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By Sara Terry
THE BOSTON GLOBE · THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 3, 1994
The way Solomon Mojtabai figures it his love affair with oriental rugs was born in the earliest months of his life, during the days when he first started crawling around on the rug-covered floors of his parents’ home in Iran.
“For Persians, it’s like rugs are in our blood,” says Mojtabai, a former surgeon and lifelong rug collector. “When we open our eyes as babies, they are what we see When we start crawling and walking, we crawl and walk on rugs.”
Besides growing up in Tehran – in a culture rich in unparalleled rug-making expertise, where the finest weavers were revered as master artists, and where every woman, poor or rich, was expected to have at least one rug as part of her dowry – Mojtabai also grew up in a family with its own strong ties to the craft. Among his earliest memories is a visit to a small weaving workshop belonging to his mother’s grandfather (“I remember they were singing as they were weaving,” he says.) Because his father owned textile factories and commercial buildings that he let to wholesale rug merchants, Mojtabai could immerse himself in rugs to his heart’s content and develop an eye for the intricacies of designs and dyes.
Were it not for the fact that much later in life Mojtabai grew disillusioned with the politics of his chosen field of health care, and ultimately left the world of medicine for the world of rugs, this would simply be the story of one man’s devotion to an art form. But when Mojtabai quit medicine and, along with his wife, Nayier, opened his own retail rug business, Newbury Street Rugs, five years ago, he took on a new mission.
He is a businessman these days, but he is also a man dedicated to helping educate the less fortunate – those of us who grew up crawling on linoleum or nylon shag carpet, who were struggling to master Crayolas and finger paints at an age when Mojtabai was drinking in the artistic richness of his forbears’ rug workshop.
“I like to make connections between the people who weave rugs and the people who buy them and appreciate them,” says Mojtabai, a soft-spoken, round-faced man whose words still carry the accent of his native country. “When you break the communication barriers between two groups of people, they get connected. I like to help people learn more about people in other parts of the world through rugs, through their cultures.”
Educating the consumer
Thanks to Mojtabai’s priorities, it is entirely possible to spend an hour or two at Newbury Street Rugs, viewing piece after piece, without ever discussing actually buying a rug. Which is not to say Mojtabai and his wife are averse to making a sale, but rather they are strong believers in the idea that an educated consumer is also the best kind of customer.
It’s a sound premise, especially in the business of Oriental rugs – where stores seem to pop up overnight and then announce a “going out of business sale” at the drop of a hat. In addition, with the proliferation of mass-produced rugs and the often incorrect use of the term “Oriental rug” (a true Oriental rug is always handmade, not machine-made), it’s all too easy for a confused or unsuspecting consumer to wind up buying a rug that is not all it’s cracked up to be.
If you’re really looking to make an investment – and to spend your money wisely – you might want top avoid stores wrapped in red-letter banners announcing things like “Prices slashed – everything must go.” You may well find a suitable rug at such as store, but chances are that no matter what the price tag says, you are not getting the deal of the century, nor are you necessarily buying a high-quality rug.
For reasons that no one seems quite clear about, the going-out-of-business routine in a sales technique that has been embraced by many in the rug business as a way to capitalize on the everyone-loves-a-bargain syndrome. According to Mojtabai, some sellers close down their businesses, simply to open up shop elsewhere and run through the same routine again. One quick way to find out whether you want to do business with a rug dealer is to ask him (or her) whether he has gone out of business before. If the answer is, “What concern is that of yours?,” think seriously of buying elsewhere.
“Go talk to the people who run the store, spend time with them,” advises Mojtabai, who often invites customers to sit in his rug-packed office and talk over tea or coffee. “Don’t ever buy a rug the first time you go looking.”
Persia and beyond
Although many people associate the term “Oriental” with rugs produced in Iran (formerly Persia) or China, the Oriental rug-making region actually cuts across a wide swath of the world – from Bulgaria and Turkey in the Near East, across the Middle East, through India, Pakistan and Afghanistan and on to China and Tibet in the Far East.
Rugs fall into two categories: hand-knotted, a weaving process that involves tying countless tiny knots to to creat a thick pile, and hand-woven, which results in a flat, cloth-like rug known as a kilim.
They are made in a wide variety of settings: some are produced by nomadic or semi-nomadic tribespeople, others are made by families in villages or small factories, and many are mass-produced in factories where the rugs are still hand-knotted, but designs are less open to the individual interpretation of the weaver and rugs are less meticulously made, with fewer knots per square inch.
“I like lookink at the rugs and thinking about the fact that someone has done this by hand and it has taken them months to do it,” says Nayier Mojtabai, who admits that as a teen-ager growing up in Iran, she didn’t have much interest in the rugs that surrounded her and longed instead for wall-to-wall carpeting.
“What I love about these rugs is that they are a kind of art form that I can sit on, walk on, feel under my feet,” she says. “I love painting, but you can’t walk on a painting. There’s something about looking at an Oriental rug and touching it that takes me out of the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Somehow there’s some sort of tranquility behind them.”
As a late-blooming rug lover, who started to become fascinated with rugs only in the last seven or eight years, Nayier Mojtabai says she feels closest to customers who don’t know much about rugs. “I really want to help them,” she says.
Like her husband, Mojtabai urges first-time buyers to go shopping armed with some idea of what they’re looking for – price range, color how and where the rug will be used. Depending on size and quality, it’s possible to spend anywhere from a few thousand dollars for a good-sized, well- made rug from Pakistan to tens of thousands of dollars for a high-quality Persian rug, Be very careful, however, about buying a rug as an investment, as opposed to something you just want to enjoy and use. Not all rugs make good investments. Antique rugs from almost any country have a higher resale value than new, mass-produced ones, and Persian rugs in general rise in value. But antiques and Persians generally cost more, too.
Besides learning about the pleasantries of design and color (prayer rugs, for example, have small niches woven in them, which are meant to point toward Mecca during prayer; in Muslim countries, green – the color of the prophet Muhammed’s coat – is not often used as a predominant color because it is considered sacred), there are also a few tough questions to ask any rug dealer.
Child labor issue
Ask where the rug is from and what is known about who made it. Child labor is often involved in rug weaving – in part because local economies dictate a need for them in the work force, and in part because children’s tiny hands tie the tiniest and finest knots. Not every situation involving child labor is an abusive one, and many countries have laws – on paper, at least- that prohibit the exploitation of children. For more information about child labor in rug weaving, call the International Labor Organization. Mojtabai recommends that concerned consumers go on rug-buying trips themselves and try to buy directly from local sources, either as a means of looking into working conditions or to pay a little more money directly to the individuals who make the rugs.
And for more information about Oriental rugs in general, go to the public library or your local bookstore. “Oriental Rugs: A Buyer’s Guide” by Lee Allane is one book that offers lots of facts and tips. Also, go look at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Tibetan rugs are on display, and for sale, as part of a textiles exhibition. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, four rare, 16th century Persian rugs are on display until Jan 8.