran's carpet fraternity.

Carpets are Iran's most important non-oil export. The carpet sector also is Iran's largest employer with some 2.2 million people engaged in carpet weaving and another 1.2 million supplying the raw materials for carpet production; in all, 15 percent of the nation's workforce.

Despite its size and importance, Iran's carpet industry remains a true cottage industry. Most of the weaving is still done by individuals in rural villages, although this is changing as Iran undergoes modernization and urbanization.

"It's true, the families are moving to the cities, but they are bringing their looms with them," Baradar-Herischian said. "The increase in carpet prices makes it worthwhile. Carpets still bring very good money."

At the moment, production is high and, according to Baradar-Herischian, "we have more carpets than we need."

The problem is whether these are the carpets the fickle American market wants to buy. Depending on size, it can take 5 to 15 years to weave a high-quality Persian carpet--plenty of time for consumer tastes to do an 180-degree about-face.

While Iran was shut out of the U.S., he said, American buyers turned to Indian, Pakistani, Turkish and Chinese weavers to develop new designs. Some American buyers already have re-established contacts with Iranian weavers to work on new styles, but it will take a few years before the new rugs reach the U.S. market.

Ali Rejali, a fifth-generation rug merchant, is not sure which direction American tastes are going, but he knows that rugs in the soft, muted pastels and earth tones so much in demand a decade ago are sitting unsold in his warehouse.

Rejali, 50, who has an engineering degree from California Polytechnic Institute and once owned a carpet store in Houston, moved back to Tehran eight years ago so his children could grow up with their own culture and language. He recently returned from a swing through New York, Washington, Houston and Los Angeles in an attempt to get a handle on the American market.

"All the rugs we have are totally wrong. They want rugs that go with their furniture, darker colors and geometric designs," he said.

Some in the rug industry complain that the quality of Iranian rugs has diminished since the 1979 revolution, and that catering to American tastes while trying to compete with low-cost Indian and Pakistani producers will only further diminish quality.

Huri Hakami, 53, whose family has sold rugs for more than a century, lamented the "lack of harmony in the weaving quality" of many pieces she sees these days. She is one of the few women in the rug trade, taking over the family business after her husband died a few years ago.

"It couldn't get any worse than this, but it's still a lot better than what they are making in India and Pakistan," she said, offering her visitor tea and tiny cakes.

"Death to America," she added, recalling the favorite slogan of the Islamic Revolution, "was really death for us."

But Rejali disagreed. "We still have good weavers. The industry is well-managed. You can go to Tabriz or Isfahan or Qom or any of our weaving centers and see that they are making very good quality rugs," he said. "Better than before the revolution."

He pointed to a new 9 x 12 Tabriz from his own stock, a classic design in golds and beiges and blues, but perhaps a bit fussy for American tastes. With more than 29 million knots, it took 18 years to make. Rejali said it would sell for $150,000 to $200,000 and that probably some rich Saudi would take it.

"Americans want fine quality. We have to produce the right designs," he said.

Ehsan Hosseindjani, 36, a fourth-generation rug merchant with an easy-going charm, is eager to bring the rug trade into the global economy.

"We have to go with the flow. We have to go with the tastes of the consumer. The important thing for us to do now is to get out and see the customer, talk to him, see what he wants. In the old days we sat back and said, 'God will bring us customers.' We can't do that anymore," he said.

"The U.S. is now a new market for us. We have to learn it all over again."

Hosseindjani uses computer graphics to come up with designs and color schemes he hopes will appeal to American buyers.

"I take my ideas, my printouts, my color charts and go out to the small villages. It's not easy. For them, carpet weaving is a tradition. They've been doing it the same way for generations. They hate change, but we have to conquer this mentality."

A few years ago, Hosseindjani moved his shop out of Tehran's teeming and chaotic central bazaar and into an airy shopping mall in one of the up-market northern suburbs. He sees the Internet as the next step.

But despite his determination to move the rug trade into the global arena, Hosseindjani acknowledges his heart remains in the bazaar. He still maintains an office and warehouse there.

"The bazaar is the heart of this business," he said. "It can't be replaced. But the bazaar has to change too. It can't be all traditions."

Inside the circumscribed universe of the bazaar, one finds large trading halls that bustle like the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, and musty shops that look as though they haven't seen a customer in years. Business is lubricated with an endless stream of steaming tea.

Strangers and tourists don't stand a chance.

"You have to be born here, and then it takes a lifetime," Hosseindjani said with a modest laugh.

"Reputation is the only rule in the bazaar and respect is your only weapon. If you are not respected, you are done," he said.

What about the rug merchants' reputation as, well, rug merchants? It is a job description that does not inspire trust or warm feelings.

"That hurts. A lot. It really does," said Hosseindjani, offering more tea.

"I'm not pushy. I don't want to give you the feeling that I'm here to take your dollars or to sell you something you don't want. Look, if you don't love this carpet, after one year return it for the same money you paid. That's our policy."


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