Persian Jews in the Oriental Rug Business
by Bob Gibson
ICOC Paper delivered in Tehran, Iran, 1992
by Bob Gibson
ICOC Paper delivered in Tehran, Iran, 1992
From Oriental Rug Review, Vol. 13/2
I originally became interested in the history of the Iranian Jews in the carpet business when I first got involved in the business myself 14 years ago. It intrigued me that so many of the Iranian carpet dealers with whom I came into contact were Jews when they represent such a small minority of the Iranian population. At no time have they exceeded more than one half of one percent.
My first contact with them was on Ferdowsi Street in Tehran where, with a few exceptions, the merchants were Jewish. Then in the early 1980's upon returning to the United States, I discovered to my surprise that most of the dealers in Los Angeles and New York were recently arrived Iranian Jews. Upon investigating this phenomenon further, I learned that in the history of the Iranian carpet business the Iranian Jews have truly played an important role.
Originally from Tehran, Abdolrahim Etessami left Iran for the first time in 1960. With his sons he is now owner of Alfandari and Etessami in Manhattan. About his long partnership with Turkish Jew Albert Alfandari, he says, "Even though we are not related we worked together for 40 years." [Ed. Note: The partners worked together for 40 years, but the several times we were in their presence they invariably addressed each other as "Mister."]
I didn't seriously begin to research this history until earlier this year when I decided it might make an interesting topic for a paper at this conference. Unfortunately there is little if anything written about the history of Iranian Jews in the carpet business. My information has been gleaned from recent interviews I've conducted with these people in the U.S. and Germany. Fortunately everyone has been enthusiastic in relating their stories to me.
There are several good books and articles that have been written in the U.S. and Israel on the history of the Jews in the Middle East, and in Iran in particular. They provide a good general background of the Jews' experience as a minority in this region.
The history of Jews in Iran began some 2,500 years ago with the defeat of the Babylonians by Cyrus the Great (?-529 B.C.). Cyrus had a policy of religious tolerance which probably insured the survival of the Jews as a people. The situation for the Jews appeared so promising at this point that Isaiah referred to Cyrus as the Messiah. Cyrus's successors continued his policy of tolerance for Jews as well as for other peoples in the empire.
Under the Parthians, conditions for Jewish life were also very favorable. Jewish traders worked throughout the empire, but the center of Jewish life in the Persian world remained in Mesopotamia. It was here that Judaism evolved into the religion we know today -- with a notable Zoroastrian influence.
Due to persecution under the Greeks and Romans, Jews continued to emigrate from Palestine to Persia where they could find a more compatible situation. The Sassanian king, Shapur I, encouraged that all peoples, Jews as well as Christians, be free to practice their own religion. The Sassanians, like the Parthians before them, continued the traditional hostilities between Persia and Rome, and realized that Middle Eastern Jews and Christians would be good allies.
The development of Jews as an international people stems from this era. Living in both the Greco-Roman and Persian worlds, Jews developed and maintained social and economic ties between the two. This tradition of contacts between East and West gave the Jews an economic advantage which contributed, as we will see later, to their recent success as exporters and importers in Iran. Jews in the Sassanian era (226-641 A.D.) began migrating in large numbers eastward to urban areas such as Hamadan and Isfahan. Although a small number became active in agriculture and settled in Kurdistan, the trend for Persian Jews has been toward urbanization. Many became involved in banking and international trade with widespread connections extending from Turkey and the Levant to India and Central Asia. A Jewish business letter dated 718 A.D. which has been found in Khotan demonstrates the extent of these contacts. With the advent of Islam, the Jews and Christians lived under the Covenant of Umar, a comprehensive code governing their activities, which they agreed to abide by in exchange for protection from the Muslim state. In addition, an annual poll tax, or jizyah, was levied. The Persian Jews prospered under this condition and the trend of urbanization continued. Most lived in separate quarters in the cities but interacted with the general populace in the bazaar.
The Abbasid revolt, which started in Khorassan, benefitted all non-Arab peoples of the empire, including the Jews. The Mesopotamian Jews were particularly fortunate that the capital shifted from Damascus to Baghdad for this enhanced their economic position. Although Mesopotamia was once more the center of a great empire, the Persian Jews did not remain concentrated in that area. For some time trade had been attracting them to cities in the East, and this continued after 750. Many settled in the cities of Khorasan, Afghanistan, and Turkestan.
Born in Mashad, Parviz Roubeni has built his very successful firm, A. Roubeni AG of Hamburg, Germany, into one of the largest and most important in Europe.
The Jewish experience in the Islamic world has often been contrasted favorably to that in Christian Europe. Persian Jews of this period were encouraged to help expand international trade and often rose to positions of great wealth and power. However, little detail was known about Jewish life until the time of the Safavids when European travelers began to record their encounters with Jews in the cities they visited. During the era of Turkish and Mongol domination, the lives of most Jews remained relatively unchanged; it was with the rise of the Safavids in the 16th century and Iran's increased political and commercial contact with Europe that their circumstances began to change and that change became recorded in history.
Iran's main export at this time was woven silk products and, to a much lesser extent, carpets. These export commodities were traded to the Europeans in ports on the gulf, and the commerce was controlled from the capital in Isfahan. The Jews throughout Persian history have tended to concentrate in the capital, and in Isfahan they were well-represented in commerce and society.
Their economic status began to deteriorate when Armenian merchants, many of whom had also recently relocated to Isfahan, began taking control of foreign trade. The Jews' social status also began to deteriorate because of an inability to remain integrated with the newly reoriented Shia regime and the changing nature of Iranian society. Most Jews were reduced to types of employment unwanted by the Muslims. Very few were financially well-off. A few did well as physicians and gold traders, but most were employed as tailors, weavers, dyers, peddlers, musicians, wine sellers and antiquities dealers.
Most western travelers' accounts through the 19th century described Iranian Jewish communities as living in depressed conditions. They inhabited their own quarter of the cities, called mahalle, and lived under a set of rules that distinguished them from the rest of the population. In each location the Jews spoke a different dialect of Judeao-Persian which was for the most part unintelligible to the Persians or to Persian Jews from other regions. This distinct language also served to cut Persian Jews off from Jews in other areas of the Middle East.
It was in the beginning of this century that the social-economic situation of the Jews, as well as for the rest of the Iranian population, began to improve. This was primarily because of an increasing participation by Iran in a worldwide trading economy, the coalescence of an increasingly more important bazaar class, and the development of Persian carpets as an industry and an export commodity. Throughout this century as the Persian carpet industry evolved and expanded, Iranians, and the Jews in particular, used this economic resurgence as a vehicle for financial and social betterment. The Jews rode the crest of the carpet business expansion to positions of wealth and mobility.
The most successful example of this is found in the experience of the Mashhadi Jews. In the mid-18th century the Jewish population in Mashhad was increased by Nadir Shah's relocation of some 50 families from Qazvin. This community of Jews prospered over the years, relative to those elsewhere in Iran. It is supposed that this was a direct result of their forced mass conversion to Islam in 1839. Although they secretly maintained their religious practices (like the Monanos in Spain and elsewhere had done before), they were more able to integrate, as new Muslims, into the community on the whole, as well as into the bazaar. (Even today Mashhadi Jews have Islamic names.) They were able to thrive commercially and gain acceptance and wealth. They engaged in domestic trade with Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz and in external trade with Afghanistan and Turkestan. Those dealing in carpets and Karakul lamb skins became rich, while others joined the middle class. They traded effectively with the sizeable Jewish population in Herat, Samarkand, Bokhara, Merv and Khiva. They excelled as go-betweens with the Sunni Turkestanis on one hand and the Shia Iranians on the other.
In other cities most Jewish communities remained poor up until recent times. There were a few wealthy merchants who dealt in gold, antiquities, silk and precious stones, but it wasn't until the 1950s that many Jewish merchants prospered tremendously in the business of dealing carpets.
Iranian Jews can take credit for being instrumental in the development of export markets for carpets. As mentioned before, Mashhadi Jews were exporting carpets in central Asia 100 years ago. When the Soviet Union closed its borders to them in the 1920s, a number of them moved their base of operation to Karachi in India. There they acted as commission agents, bringing carpets from Khorassan and other parts of Iran through Zahedan to be transported on to carpet merchants in London. Partly because of this connection, London was at this time the leading carpet center in the West. There were as many carpets reaching Europe through this conduit as were arriving overland through Turkey from Tehran and Tabriz.
In 1898 the Alliance Israelite Universelle, the French philanthropic agency, opened their first schools in Tehran and elsewhere in Iran. The Jewish students were instructed in French and farsi and were to a certain extent westernized with European ideals. The Judeao-Persian dialects began to disappear and most Jews moved out of the mahalle to the khiabun, where they integrated more readily with the Muslim population. From the beginning, the policy of the Alliance was to foster contact with the non-Jewish world. This played an important role in the social development of the Iranian Jews vis-à-vis the Iranian Muslims and Europe as well.
In the 1930s and '40s Jewish antiquities dealers in Tehran, who sold mostly to the diplomatic community, began to get involved with carpets as well. As more and more carpets were being exported abroad, Tehrani Jews took advantage of their relationships in the West to develop more trading contacts in Europe. When the West, as a carpet market, developed to the extent that it did, the somewhat cosmopolitanized Iranian Jews were ready to interact commercially. Many traveled to France, England, Germany and Italy to set up agencies to import Persian carpets and distribute them throughout Europe and on to America.
By the 1950s Tehran was booming economically. Iranians and especially Jews were migrating in large numbers to the capital city to participate in the new opportunities. India had gained its independence and Mashhad had become even more provincial, so most of the Mashhadi Jewish carpet dealers moved there also. They, and to a lesser extent those dealers already working out of Tehran, formed the core of the large scale Iranian carpet exporters of the 1960s and '70s. Seven or eight of these Jewish firms were exporting goods in excess of $80 million annually and another half a dozen were exporting in the range of $30 to $40 million annually.
In addition to this group there was another important group of Jewish carpet merchants that rose to prominence at this time. This was the Ferdowsi Street carpet cartel which numbered some 50 shops at its apex. This group was made up almost exclusively of recently arrived Isfahani Jews who developed a thriving business, not so much in the export trade but rather in retailing carpets to Tehranis, tourists, and the burgeoning population of foreigners working in Iran at this time.
Like many Persian Jews, Mashadi Barry Kamali attended college in the U.S. before establishing his oriental rug import firm in Manhattan. He is pictured here with his wife Jelvah and younger brother Babak, also a graduate of a U.S. university and a partner in the family firm, Kamali Oriental Rugs.