Thursday, 15 May 2008

The Orient

(Fiction - By Karel Capek, 1923)

The well-known Czech journalist Karel Capek wrote about buying oriental carpets in Prague at the beginning of the last century. In his short tale 'The Orient,' he describes Old Europe's fascinating world of carpet connoisseurs and carpet sellers – both honest and not so honest.

It can happen that you win the lottery, or that you get married, or that one day it simply strikes you that you want something beautiful at home; whatever the reason, you decide to buy a Persian carpet. But in the process of actually purchasing an oriental rug, your life turns upside down. First of all, you will have to smoke -- a lot -- because smoking is part of the oriental atmosphere. Second, you will have to walk over mountains of valuable carpets with the air of one who has never set foot upon anything else. You will have to assume the look of a connoisseur, fingering the pile and the back of each rug as you mumble to yourself. There will be a whole array of initiation ceremonies, from special Persian jargon to passionate Turkish haggling, until finally you reduce a carpet seller to tears as he says he feels so close to you that he is ready to give you his rugs almost for free, even at a loss, and simply as a present between equals. There will be, I say, an entire string of extraordinary moments but still you will have only reached the threshold of the Orient. And then, thinking you have finished, you will safely choose a modestly priced Kazak and race home with rosy visions of how it will look beside your bed. In so many ways, a first carpet is like first love.

The next day, someone will ring your doorbell. It is a polite, lively little fellow pushing another, silent, man in front of him. Immediately, he blurts out in the doorway that he is coming to you because you are an exceptional and extraordinary connoisseur of Persian carpets and that he has brought his business partner with him who just arrived yesterday from uh, well uh ... Constantinople ... with some carpets that, truly!, are just for specialists, and he has brought them first to you so that you can just look, nothing more than look, at them, just for the pleasure of it. And already he is opening the door again and shouting, “Vaclav! Come here!” And in comes a delivery boy with a huge pile of carpets on his back. The man from Constantinople really does have a kind of Persian air but he never says anything, and the active little man starts laying out the first carpet with Vaclav. “Now, this is a fine piece, isn’t it? This one is worthy of you ...” You mention it isn’t quite the kind of thing you are looking for. “That’s just what I thought myself!” the vivacious little fellow shouts victoriously. “You, sir, are a marvelous connoisseur; but here I have a Shiraz which is truly perfect for you, that only a real specialist can appreciate!”

This Shiraz seems horrendously pricy and now your lively guest is whispering something to the silent oriental man in a language that might be Persian or might be Turkish. “Also meinetwegen,” the Persian mutters in German, or “fair enough,” and the lively man announces that his friend is giving you the Shiraz simply as a present, almost completely free, because you are you, and just for 40,000 crowns. You fight off the temptation, you will neither accept as a gift a Shirvan, nor a Gendje, nor a Bukhara, nor even a Baluch, not to mention a Kerman and a Senneh and all sorts of prayer carpets; this time you defend yourself against everything, until this obliging fellow asserts that you have truly prodigious taste and that the really valuable rugs he has are still tied up in customs and if you could see those, well, you would cry with joy. Then, he leads out the Persian and Mr. Vaclav, promising to come back later.

So far, so good. But three hours later, a man in a top hat rings your bell. He hands you his visit card and introduces himself as Mr. So and So, an industrialist who is in momentary financial difficulty. He has decided to sell his private rug collection and ... already he is calling down the corridor “Vaclav! Komm hier! ... and Mr. Vaclav is bringing in a new load of carpets on his shoulders. The man in the top hat discreetly speaks of family problems, saying he has to sell at any cost, even way below market price, but only to a real judge, to a true authority, who knows how much a beautiful carpet means. For example, this authentic Hamadan, the man in the top hat sighs, or this fabulous Mosul. To your surprise, each piece in his family collection seems to still have its inventory tag and its customs seal.

You escape from the heavy-hearted monsieur. A day later, a thin man appears who wants to speak to you very privately about things that are “just for four eyes.” Then he tells you that he has … that he has Persian Carpets ... perfect museum pieces ... that he has obtained under rather special circumstances that, well, to be honest, that he personally spirited out of a Sultan’s seraglio, only please don’t speak about it. In short, they are one-of-a-kind pieces for connoisseurs only and staggeringly underpriced. And already Mr. Vaclav is back with a cargo of rugs on his back and on all of them, too, are customs seals and inventory numbers.

If you don’t make use of this exceptional purchasing opportunity, there is no reason to worry, because tomorrow a Russian couple will come to you, from a noble family which has had to flee the country and which escaped with nothing but some rare Persian carpets and now, out of the most dire necessity must part with them. Mr. Vaclav is already waiting in the corridor. And, afterwards, you will get a visit from a resplendent Levantine who does a little business with carpets here and there and the other day came across some pieces that he has not shown to anybody, that are only for true enthusiasts. And after him will come a juvenile delinquent who won’t have Mr. Vaclav with him but who knows of a superb Persian carpet that could be sold to a discreet and well informed collector. And then there still will be the solicitor from Vienna, the widow in need, and the Greek who has no money to pay customs and so has to sell at least one precious Persian carpet -- far below its price, of course, and only to an initiate.

In short, if you keep your eyes and ears open, in a little over a week you will learn how to evaluate the weave, material, age, color quality, and finesse of the design of an oriental carpet. You will meet rogues, cognoscenti, eccentrics, entrepreneurs, and small-time crooks; you will make a kind of pilgrimage to the Orient and, doing so, you will discover a strange, wily, ancient, modern form of business that you will never encounter anywhere else and that richly repays your investment.

(‘The Orient’ was published in the newspaper 'Lidove Noviny' in 1923; Photo of carpet is courtesy of Ali Majdfar/Persian Carpet Museum Photo Gallery.)

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Related Links:

Karel Capek


Barry O'Connell: Notes on Oriental Carpets and Persian Rugs

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