I had just come out of the Basilica Cistern. I had gone there at the suggestion of my friend Cecilia because she said it was one of the things in Istanbul that had a great impact on her. I have to say I feel the same way. The cistern is so incredible (despite the music they play down there) that it is really like descending to another time, not just a different space. I was trying to get my bearings and let my eyes adjust to the light when a tour guide started to talk to me.
He was handsome and charming and, like the majority of Turks, very friendly. We chatted for a bit and I told him I was on an extended visit in Istanbul to look at art and design. He mentioned that he worked at a store nearby and that he would be happy to show me some carpets and kilims for my research. It was early in the day, around 10:00 a.m. I told him I was on my way to Topkapi Palace, but I would love to come by another time. I gave him my card. He said that he had his cards at the store and that it was on the way to the Palace, so I went with him to get his card. I was not interested in buying a rug.
When we got to the store, there was a lot of talk in Turkish and the guide gave me his card. He offered me a seat and introduced me to another gentleman named Hakim. Hakim got me a glass of apple tea and the three of us started chatting about nothing really. Then I noticed that the guide was gone, and Hakim and I were alone in the showroom. Hakim spoke to one of the men in the store and suddenly rugs were being rolled out in front of me. The most beautiful designs and colors and textures. Hakim was really great at explaining the differences, how they are named for the region, why Turkish rugs are better (the double knot) and details about color and dyeing and all sorts of things. It was really an education. I was looking, but still I had no plans to but a rug.
More tea and more tea. Hakim asked me which one I liked best and I told him there were so many that it was impossible to choose. He told me he would make it easier for me. He asked me which ones I did not like. It did make it easier to eliminate some. Hakim kept saying "Which is your champion?" I was really enjoying myself looking and deciding which I liked. It finally got down to a really beautiful rug. I told Hakim I was not interested in buying a rug, certainly not one for so much money. He was very friendly and said "Didn't you come to Istanbul to see beautiful things?" I agreed and he told me that this rug, which was from Cappadocia, he would sell me for half of the price that was on the tag. I gasped and thought, well, that is a really great deal. So we shook hands and I gave him my credit card and I thought that was that.
Now Turkey is often blocked by credit card companies. I called my bank before my trip to let them know I was going to be in Istanbul for an extended stay. Still, there had been some trouble with my bank with daily limits and such. Also, I had only been in Istanbul for 2 days at this time. So when one of the men told Hakim my card was declined, I really thought nothing of it. "Please try again," I said. "This has happened a couple of times."
More tea. And more Turkish conversation. Hakim tried to call the number on my card but said he could not get through. I offered to try but he said not to worry. "Banks are a pain," he said. He asked me if I could go to a bank machine and I said sure. He had one of the employees walk me to a machine, but, because of my daily limit, I was unable to take out the entire amount. He walked me back to the shop.
"Let's go up to the office," Hakim said. I followed him.
From the colorful airy light of the showroom we went upstairs and around a few corners to the office, which was dark and low ceilinged but well appointed with a sitting area and a large office desk. The lights were localized around the desk area. One man in an Italian suit sat smoking on a sofa. Another man with white hair and a knit sweater sat behind the desk. Another large man with a doughy face in a suit was standing behind him. Hakim offered me a seat at the desk with the Sweater Man. He handed the Sweater Man my credit card and said something in Turkish. The Sweater Man looked at me and started bending the card. He picked up the phone and dialed the number on the back.
"How are you?" He asked.
"All right," I said. "You?"
"Banks." He said.
"I don't know what the problem is," I said.
"We'll figure it out."
He dialed a few times and then put the phone down. He looked at me, bending the card in his hands. He said, "This card is bullshit."
"This is bullshit. This is a bullshit number on this card. How do you call a number like this?"
"What do you mean?"
"This B-A-N-K. How do you dial that?"
"Use the key pad to spell out the word." I showed him how. He dialed it and held the phone to his ear.
"Do you want some more tea?"
"We have a bathroom."
"Thank you," I said. "But no."
The Sweater Man laughed and handed me the phone. I heard the recording from my bank asking to call back during normal business hours. I had forgotten about the time difference. It was about 4 a.m. in Boston.
It's hard to remember, but I think now is when I started to feel frightened. Hakim was gone. The door was behind me and I was pretty sure it was locked. The man on the sofa was staring at me and the Doughy Man was somewhere behind me. The Sweater Man was glaring at me now.
I looked past him to the monitors on his desk which I had not noticed before. It was closed circuit television - camera in various parts of the store, and on the street.
"There's a time difference," I said. "There's no 24 hour service at my bank."
From behind me, the Doughy Man said something in Turkish. He went to a phone and got out an olde time charge plate slider. He called Visa and got the purchase approved the old fashioned way. I surmised this from watching him take my credit card and slide it through the machine, writing an approval code on the sheet and giving it to the Sweater Man.
"It's all set. We had to do two transactions to get it in right," the Sweater Man said. "My cousin," he said, indicating the Doughy Man, "he does a lot of business in America. He knows how to get around all this." I thanked the Doughy Man in Turkish. He nodded. The sweater man put the receipts and a small card on how to care for the rug in an envelope.
"The monitors," I said. "You can see everything."
"You need to," the Sweater Man said. He glared again. "People try to rob you sometimes, gypsies pretend to be customers."
"Gypsies? Roma?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. "You have to be sure."
Hakim reappeared and patted me on the back. I almost jumped out of my skin when he touched me. "It's all right," he said. "Everything is ok. Come and get your carpet."
In a stupor, I went down stairs with Hakim. He packed up the rug and put it in a satchel with handles. He put the receipts inside and told me to carry it home in my luggage. He shook my hand and thanked me for being the first sale of the day. I stepped out into the cold air of the street.
Everyone tells me what they would have done. They would have gotten up and left. They would have told the guys to fuck off. They would have done all sorts of things. Maybe they would have. I don't know. I do know that everyone handles situations better than you after you have had to live through them. A pleasant moment turned very ugly very quickly and I cannot explain how. I was probably swindled and probably paid way more for my rug than it was worth. Because I was alone in a foreign country, I didn't think I had any recourse. I felt (feel) very stupid about the whole thing. They were probably looking for American suckers on their closed circuit TV and were waiting for me the minute I came out of the Cisterns. I was shaking all the way back to my hotel. I completely forgot about my plans for the day. I put the carpet in the wardrobe of my room and went to bed. I didn't even want it anymore.
I had to go back the next day. For reasons too complex to explain, the Doughy Man charged me in YTL instead of dollars, so I needed to pay the $60 difference. I could have blown it off and kept my money, but I wanted to be ethical even if I felt like they weren't. Hakim was very sweet and very kind and showed me more rugs and gave me more tea. He told me about his favorite piece (the guy is holding it in the photo). This is the rug in his office. I told him about my website and showed him my paintings. He was impressed, or at least he pretended to be. He wanted me to buy a silk rug that was created as a dowry piece. He asked me to come back tomorrow to have lunch at the store with him and his family. I said I would.
I went back to my hotel. I haven't returned to that carpet showroom. When guys on the street say hello to me now, I smile and keep walking. I wear my sunglasses all the time to avoid meeting their gaze. When I leave the country, I will post the name of the place.
The artist Pippa Bacca was found dead outside of Istanbul a few weeks before I arrived. She was trying to prove that trusting people was key to human understanding.