Pakistan: Rugs!

Kris and I have a kind of deal with each other when we travel.  Rather than buy a bunch of trinkets as souvenirs, we give each other permission to seek out one really nice souvenir that we will treasure forever.

I decided that I wanted to buy a significant gem. A real “rock.” Something mined here in Sri Lanka. What a great souvenir that would be. So, along with the specialty texts on computational physics,  I shipped three carefully selected books on identifying and buying gems. From time to time I took the opportunity to visit jewelers, with Kris avidly encouraging me in this effort. She never seemed to begrudge me time in the jewelry stores. She was a very good sport about it, often pretending to be interested in the gems herself, sometimes even buying jewelery in an attempt to convince me that she was not really bored to tears during these long hours of my quest for the perfect stone.

At one point I had three different jewelers each holding a collection of stones that I was seriously considering buying. Playing the role, I even purchased a standard 10X jeweler’s loupe and a pair of specialist tweezers when I chanced upon a gemologist supply store. My suave, sophisticated, experienced purchaser of gems facade fell apart at the next jewelery store I stopped in as my inexpert tweezer work shot a large blue topaz clean across the jewelery shop as I tried to examine it with the loupe. Thankfully, no damage was done to anything, but my status as a poseur was revealed.

Eventually though, I gave up the quest, much to Kris’ sadness, as she could not return the amethyst earrings and the aquamarine “rock on a ring” she had purchased just to keep me company. It was many small things that discouraged me, but the biggest single reason is that I have lost all trust in Sri Lankan merchants.

Of course there have been exceptions. However, we have simply had too many examples of Sri Lankan merchants lying to our faces, even though, in some cases, we have been doing business with them for months now. In a weird, while not approving sort of way, I can understand the desperation of the shopkeeper who has one shot at selling a tourist some merchandise. It can be quite tempting, knowing the tourist will likely never again be back, to tell the tourist whatever they want to hear in order to make the sale.

As an example, everyone tells us that you can get clothes tailor-made here in Kandy really cheap and really fast. The really fast part is to enable tourists to pick up their goods even if they are on a short stay in Kandy. Well, I do not recommend it. First, if you are a woman, you will be groped during the measurement process. Second, there really is no need for the measurements in any case because the “tailors” do no fitting. The dart is a mystery to them. Sizing is done by eye, not by tape measure. They appear to be ignorant of patterns. The quality of the findings borders on the disposable. The seams are unfinished and the work sloppy and unprofessional.  Now, to be fair, long time residents eventually find a tailor and train them to make what they need. So long time residents often enthusiastically recommend the process to newcomers, even recommending specific tailors. But our experience is that even a recommended tailor will treat the newcomer as a golden goose to be slaughtered for immediate gain.

Just yesterday we were in one of the government run shops called “Laksala.”  The Laksala shops are a great idea. The shops are set up in places frequented by tourists and sell handmade crafts from all over the island. This gives Sri Lankan craftspeople retail outlets for their work in high traffic areas, leaving them to concentrate on their crafts. There are some really nice things for sale and even I could not pass up some beautiful batiks. But we also decided to buy a Sri Lankan flag, just for fun, to take home with us. I looked at the flag on offer and stated the obvious that is was made of polyester. “Silk,” the saleslady stated. Kris gave me a wink that told me that it was not worth pushing the issue. She had recently done a flame test  on some fabric that she had been assured by a fabric merchant was “100% cotton.” If you take a small bit of fabric and hold it in a flame, cotton chars slowly and evenly, like a candle wick. But synthetic fabrics melt and fuse as plastics do when heated. The twisted, drippy, melt,  reminding me of my days burning  up my sloppily constructed my plastic airplane models, showed clearly that the material was synthetic.

So, in the end, I decided that I could not be sure that, if I bought a gem in Sri Lanka, it would even be genuine, much less any kind of bargain. While I was disappointed, I did enjoy the process. I learned a lot about gems and handled and admired many fine specimens. For being just impure minerals, they do have a certain attraction.

But, my luck changed when my hostess in Pakistan, Dr. Grace Clark, turned out to be a genuine Oriental rug connoisseur. (In fact, she is so enthusiastic that I suggested at one point that she inquire as to the existence of a local chapter of “Rug Buyers Anonymous.”) Kris and I have long been intrigued by Oriental carpets, attracted by their beauty and durability. We made several visits to a rug shop in the Pioneer Square area of Seattle, kitty corner from the offices of NBBJ where Kris worked. We came pretty close to buying a rug just before we left Seattle, but were deterred by the high cost and the impracticality of dragging it along with us on our post-doc migration. We came similarly close to a carpet purchase in New Jersey at a yard sale of a divorcing couple, but could not quite justify the cost.

Dr. Clarks’ home in Islamabad has gorgeous Oriental carpets on nearly every horizontal surface.  It is a wonderful collection, diverse enough to use to  teach a complete course on the subject. My assigned bathroom had a small  “war rug.” These war rugs were woven in response to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and depict scenes of modern war. One of the images was clearly identifiable as a Russian Hind attack helicopter, but its rendering in wool made it look as if the helicopter had been knitted by Russian grandmas for their pilot grandsons. Now days, war rugs have been commercialized to the point that what is offered is sterile and uninteresting, resembling cheap tattoos. But Dr. Clark’s rug was clearly an example of an early, spontaneous response to the war and was quite interesting, if non-traditional. Dr. Clark also maintains a library of books on carpets. And, lucky for me, Dr. Clark graciously consented to take me rug shopping.

Over the course of my time in Pakistan, we spent over two hours in each of three separate rug merchants in Islamabad. I will describe the visit to the first merchant. Abdul Ghafoor Khudaybirdi’s card describes him as the “chief executive” of Pak Turk Enterprises ( As I recall, he is Uzbekhi. He runs the shop from a lovely home in a residential neighborhood. We are welcomed warmly, Grace is clearly a regular. Grace introduces me and I am admitted to the club. We are offered tea, coffee, or soda. The day is hot. I choose a cold soda. Grace tells him we want to look at rugs. We are taken upstairs to an interior room with stacks of folded rugs lining every wall, sorted by rug type. The owner, one of his sons, and a helper spend the next two hours with us.

We are interested in traditional wool rugs, mostly. And so the son and the helper begin to take folded rugs from the stack, unfold them, and lay them, one on top of the other, in the center of the room. The owner makes a few comments, brings to Grace’s notice rugs of a style that she has shown interest in before, answers questions Grace has about age and origin. I see one I like and ask the price. I am politely told that this is not the time for that question. After some time, maybe forty or fifty rugs are piled in the middle of the room.

Now comes a selection process. Rugs are taken from the top of the pile one at a time and our reaction is solicited. Rugs are designated as of continued interest, or of no current interest and they separated into two piles accordingly. I find I have already developed a taste for these rugs. I have opinions. The rugs are beautiful and of many diverse patterns, but I like some more than others. Now we can ask the price. Cheap! At least by the standards of rugs Kris and I looked at in the US. About fifteen carpets make the “continued interest” pile, maybe four because of my interest.

We then proceed to the next stage. The fifteen elect are taken to an outdoor verandah on the second floor of the house, so we can see them more clearly in the full, clear, sunlight of Islamabad. Once again, they are laid out in front of us, one at a time for our admiration. Sizes are checked, prices are rechecked and compared. The selection process is repeated.

Though this is my first visit to a rug merchant in Islamabad, I have pretty much already made up my mind that between the prices, the self-evident quality, and the beauty of the rugs, that I am going to buy one. My four get whittled to two, then to one. Grace is not so sure. Since she is such a good customer, we are allowed to take six rugs back to Grace’s house without paying anything. One of the rugs is the one I am sure I want to buy, the other five are under consideration by Grace. The trial period will allow me to get Kris’ input, a real plus.

The owner of Pak Turk is a smart business man and has many things for sale in all price ranges.

Baluchi prayer rug

Tekke prayer rug

I buy a prayer rug (shown to the right) in the same style as the larger rug and a wonderful, not-quite-old-enough-to-be-antique, cylindrical wooden box with lovely painted decoration. The photo does not due the rug justice so I have added

Baluchi prayer rug, corner detail

Tekke prayer rug, corner detail

a detail of one corner of the rug.

We take the rugs back to Dr. Clark’s house and she  is gracious enough to let my rugs go first in her entrance hall. The rug lies in state while Grace does some research on the design in her book collection.  She is a bit worried that the design is not characteristic of the Iranian Turkmen carpets she has seen in the past. Close, but… Her library comes through and we find the particular pattern, characteristic of a Turkman tribe that lives just east of the Caspian Sea in Iran.

I send Kris photos by email. She thought it was pretty nice, too, and urged me on to buy it.

Oriental rug in entry hall

Oriental rug in entry hall

The rug is 11’2″x6’6″. Detail shots follow:

Corner detail, Tekke rug

Corner detail, Tekke rug

Tekke rug detail

Tekke rug detail

Tekke rug detail

Tekke rug detail

So, one of the last errands I had to run on the day before my return to Sri Lanka was to return to Pak Turk and pay for the rug. Fortunately, the owner was open late, accepts plastic, and the deed was done.

I was a bit apprehensive about the cost of getting it back to Sri Lanka. The airlines have gotten kind of schizo about baggage weight limits. So the economy class standard is said to be 20 kg (44 pounds), but enforcement is haphazard and excess baggage charges can be steep. Worse, the airlines often demand cash in local currency. On our trip three years ago, we were part of a nightmare scene in the Bangkok Airport where we were hit with about $100 in excess baggage fees and the airline, close to closing the check-in counter, would not check in our luggage until we came back with a receipt (only available at another counter) that could only be paid for in Thai baht , which we only discovered once we had stood in line at that counter through one slug of people. So we had to find an ATM in another part of the airport to gather enough Thai baht to obtain our receipt and get our baggage checked in all before the check-in counter closed. Boy were we pissed.

So when I returned to the Islamabad Airport, I did not know what to expect. I had no Pakistani rupees, a US $20 bill and two one dollar bills, and a credit card. I had weighed the bags and the total weight of all my stuff  was now about 40 kg. I am dropped off at the airport by a USEFP driver with plenty of time before my flight. An airport porter appears and puts my bags on a cart. The airport has  a good system. You need a porter. Only airport porters are allowed to “port” and the cost is a uniform $2 US. So now I am down to a $20 bill and my credit card, but hey! I had exact change for the porter.

Our first stop was a rude awakening at 2AM. It is the inspection station of the Pakistani version of the DEA and I am a bit shaken when the officer, grinning in a Machiavellian way, begins to poke into my new rug with what looks like an ice pick, but with a little hollow behind the point. So, while I stand there wondering if the price of the rug may have been low for a reason and contemplate the inside of a Pakistani prison (if I am lucky), the man stabs my carpet repeatedly, withdraws the pick, passes the entire length under his nose, and sniffs. He then searches thoroughly the rest of my bags, though somehow missing my prescription medicine. He looks a bit disappointed that he can not actually prove that I am a drug mule (I think he honestly thought he had a live one in me) but returns my bags to me with a look that promises that next time it will be different. You would, of course, assume that after having gone through all that, my bags would need no further checking to get through security, but you would be mistaken. I resolved not to get too worked up about excess baggage fees and just prayed to get out of Pakistan as soon as possible.

I ask an airline agent where to inquire about excess baggage fees. I wanted to avoid the Bangkok scene and confront the issue head on. She looks mystified and points toward the check-in counter. My porter tells me conspiratorily that it is best not to ask such questions. “Let them tell you that you have excess baggage,” he whispers. So we get to the check-in counter and the clerk looks at my ticket. “Your baggage limit is 30kg,” he announces without explanation. I place my bag and my rug-in-a-bag on the scale and start to place my backpack onto the scale as well. My porter grabs my arm and simultaneously the clerk says that I do not have to include my carry-on baggage. This same airline (Qatar Air) had insisted on including my carry on bag in the weighing in on the way to Pakistan and no explanation was offered for their generosity now. I looked at the scale reading: 33  kg, just three kg (7 pounds) over. The clerk announces “You have 3 kg of excess baggage” and begins to calculate. “That will be 5840 Pakistani rupees.” Me: “I do not have any Pakistani rupees.” Him: “Ah!” and recommences his calculations. Him: “That will be 72 US dollars.” Me, opening my wallet: “I have one $20 bill and a credit card.” Him: “Ah!” and takes the credit card. He holds it up to a superior. Eyes roll. Apparently, it is all too much trouble. My credit card is returned and I am sent on my way, my excess baggage fees ignored.

We approach the emigration station and my porter wants a tip. So he got the $20 bill, despite the fact that the reciept for the $2 fee specifically says not to tip. Well it was 2AM and, as innocent as I knew I was, I was just thankful to have avoided Pakistani drug court.

These days, many airport duty free shops and terminal waiting areas are destinations in themselves. Good food, good shopping, comfortable seats, free Internet access. Not the Islamabad International Airport. In contrast to my impressions as I arrived at the airport on my way into the country, the  waiting area for international departures is positively grim. The duty free shop at one end caters only to the traditional vices (hard liquor, cigarettes, perfume) and not any sign of the modern vices (cameras, computers, travel accessories). A small smoker’s room in one corner is full to overflowing, and, with the door propped open, not fulfilling its objective of protecting the rest of us from second hand smoke. There is one departure gate. The two hours I waited there made me wonder if I was being sent to a Pakistani prison.

The rest of the trip back to Sri Lanka was uneventful, but there is a postscript that I only learned about on our 31st wedding anniversary, May 27th. It seems that while I was in Pakistan, Kris was in cahoots with a local jeweler. Kris purchased the set of three stones I had previously been having him hold for me. Each stone is about 20 carats. One is blue topaz, one is amethyst, one citrine, all “fancy” cut and  closely matched in size. Kris had the jeweler set the stones in a row on a silver pin and she presented it to me on our anniversary. If you are in Gambier in late August, the pin will be on display, attached to my velvet tam as part of my academic robes.

So it looks like I will get the souvenir I was looking for after all, and a rug to boot!



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