This is an excerpt from the book I am writing, working title: Travels Through Egypt (and yes, I am taking suggestions for names!!):
The next stop is one of the carpet schools near Sakkhara. The idea behind them is that they take these little Egyptian kids, who would otherwise be roaming the streets, and they teach them a trade. They train them to weave carpets of wool or silk, and then the carpets are sold in the next door factory, to the tourists who come by the busload, as we do. The guides get a cut, for bringing their groups here instead of to the carpet factory (or perfumery or jewelry store) across the street or down the road, and the tourists go home with a rug that costs them a fraction of what they would have paid at home.
The first room is a large, airy space with a lot of light, and several carpet looms set up along the walls. The looms are mostly vertical wooden contraptions, strung by hand with hundreds of guide threads. The way the carpets are made is the same way they have been made for thousands of years: each hand-cut and colored length is wrapped around the individual guide thread and deftly knotted. The rug is made by stacking knot after knot against each other, the colors and pattern emerging as more knots are stacked, until there are hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of knots, and the carpet is cut down to lie on the floor or a wall. The fringe usually left on a silk rug is all that remains visible of the guide threads used to build the rug. At first, a picture is put up on the wall as a template, but as the weaver becomes more experienced, they will use their own mind and heart as a blueprint, creating whatever images they are drawn to, and then each rug will become truly custom.
At the base of each loom, there is a narrow wooden bench, almost at ground level. It is here the kids sit, weaving these rugs all day. We are told they study, too, and are taught school subjects by the carpet school. The children range from seven or eight to about fifteen, and they are relatively clean, a kind of sinewy thin that would make a supermodel worry that she was getting enough to eat. The kids sit, often two or three to a bench, all working on the same rug. At first, as the carpet school guide explains the methods used for the weaving, the kids weave industriously, smiling at this new group of hourly imports. As he turns away, the children start to make the universal sign for money at us, the whispered word, “baksheesh.” This is the Egyptian word for tip money, and it’s heard everywhere. In the hotels, when someone opens a door for you, baksheesh. In the street, when an Egyptian man pulling a donkey gives you directions, baksheesh. In the temples, when someone tells you to put your third eye on that extra-spiritual birdshit, lots of baksheesh. I laughed at first, thinking it might be a joke, going along with them, but they are serious, insistent, and repetitive. Their eyes are hard, unconnected, their little minds focused only on the money we can provide them. I can almost see the light going out, as their childish innocence is turned in, one Egyptian pound at a time. I hate the situation that turns these kids into beggars, when they tell us they are here learning a trade. I suppose I might as well hate us for having money, for giving it to them.
I am not sorry when the guide turns back to us to usher us on to the main point of the tour: the purchasing. Inside, the enormous room is full of wool rugs, some coarse, some fine, and at first it seems like enough inventory to last forever, these stack upon stacks of colored squares. But any halfway-serious buyer is brought into a room at the back, which has the silk rugs in it, where you can spend the serious coin, and own a truly miraculous piece. As I enter, a man is showing a couple from another group the way the silk rug changes color by reversing it. He flips a smallish rug up in the air, giving it a half-turn on the way as if he’s making pizza dough. The rug responds by shimmering in mid-air, and indeed, as it lands, the green is now a different shade. Apparently, the silk gives off a different impression depending on which way the threads are angled, appearing to change color. Supposedly, this chameleon factor is what caused the legends of flying carpets, as the rugs seem to move, shift and shimmer when they are flung into the air. Even without the delightful backstory, they are exquisite, and the detail present in the silk makes the wool counterparts seem crudely executed. The larger rugs go for ten or twenty thousand dollars, but when you blanch, they are quick to point out that you could easily pay ten times that in the States. A few of my group is converted, and stay to choose their rugs as I sidle out to see what our guide and good friend, Emil, is doing.
As usual, he is embroiled in a heated battle of prices. Emil’s M.O. is to look at the item that has been brought to him, give it the once-over, and then say, with a dismissive flick of his wrist, “Give him fifty pounds, or tell him to keep it!” Fifty pounds is ten dollars. Which would be fine, except the street vendor who is selling the item wants fifty US dollars, and up until now you thought that was a fair price. It’s weird, given that Emil will get a cut of whatever you buy almost everywhere, but that’s Emil for you, bucking the system wherever he can – and they all seem to love him. He is loyal, that’s for sure, and if he knows you have a good product, he may bring a group a month to you for years and years.
Emil grabs the large roll of woven silk that one of our group, Rusty, is bargaining over, and ushers him over to The Man. The Man, and there is a similar man at each major shop you will ever visit, is sitting at a desk at the back of the main room, surrounded by chairs and sycophants. He is late middle-aged, with a head of grey, close-cropped hair and a floor length black Saudi-stylegalabeya, which means it’s made of a smooth polyester with a flat Oriental collar, very formal-looking.
One snap of his fingers and glasses of hot mint tea magically appear. Mint tea, in all these shops, means you are bargaining. Woe to any tourist foolish enough to turn down tea offered by a shop owner. It is the custom, and it is the signal that you have a relationship, which means you can get a better price later, once you have gotten to know each other over tea. Tea is the currency of social hour, and if you avoid it, even if it’s because you think you are being polite or honestly don’t have enough time, you’re guaranteed not to get the cheapest price; in my opinion, you are also missing out on a cultural exchange more important than anything that goes on at Camp David.
Rusty is an interesting character; he is in his late twenties, and he’s very normal-looking, except for the prosthetic plastic and metal leg he wears below his right thigh. He won’t talk about it, except to say he got a lot of money losing his leg. He is now spending some of that hard-earned cash on a silk rug in Egypt. And Emil is making sure he gets the best price, perhaps even pointing out Rusty’s disability to the Man in the process.
I move closer, and sit unobtrusively in one of the half-dozen chairs set out in two neat rows facing each other in front of the desk, The Man’s Lounge. Emil cannot just snap his fingers at this man, and he knows it. He speaks rapidly in Arabic, gesturing like an Italian whose mama has just been insulted. He sighs, he rolls his eyes. Now this is good theatre! The Man listens quietly as Emil gets louder and more intense. He gestures placidly, the movement going only as far down his arm as his wrist. Suddenly, he nods his head – once only. Emil stops talking. He takes the rolled up rug and gives it to Rusty. In English, he announces the price. Rusty looks pleased, and sets one edge of the rug roll on the ground, balancing against it so he can reach for his wallet. Then the next tourist comes forward, hovering in the background until he can have his turn, and Emil heads back to the silk room so he can start the process over again.
Many years later, Greg convinced The Man to design a rug based on the Flower of Life, a sacred geometry pattern we didn’t even know existed the first time we were in the carpet school. He sent a full-color picture by e-mail, and they downloaded it, printed it, and transferred it to a pattern for a silk rug. The first one costs over $1,000 US to make – the time and effort must all go into planning the pattern, choosing the colors, calculating the needed threads, setting up the loom’s parameters for the first time. After that, each time they make the rug, it’s cheaper and cheaper until it becomes profitable. We have that rug now on our wall at home and each time we go to the school, someone in our group buys the rug.
Back on the bus, the rugs wrapped into square box shapes and tied with brown paper and white string, we look like we have enjoyed our time at a bakery, not a carpet factory. Each package is small, but so heavy. They will fit neatly at the bottom of our suitcases until we can unwrap them in our homes and spread them out onto our floors, smoothing the fringe at the top and bottom of the rug, and walking over the wrinkles until they are gone. Then each of us can glide barefoot on the wool or silk for years, thinking of Egypt every time.