ROME, February 22, 2008 -- Germany and the United States are the countries that buy the most Persian rugs, each year taking about 50 percent of Iran’s exports.
But it is Italy, the third biggest consumer, which seems to love them the most.
It is only in Italy that Persian carpets appear night after night on their own television shows, sometimes on two channels at once.
The shows are for telemarketing but, because carpets are beautiful and because Italians are unabashedly public in their adoration of beauty, the shows have become national institutions. On the air for decades, they have their own recognizable stars whose one-man performances attract not only carpet buyers but just-lookers of all sorts.
The king of this commercial theater is Alessandro Orlando, whose full name composed of two first names is enough to be memorable by itself. He appears on the Telemarket Green Elephant satellite channel, which also sells everything from porcelain to paintings to antique furniture. Alessandro sells those, too, but he reserves his most passionate performances for carpets in general and Persian carpets in particular.
As the show begins, he is sitting or standing alone in a cocoon of carpets. They are hung on the walls beside and behind him. They cover the floor beneath him. He is pensive.
“Over the past 100 years, there have been only five names of master Persian carpet makers known the world over,” he begins. “Mohtashem, Hadji Jalili, Habibian …”
“The most famous of them is Usted Fatollah Habibian. So famous that three years ago Iran, recognizing his work as part of its national patrimony, forbid removing any remaining Habibians from the country.”
Now, Alessandro looks directly at the camera and the pace quickens.
“But tonight, we have something extraordinary. No museum, no gallery in Europe has ever assembled the kind of collection of Habibians we have here, on these walls. There are only two Habibians in London’s V&A, a couple in Tehran’s carpet museum …”
Then, just when the camera pulls back and begins showing the carpets on display, Alessandro does what makes his show – and Italian telemarketing – so sui generis. He doesn’t begin selling, but pauses instead to launch into a full 15-minute homage to Habibian, his career, and his art.
That includes: Habibian’s birth around 1900, his early years aspiring to be a musician in Nain, the city’s rich tradition of weaving that shifted his attention to design, and finally his discovery of a new way of wrapping six strands of silk into a single fiber which, Alessandro says triumphantly, makes his carpets “as absolutely indestructible as they are beautiful.”
There are photos of Habibian on screen, sitting in a room of carpets. Alessandro has become his voice. “A true master can only produce 500 carpets in his lifetime because he is a perfectionist," he says. "We live in a world of false artists, false because they imitate the masters. They are good but they are ‘copyists’ … you will never find two Habibians that are the same, any more than two Picassos.”
When the selling finally does begin, the mood becomes much more businesslike. But Alessandro has set the stage so well that the prices of the goods on sale raise doubts only among collectors. For the rest, the tag of just 5,250 Euros for a six-square-meter designer carpet is a dream come true.
Alessandro's superlatives ring out and, in the background, so do the phones.
“A white diamond to put in your salon!”
“An enchanted garden!”
“A palace constructed from a carpet!”
“Mama … a Habibian!”
By the time it is over – a full hour later – Alessandro has sold enough to put noticeable gaps in the wall of carpets behind him. Muscular arms that briefly appear on camera pull the sold pieces down and take them away.
Alessandro himself is exhausted. He has walked the equivalent of several kilometers within his small studio, knelt on carpets, draped ones he likes over one knee, draped ones he likes even more over one shoulder, and generally proven that the church of art in Italy is every bit as impassioned as evangelist churches in America.
What does Alessandro look like? He is simply the man you would find standing beside you at the counter of an espresso bar, with a rumpled suit and no briefcase. His most prominent features are his black hair, which contrasts vividly with his graying temples, and his black eyebrows which rapidly change expression. He is Everyman.
There are lesser stars of Italian telemarketing, which runs 24 hours a day. But no others rise above their on-screen roles. There is a more intellectual type who whispers footnotes of art history, there is a more physical type who comes on strong like a boxer, and there is a hypnotic type who intones over and over: “with this investment you will never lose.”
There is even a man who dresses in a brocaded jacket like a yacht captain, but he sells antique dressers and commodes, not textiles.
The telemarket programs have been on the air so long that thousands of people have circulated through them as off-screen prompters whispering carpet dimensions and prices to the showmen or as delivery boys taking the goods to customers.
Hadi Dadashian, an Iranian-American who lives in San Francisco, worked with a telemarketer while he was a student in Rome decades ago. He still remembers a delivery to Gina Lollobrigida.
“When we got to her apartment it was very late at night,” he says. “She was all alone and she opened the door herself.”
He recalls that the actress lived in a fabulous setting but looked sad and was watching all-night TV. She gazed for a long time at the carpet she had ordered and several times ran a red toe nailed foot over it to check its softness. Then she accepted it, like a bouquet of flowers she had bought to cheer herself up.
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Barry O’Connell: Habibian Nain Rugs