“Hello my friend.”
It is my first full day in Istanbul, Turkey, and I am leaving Gülhane Park, near Topkapi Palace, my mind contemplating where I will go for my first dinner in the city. For most of the day, I have been able to avoid the city’s notoriously pushy salesmen, but as soon as I hear those three words, I know that I’ve been caught.
The two young men sidle up to me, one on each side. They are both well-dressed, with sharply pressed slacks, suit coats and highly polished shoes. Their friendly dialogue is refined from years of practice on similarly distracted tourists. Each question, resembling small talk, is crafted to gauge my income and interest in their product.
“Where are you from?” While Americans are known to love shopping, the British pound is worth more in exchange.
“Ah, America. There are big houses in America. Do you have a big house?” Again, sizing up your wealth.
“How long have you been in Istanbul?” The longer you’ve been in the city, the more time you’ve already had to spend your money.
Willingly, I let the encounter play out. Carpets and the touts who sell them are an integral part of a visit to Istanbul, and I knew I would end up in a carpet shop sooner or later. To tell the truth, I was curious to experience the process of carpet shopping (although I had no interest in purchasing one).
The questions continue as we walked. Why are you in Istanbul? What kind of car do you drive? What do you do for a living? “Oh, you are a writer,” exclaims one of the men, Hasan. “Do you know that we have had an article written about us? You must come see it.”
Next thing I know, I’m sitting on a couch in a small carpet store and drinking hot apple-flavored tea. The article turns out to be a short mention of the store on a personal travel blog.
After a second glass of hot tea and about 30 minutes of small talk, it’s time for business. Hasan begins pulling down stacks of folded carpets in every color and design. He unfurls each one with a flourish, twisting it in the air like a pizza maker tosses dough. I am told that this highlights the carpet’s nap and shine. I learn the difference between a kilim and a carpet, between silk rugs and wool ones. I learn that the colors and designs are representative of the various villages and tribal areas in which the carpets are made.
“So which one do you like?” I say that I’m not interested in buying anything.
“We have not sold anything yet today. You will be our first customer today. You will bring us good luck.” I laugh and repeat my disinterest.
More carpets come out, and soon the floor is covered with brilliant designs of red, gold, orange and blue. “Which do you like better, this one or that one,” Hasan’s friend says, pointing between a red floral design and a beige ethnic design.
“They’re both pretty,” I say. “But I’m not going to buy a carpet.”
The game continues. More carpets come down. Over and over I give reasons for not buying a carpet. I don’t like a design. They find another one. I don’t have any money. “Plastic is fantastic,” says Hasan. I laugh even harder. Finally, I play my last card. Turkish society is male-dominated, and I am a woman traveling alone. “I have to wait until my husband gets here,” I say. “I can’t make such a large purchase without his input.” We all know that I’m lying, but it gives us all an acceptable out.
Three hours after our initial meeting, I step out of the carpet shop. The sun is setting. I chuckle to myself, proud that I was able to resist their sales pitch.
Two days later, I am once again walking through Gülhane Park when I see two well-dressed young men sidle up to a group of tourists.
“Hello, my friend. Where are you from?”