There is a cult Iranian movie, popular both in Iran and among exiles in the U.S., called Agha-ye Avareh, "Mr. Exile." In it a kind of Iranian Charlie Chaplin, complete with shabby suit coat, loosened tie. canvas shoes, and a green flight bag, migrates to Southern called California to look for the American Dream.
In a series of absurdist skits, Mr. Exile tries unsuccessfully to rent an apartment, hold down a job, and open a bank account. Nothing.is possible. In the meantime, he suffers from feverish nightmares about Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iran-Iraq war, and Tehran’s revolutionary demonstrations.
As for reality, it goes from bad to worse. Fired by a vicious Mexican employer, spat on by unscrupulous Pakistani wheeler-dealers and, finally, by drunken redneck winos, his miserable experiences confirm the audience’s worst fears.
America is a dubious gamble. The new arrival is little better than walking meat ready to be spiced, charbroiled, and eaten by the sharks of the New World.
Mr. Exile is frequently shown on Iranian TV in Los Angeles and is avidly watched by the wealthy, successful pro-monarchists sitting in their fabulous Westwood-Beverly Hills homes (now largely a reconstruction of North Tehran), as well as by the respectable small businessmen who are, in their terms, no less successful in their adopted country.
Why then does the Chaplinesque Mr. Exile touch so raw a nerve among the Iranian diaspora, regardless of their actual economic and social position? The answer lies in the strange psychology of exile itself, voluntary or otherwise.
There is much talk these days about the world expansion of Iranian culture (likened by some enthusiasts to the exuberant rebirth of Persian-lslamic culture in the 11th Century, when it finally freed itself from the shackles of Arabic culture). But for those Iranians who live here, the renaissance is ambiguous. It is the old immigrant dilemma. Integration or authenticity? Acceptance or withdrawal? Purity or contamination?
For the Iranian store keepers and businessmen of San Diego, and particularly for those who run the carpet stores in La Jolla, Iran’s most visible outpost here, the question is as spiked as for any other migrants. Iranian writer Mehdi Abedi has said of Iranian shops in the U.S., “Persian carpet shops are perhaps the quintessential Persian locale. And shopkeepers are perhaps the most culturally interesting ... because they often re-create nostalgic cultural settings in their public spaces.” And the carpet stores of Girard Avenue are no exception. It is here more than anywhere that old Iran meets the American Way. Persia Bazaar on Girard. Mr. Kamran Ghandishah, proprietor of this quiet, bazeri-style Oriental carpet store is about to demonstrate to a pair of pop-eyed tourists from Idaho the intricacies of the Eastern rug knot. In a sober black suit he stands at the center of a comfortable room draped from floor to ceiling with Pakistani Bokhara rugs; Quashgais and Kermans from his native Iran, with diamond-shaped medallions; exquisite Kazak pieces; and delicately floral, crewel-embroidered Kashmiris.
“There are,” he says, in the quiet and patient voice of an exiled professor, “as many knots as there are countries and cultures. The Turks, for example, have the Ghiordes knot. It’s like this.” He twists his fingers to show something that resembles a bow tie. “But in Iran we have what is called the Senneh knot. As you can see, it’s not the same at all. You see, our knots produce a different texture from theirs, though sometimes you can find the two knots in the same locality. A town in Iran might use the Ghiordes, and a town in Turkey might use the Senneh. Because the carpet is where cultures mix. At least, that’s what I like to think.”
Girard Avenue has of recent years certainly seen the carpet business mix cultures. No other street in San Diego has been so genteelly Orientalized. The Persian-owned rug shops fill both sides of the avenue, erecting unexpected vistas of exotic, carpet-strewn courtyards bubbling with improbable Beirut-style hybrid luxury or cool with the simple austerity of a frugal store run by a small-time entrepreneur, a kaseb. The Iranians call these latter shops kasebi and they are often run by a hadji (one who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once) of independent means.
Over the last ten years, a potent middle-class and entrepreneurial Persian immigrant culture has found its feet here, fleeing either political terror at home or the declining inner cities of their adopted country. By the estimate of one publisher of a local Iranian newspaper, San Diego County is home to 60,000 of his countrymen. And the global diaspora of professionals and intellectuals created by the 1979 revolution produced a strange new class of exile. Unable to find work in the professions for which they were trained, the doctors, lawyers, writers, teachers, and scientists turned to an archaic, mercantile vocation that immediately opened itself up for them in the West and that comfortingly identified them as stereotypical Orientals. By an ironic twist of fate, the thoroughly Westernized Persian professionals became the avatars of the fabled bazaar, straight out of the Arabian Nights. And they did what Persians were supposed to do: sell carpets.
The impeccably polite Mr. Ghandishah, having unraveled the mysteries of the rug knot to his visitors, sits, with a glass of gunpowder tea, on the edge of a pile of Chinese wool needlepoints and runs one hand over the soft surface. The topmost carpet, in vibrant jewel tones, shows a variety of geometric knot devices in mulberry red. Every carpet, he points out, tells a story. And surrounded by carpets day and night, each one a labyrinth of symbols and charms, one becomes fatalistically philosophical.
“The Chinese call these patterns ‘knots of destiny.’ I must say I learn a lot from reading carpets. They’re a constant reminder of a different world, a different language. I think of them as poems written in different materials — wool, silk, and so on — and their presence is comforting. Carpets have a real permanence to them. Some of my kirman rugs here are hundreds of years old, and you can read their age in them directly if you know how to look into them. Being hand made, each one unique, they betray their place in history in a beautiful way.
“For example, I have a special feeling for Persian rugs. They have an aura that is purely Persian. After the revolution, many Persian weavers moved into exile in Pakistan and Turkey, and when I see their carpets I see their nostalgia. That, in my opinion, is why so many professionals in exile who had powerful, highly respected jobs in pre-revolutionary Iran don’t mind going into the carpet business, which, you know, was a pretty low trade for an educated man. But here they find comfort in it. Carpets are a living connection to the old world. And then Persians have taste. They love to be near beautiful things. And for us, exercising taste is almost a compensation for exile in itself.”
Ghandishah smiles in the un-American way: dry, reserved, melancholy, courtly. With a patient weariness with the world of mass production and simple price tags.
“America is a beautiful country,” he says with the same impeccable and possibly genuine politeness, “but a Kazak kilim with 250 knots per square inch ... that is real beauty! That is a question of a poet’s eye.”
La Jolia’s Asian Rug Institute puts it simply enough in its standard guide to carpet investments for Americans. “The Oriental mind,” it says, “attributes a specific meaning to each color. These meanings are an intricate part of the Easterner’s beliefs about life and order in the universe.” Carpets, in another words, are not just carpets. And whatever the cliched hyperbole about Easterners and their spirits, for the East, even if it cannot be used as airborne transportation, a carpet is still a magical, spiritual object. Persians love La Jolla. Los Angeles they could do business in, though without much pleasure in the place itself outside of Westwood-Beverly Hills. San Diego they likewise tolerate for the sake of trade. Rancho Santa Fe they flirt with. But La Jolla is rapidly becoming a Persian enclave. It has the uncontaminated opulence and sparkling, slightly airy consumerism of a plush suburb of what used to be Tehran. Either that or it conforms eerily to the image of a silvery, smalltown, Eisenhower-era America potently seductive to the rising bourgeoisie of the Third World. Whatever the reason, of all the towns and cities of the United States the Persians claim, La Jolla is the one closest to the Tehran-that-was ideal. And in La Jolla, the mullahs have not yet erected their megaphones and scaffolds.
But the exiles are truly just that. Practically alone of all contemporary American immigrants, they cannot trade with the mother country or draw on its resources of capital or materials because of the current federal embargo. The Persian carpets in the stores are either smuggled out via the Pakistan land route or have been in circulation in the Gulf States and the West for years. The Iranian revolutionary government also became fierce about carpets; the cultural patrimony was not for sale, and carpet smugglers were sometimes hanged in impromptu executions. Thus the carpets are mostly non-Persian. Less expensive Chinese tufted carpets and flat weaves and even cheaper Romanian rugs are sprinkled among the rarer antique Persian Kermans and the $75,000 Sourogs. From this the Persian draws a pessimistic and fatalistic lesson.
“I don’t profess,” says the arch Ghandishah, “to understand politics. But the massive presence of current Chinese production here is the result of President Nixon’s two visits to China in 1971 and 1972. Because the Chinese have a live connection with the American market, they can adapt organically to its changing tastes. Of course there’s a long history in the Chinese-American rug trade. At the beginning of the century, American importers practically controlled the Chinese production at source. I suppose that’s what the Tehran government wants to prevent in Iran, because the same was true in Iran. Iran began exporting carpets in the 16th Century; but in the 1850s, it was the Germans, English, and Americans who set up the factories in Mashad, Tabriz, Sultanabad, and so on. That may be, though I think now Iran is willing to do business at last.
“For us, the embargo is a disaster. The Chinese can exploit the market as much as they want just because the U.S. decided to get on with them. I regret that deeply.”
If carpet production has one thing that unites it globally, it is (with the exception of European carpet weaving) its Third World provenance. Carpets are typical products of Third World labor. In Iran, Ghandishah points out, they are the preserve of child labor on a huge scale, because only the tiny fingers of children can cope with the intricacy of weaving knots at the extraordinarily high density demanded of Persian textures, the finest in existence.
The average Romanian pile consists of about 70 knots per square inch, woven with an all-wool pile on cotton warps. That’s coarse enough for adults to do, so production in Rumania is done mainly by women. A Pakistani Jaldar Bokhara might have 180 knots per square inch, which is high, though men are usually the weavers in Pakistan and India. A Mori from the same country can have as many as 240 knots. In China, weaving is done in cooperatives that produce anything from the “tufted” rugs, which aren’t handmade at all, to Sino-Persian styles that can contain up to 270 knots. But a Persian carpet will frequently have over 300 knots per square inch — so fine that only a child’s fingers can put it together. Sometimes it’s wise, dealers say, not to mention that to Americans. But it’s also true that, as the rug countries become industrialized and labor laws come into operation, the art is being threatened. You can’t, it seems, have your cake and eat it too.
A poor quality 9-by-12 rug woven in America requiring two man-years of work to produce would cost about $35,000 for the labor alone, while the same rug woven in Pakistan would cost about $550. A rug of the same size with a 300-knot density will take nearly 12 years to make at a brisk pace of about 800 knots per hour, 6400 per day, so the cost difference widens astronomically for the finer rugs. As usual, the Western consumer loves to moralize about child labor but Husain Hazery will happily pay $10,000 for a rug that would cost $100,000 if it were made in the USA. Indignation about the exploitation of children, it appears, rarely extends as far as one’s wallet.
“A carpet is the product of thousands of years of history because the actual production is unchanging,” says Ghandishah. The dyers, the weavers, the cutters, the designers all work within an illiterate craft tradition that is millenia old. Why are we sensitive to colors in rugs? Because we know what the colors are fabricated from. We know the flowers, berries, insects, roots, barks, and metals that they come from. That is why our relationship to rugs is a spiritual one; they are slabs of Persia that we take around with us. We know the difference between an acid-based aniline or a chromium dye and one made from nature. The tone, the shading, the arrangement of color have exact and subtle effects upon us.
“I’m afraid that is also what divides us from Americans when it comes to carpets. We don’t see these artifacts in the same way. For an American, a carpet is an investment that yields ten percent a year with high liquidity. For me, I see perhaps a motif of the Tree of Life — water in the desert, eternal life — and certain feelings are aroused. Not because Americans are less spiritual, but because they have a different language. In fact I’ll just say this, that I’ve been here since 1974 and I think that La Jolla is, well, the loveliest place on earth.”
He pauses to wonder if this might sound just a little extravagant, then decides that no, it doesn’t sound extravagant at all. After all, even the climate is just like home. And climates are mystical things.
“Perfect, perfect,” he purrs. “Look at that sky. The climate tells you everything about a place, we think. Remember, nothing in this world is accidental.”
Iranians have their own language to describe exiles or emigrants and the psychological and spiritual states that either bless or afflict them. Exiles proper, people cast out of Iran against their will, are called avareh. Voluntary exiles, on the other hand, are known as muhajir. The former are considered souls in torment. In fact an avareh is often seen as paralyzed, suspended in a surreal limbo, a nonworld. The Iranian psychiatrist Gholam Hosein Sa’edi has described this condition in detail, relating it to the high levels of depression among Iranians in California. The writer Abedi describes it as “not a freezing of time but a slow dying from gradual gangrene.”
There are words, too, to describe the inner states of both avareh and mujahir. The avareh does not integrate successfully into foreign societies. He lives in nostalgia, a world of folkloric references, jokes, and parables. The mujahir, on the other hand, integrates very happily. But both can live in split psyches. The inner world is where the individual exile feels most real and where he is a Muslim. There he finds a melancholic sense of gravitas, a deep privacy. But to the world of commodified indulgence and superficially pleasurable appearances, he presents a public mask that enables him to exist in the alien world he has arrived in. The tension between these two sides of his personality is detectable in many a Persian. Melancholy and privacy side by side with mercantile exuberance.
This can be seen strangely played out in American-Iranian TV. By 1990 L.A. had an average of 17 hours per week of Iranian programming, more than for any minority except Hispanics. Most of it is secular, anti-Khomeini, and pro-monarchy. Iran itself is constantly fetishized. On the one hand, the logos and opening and closing framing clips are from pre-Islamic Iranian imperial motifs, emphasizing splendor and power; on the other, today’s Iran is shown as a ruin, completely devastated by war, intolerance, and oppressive violence. There are interviews with torture victims, video clips of executions and morgues, accounts of hangings, rapes, and stonings. The writer Hamid Naficy calls this representational country “a ruined land in the throes of death.” But Iranian TV also has the highest ratio of advertisement to programming in the U.S. As much as three-quarters of Iranian TV time is filled by commercials. Thus, the tragic tone (which promotes solidarity in the community while at the same time alleviating guilt about having deserted the motherland) is constantly and weirdly juxtaposed with hysterical celebrations of consumer capitalism ... BMWs, esoteric herbs, flavored crackers, and — very heavily promoted in the Iranian world — all kinds of cosmetic surgery and transformations of the individual’s legal status. Naficy comments that “all this is tantamount to whistling in the dark ... ”
The sense of helplessness that all this induces is potent. And here it is perhaps that the appeal of the carpet comes into its own. It is traditional, solid, fixed. It is a spiritual bridge with the past and with the other world. Carpet dealers, in addition, transfer to their new environment much that characterized them in Iran, whether they were in the carpet trade or not. There are typically three types of carpet men recognized by Iranians themselves.
First, there is what is known as the os-tokhwandaror “holder of bones,” a solid fellow who owns his own capital, does not have repayments to make, does not borrow, and who, because he is not under the gun to make quick profits, does not really care that much if people buy his carpets or not. He has a stock of merchandise that is increasing in value anyway. He is serene, a little aloof perhaps, interested in real connoisseurs with whom he can talk serious carpets, and he complains all the time about the declining standard of customer. “There used to be a time” he will say gloomily, “when people really knew their carpets. These days, the trash we get in here ... you wouldn’t believe what I have to endure.”
Typically, he will be a hadji from an old merchant or industrialist family, well connected with the local mullahs back home, who runs a family concern in which all members, including in-laws, are given shares.
Secondly, there is the aggressive and ruthless entrepreneur-shark type, who borrows capital and builds large, nationwide carpet store chains often run by his brothers and sisters. Unlike the noble hadji, who does everything in his stores himself, even the cleaning of the carpets, this second type hires peons to front and manage his various operations. He practices a form of commercial warfare — the pincer tactics of ruining competitors by opening shops on either side of them and holding would-be going-out-of-business and auction sales. This type of operator has no hesitation in using these deceptive methods against his fellow Iranians and often runs bizarre ads in the press: “FBI case: hundreds of Persian carpets, $100-$1000 at auction, no minimum; auctioneer, Colonel X.” Colonel X will turn out to be a former customs officer hired by the dealer, and the “auction” will not be customs-seized items; he will simply rent space at the custom house to sell his own merchandise. Needless to say, relations between these two types of dealers are bitter and mutually contemptuous.
The third type is basically an old-style small business entrepreneur, a kaseb, who has many investments other than carpet stores. He wears baggy pants, speaks no English, and complains bitterly about the revolution and all its works. He will, perhaps, have made his first fortune in Iran before the revolution, drilling wells and selling pumps and irrigation pipes. He will have been sentenced in absentia by the revolutionary courts for “capitalism” and will be using his carpet operation as a means of siphoning money out of Iran. He will have gone dutifully to the local mullah and had his money “cleansed”; but then, outraged at the mullah's exorbitant interest rates, he will rebel and be ostracized. He is constantly teased for being a “serpent sitting on a treasure.”
None of these three types of merchants typically belongs to the local Islamic institution. Their only contact with organized religion will usually be at times of crisis or necessary yearly rituals such as Ramadan and Muharram. The legal side of marriages are handled in the American courthouse and then registered with the Iranian-interests section of the Algerian embassy in Washington. Only fear of making an error in vital rituals will send them to the clerics. For Iranians, like all Muslims, are terrified of putting a foot wrong when it comes to certain rites of passage.
The day after death is especially dangerous. Souls who do not properly proclaim their allegiance of faith to angels in the hours immediately after death revert to being Jews or Christians and so go directly to hell. There are even jokes about the angels who do the screening process being Arabic speakers who don’t understand the Iranians when they make their ultimate proclamations. Expert guidance is sorely needed at such times. For even carpet dealers can be sent to hell for the smallest slip-up at the last moment.
A few blocks down Girard stands the modest Persian Gallery, another bazeri run by a dealer of the first type, a dignified ostokhwandar who runs the shop with his wife and who asks, for political reasons, to remain anonymous. Persians do not talk willingly or easily about their private lives and prefer a measure of anonymity in their dealings with the world of zahir or masks.
A former civil engineer in Iran, he retains the dry, courtly inscrutability of a wary exile, even as his little girl tumbles over his knees and he banters things domestic with his wife. He has an aristocratic taste for antique English furniture and talks seated behind an 18th-century writing desk embellished with a surface of fragrant 200-year-old leather.
“I opened this store for my wife, so she would have something to do while I was teaching engineering and studying for a second degree. It’s not that profitable, really, but the rugs keep their value always. I have a small number of real clients who know carpets well and buy them for a good reason. But mostly these local stores are not it in for large profits. Short-term outfits bringing rugs in from wholesalers in L.A. and New York make money, but they do it unscrupulously. There’s one on this street, who shall remain nameless. “Dealers complain about the embargo, but actually the embargo keeps Iranian rug prices high for us. The U.S. is selling trucks and computers to Iran and buying oil in return, but carpets are specifically excluded for some reason. This only helps the smugglers in Dubai and the Emirates. And it damages the American export economy, because Germany and Japan are pouring household goods into Iran. Of course there are American goods there — Zest, Ivory, Palmolive. American soap is highly prized, I must say. They take the Western labels off in Dubai and put Arabic ones on instead.
“As for carpets, most Iranian carpets exported legally go to Europe now, whereas here it’s the Indians and the Chinese who are making the killings. America really has to lose its Iranaphobia sooner or later. We don’t like the mullahs any more than you do, but Iranians of any kind are pragmatists first and foremost. Trade comes first, absolutely.”
The curious thing about our proprietor is that, in his simple black suit and stiff, white, tieless collar, he has the air of a serious, reasonable mullah himself. And he underscores how accurate the Iranian carpet dealer typologies are when he says, “Americans, you know, don’t really care for or understand carpets. If you’re brought up with DuPont wall-to-wall at $50 a yard, it’s normal. I’d say Americans, contrary to their reputation, have a hard time dealing with real luxury. They like things cheerful and cheap and useful. Carpets are like wine. They appreciate, they’re long lasting. There are very few people here who want a ‘clean’ carpet image with marble or wood floors. You have to know how to savor colors and designs and rugs, just as you would textures in wine.
“I’ve noticed that Americans, on the whole. are very attracted to nomadic rugs with simple, geometric designs. Solid, bold colors. It’s the similarity to Native American artifacts that makes them comfortable. Americans are a very nomadic people at heart. They’re uncomfortable with urban luxury; they’re always moralizing against it. And they admire simplicity, ruggedness. The values of the road. Now the intricate, very floral carpets of the great Persian urban tradition, which is the source of most rug design all over the world, are inimical to all that. Tribal, village rugs will always be popular here because they are in some strange way familiar to the American psyche, which is very Native American. It could be a fashion, of course. With rugs it’s always 20 percent fashion, 80 percent constant substance. But I think there’s something deeper there.
“Why do Afghan kilims, very simple rugs with no pile, sell so well here? Because they’re textureless, bold, simple. The lambs are taken in summer to the mountains, in winter to the plains ... there is no loom. Base and pile are made of crude wool manufactured in a tent. There is no access to colors, so the dyes are simple — red, blue, black. There is no design change from line to line. And because they use their own wool that they make themselves, their rugs sell cheaply. All of this weighs unconsciously in the mind of the person admiring a tribal rug. There’s a simple relation to nature, with no formality to deal with.
“The city rug, on the other hand, is very formal. City rugs change and develop, whereas village rugs remain immemorial. The city rug is made in factories, with an establishment behind it, with hired weavers who have their own styles. In the village, the farmers weave in winter in their spare time, so again their stuff is much cheaper.
“Now Europeans love city carpets, as do Middle Easterners. Urban Muslims and Europeans have a lot jp common culturally. They like the same kinds of artifacts because their rhythms of life are very similar. The French, for example, love these very formal silk rugs just as Lebanese people do because the tribal soul does not really exist there. They are sophisticated urban cultures. America, though, is a more complicated story. A much more ambiguous story.”
Nearly all Iranians are proud of their immigrant record. They see themselves as precisely one of these sophisticated urban cultures predestined to succeed in any environment. They gravitate toward the coasts and to Houston. “The farming people of the Midwest,” he says simply, “are not palatable to us.” Today there are, he goes on, more than a million Iranians in the U.S., mostly in L.A. and Houston, a sprawling middle class made up of real estate dealers, bankers, doctors, construction bosses, engineers, and rug sellers.
“I’ve never felt hostility from Americans, surprisingly enough. We do not have the mentality of victims, and being a victim is largely a mental state. Americans are used to minorities, unlike almost every other country on earth. My child goes to an American school and an Iranian one, and I myself feel at peace here. A lot of Iranians work in the San Diego government, and construction and electronics in California are full of them. Iranian kids don’t pick eccentric majors; it’s one of three: medicine, engineering, or science.
“As for L.A. after the riots, I think we should stay, although it’s more dangerous for us ... we’re the second biggest group of property owners in Beverly Hills-Westwood. And a lot of that hostility was explicitly anti-Asian. The whites are fine, they accepted us, but the others ... though perhaps we should also make more effort to make ourselves understood.
“We succeed, like the Koreans, because of the indestructible family unit, which makes a certain kind of economic growth possible. Take the carpet shops. Without families they’d disappear. But carpet stores keep capital and growth within the Iranian community, so we’re in control of them. We take the family extremely seriously. We’re used to real suffering, not the kind of 'suffering' you talk about here in the ghettos. We know real war, famine, sacrifice, a real secret police. Americans don’t know the meaning of those things. They find it impossible to sacrifice anything. We don’t accept divorce, for example. We try to make marriage work. And we give time to our children. It’s not a conservative perspective; it’s a necessity for survival, success, excellence. This is what makes a successful community instead of a failed one.”
About the hybridization of Islamic peoples living in America, he says, “Well, I don’t believe there’s any such thing as cultural purity. We are Americans. We marry Americans and live with them. When I was a child I read the American Constitution; I always believed in the individual’s basic freedom. I still go to the library every day to do research and improve myself. You know, I didn’t want to become a carpet dealer, but there it is. I couldn’t earn a living teaching in a university. But we adapt.
“I had to leave suddenly, just after the revolution, but I don’t regret my own Americanization. Because when I heard that Iran was going to become totally Islamic, I knew that I could never live there and grow. My family was a military family under the Shah, generals and so on, so I was also afraid. At that time, you could get a dollar for 70 rials. Now its 1500. So I was lucky that I left immediately. And then our revolution wasn’t a genuine Islamic revolution anyway. It was an ‘export revolution,’ utterly fake and divorced from the real heart of the people. The uneducated masses bought the myth for a while, but for me — I was educated in Vienna and Cologne — it was a sham.
“I came to San Diego straight away, no hesitation, since I already had relatives here. And yet, on the other hand, I keep a Persian lifestyle. My diet is Persian. I cannot eat American food. Our basic living is communal, and everything is fused together in it. We lived more or less peacefully for 2000 years with our religious minorities, and fundamentalism is completely alien to the true Persian mind. Our mosque here was built by the Saudis, but I hardly ever go there. In fact, most Iranians here have divorced themselves from organized Islam. Why? Well, you have to remember that Persia is much, much older than Islam, so we can let it go much more easily than the Arabs. For them, Islam is everything. What would they be without it? Nothing. Their culture before Islam was nothing. They were just a bunch of goat-herders in the desert scavenging off other people’s trade. In fact, Persian culture and government historically were destroyed by Islam, by the alien Arab invasion. We don’t like Arabs in Iran. They’re just disorganized tribals deep down, and in fact it was always we who ran their administrations. It was our resource&that powered the Islamic Golden Age. So we’re different from most Moslems in that respect.
“Take our calendars. We don’t just have the Qamari, or Quranic calendar, as most Moslems do. We have that and we have the Shamsi, the Zoroastrian solar calendar, which is our civil calendar. So we have our own sense of time that is unlike anyone else’s. We have our own months that are alien to Islam. And where Moslems count the year 1979 as the year 1400 Q., we also count it as the year 1358-9 Sh. It’s a parallel sense of time. That’s why we can go our own way and why we don’t have any problems dealing with an alien environment like America. Because we are already composite. And I, for one, will not be going back anywhere.”
Cultural heterogeneity is a fact of life for immigrants. But is also a fact of life for every culture anyway. As the Egyptian writer Zabi Nagib Mahmud has said, “Contemporary borrowing of alien ... elements merely repeats the practice of [heritage!, for one origin of Islamic rationalism is Greek, while many of the mystical and Gnostic influences in Islam were borrowed from India and Iran.”
Wheels come full circle, and the eternal history of migrations, influences and counter-influences, hybrids and cross-fertilizations goes on and on, as it always has. And carpets? Well, Iranian intellectuals love to use carpet metaphors. The writer Abedi says grandly, “Iranian culture increasingly is woven on a geographically situated loom, one beam end set in Iran and one set in Europe and America. Each end contributes new bits of warp or woof. The result perhaps is not so much replicated carpet pairs like those woven on a traditional loom, but rather perhaps like a Sholamzar Bahktiari carpet in which each square is different, or those Quashqa’i-Shirazi carpets in which new figures — radios, airplanes, cameras, trucks, televisions — are constantly being introduced onto the field.”
Undoubtedly the flashiest rug store on Girard belongs to its most aggressive operator, Mr. Arjang of area apJ Asian Rugs and Kilims, at number 7650.
It’s an opulent four-story Arabian Nights emporium known as Arjang Tower, with the largest selection of Turkish and Iranian rugs in Southern California. The topmost floor houses the man’s private collection, “the most breathtakingly beautiful Persian and highly collectible rugs known to man,” as a recent ad puts it.
Arjang is known about La Jolla for his fancy cars and his silk suits (as well as his Persian hyperbole), and the interior of the Arjang Tower reflects it: silver columns, arches sprinkled with reflective stars, huge iron chandeliers, glass cases with swords, coins, vases, and china camels. Plush leather sofas dot the rooms, between the small tables piled with rugs and displays of dried flowers. On the “rare Caucasian” and Turkish rugs hung from the walls are tags that read, “Invest in your Lifestyle”; “Rugs for America” is the store’s motto, and Arjang intends to live up to it.
Impatiently, the handsome, silk-suited young Persian entrepreneur explains his style, which is already brusque and culturally neuter. “I’ve been here 15 years, and my family was here before me in La Jolla. La Jolla has been fabulous for me, except for my brush with the Reader ten years ago, when I sued them for slander. They wrote about me that I was making money out of selling stuff that wasn’t as good as it could have been, which was true at the time, but the article was excessive, pure and absolute slander. Anyway, you just write that I have the biggest store in the area and that no one beats my prices, no one, anywhere.
“I know what people want, and I know that everyone buys rugs. About 20 percent buy old rugs, and the connoisseurs know what they’re looking for. They look for soft, worn, aged color ... the color you get from old vegetable dyes, not the mineral dyes you have these days. Vegetable dye has more feeling, it’s more alive. I guide them to that. I have everything they need under one roof."
He looks at his watch nervously and leans forward. “Well, any more questions?"
The contrast with the courtly and leisurely hadji across the street could not be more startling. Time, for Arjang, is obviously money.
Does he love carpets?
He looks utterly nonplussed. “Sure, they’re beautiful.”
Do they create resonance for him?
“Sure, they’re my heritage.”
Does he think of returning to Iran?
“Sure, for holidays.”
Does he think Iranian culture today is woven between two ends, one in Iran the other in America?
“Er, sure, two ends.”
He rises abruptly to direct his energies more usefully elsewhere. Not being a client with a fat wallet, your average journalist is as disposable as a box of Kleenex.
As we stroll to the door, though, Arjang decides to inject a a more philosophical note into the proceedings. “What is a great carpet?” he muses. “I’ve put it in that leaflet I’ve given you. It is an artist’s communication to all mankind, that a man lived, loved, and triumphed. That’s the meaning of a carpet. It’s as simple as that.”
And on that astonishing note, the meeting is over.
A few doors down from Arjang is another plush carpet store, Ziba, which seems to promise the third type of carpet dealer. There are some similarities in style with the Arjang Tower, in the kilim room are a rotating marble ball in water, a bird cage, a glass cage filled with sweets, and a desk magnificently adorned with a silver cigar lighter in the shape of a boat and an intricate leather pen holder. As soon as the affable and charming owner appears in person, however, you know that you are in a different cosmos altogether.
“Oh, those people who set up ‘going out of business’ signs all over the place ...” sighs the warm and effusive Husain Hazery, fourth-generation carpet dealer, with a contemptuous fluttering of the hands. “The worst thing happening now with the Iranians here is our lack of cooperation. We are not working together. There’s too much rivalry. Poor Mr. Negbi over there was forced out by the pincer strategy. The problem also lies with consumers. American customers don’t understand price heterogeneity. We are endlessly having to explain why one carpet is more or less expensive than another because each one is unique and individual.
“Most of our money comes from collectors ready to really spend. Local people in La Jolla usually want cheaper, decorative tribal pieces. Not much money in that. Aod those customers, ahee...” he rolls his eyes in disbelief, “they lie, they mislead, they cheat. You have to really watch them closely. They come in and say, 'I want a black carpet.’ I know every black carpet I have by heart, like a shepherd with his sheep, and so I know what the price is. But they expect to haggle, like we’re in a bazaar somewhere and I’m a devious Oriental.
“When I first came here in 1970, I had to write an essay in my language course called ‘Prejudice in the Year 2000.’ I still think about what I put in that essay. Americans are prejudiced like everyone else. Iranians frequently have to change their names here. Who wants to be called Husain in this country? I personally have never had problems, though during the hostage crisis I did have eggs thrown at my car. But I tell you what, Americans respect success as a bottom line, and if you have the best engineers and doctors in the world, you'll be all right here. And where else could you walk into the country, as a friend of mine did recently, with hundreds of Russian watches and pay only 10 percent duty on them? Nowhere else!”
Ziba resembles a giant tent, gathering light into the center and subtly offsetting the slabs of Persian marble and heavily plated gold lamps. Several of the Shah’s family rugs rest here, along with several early 19th-century Sourog and Kerman carpets from Persia priced at over $80,000. The great sheets of woven champagne, green, and berry-red silk and wool hung from the walls with their mystical intertwinings of flowers, birds, and geometrical devices exude a mesmerizing warmth. One thinks of the incredible Ardabil carpet in London’s Victoria and Albert museum made for Shah Tahmasp in the late 16th Century, with 32,500,000 knots, the most highly priced carpet in the world.
“A Persian rug with a very high density of knots can last up to 300 years. And carpets are a better investment than gold or stocks. All you have to do is clean it with a stick and cold water.
In Iran, they clean the best rugs in a river and nowhere else. It’ll increase at ten percent indefinitely. Look at this old Hamadan ... a hot, hot rug. It’s priceless. Look at those colorways. It’s absolutely inspirational. See how an old carpet gives off a different spiritual feel? That’s what is priceless. It is saturated with human feeling and experience.
“For me, carpets are like a disease, a complete obsession. I can’t have a single rug in my own home because I cannot bear the thought of my kid or my dog in any way ruining it, even minutely. Half of my life has been taken up with them, and I never tire of it. They fill me with energy. One day, you know, I am going to take $ 120,000 and build a national carpet library in San Diego. That is ultimately my greatest dream. I’m already saving. I’m going to educate America in the spirit of the carpet, even if I haven’t yet made my pilgrimage to Mecca.”
And, shaking my hand, “Mr. Exile” smiles the smile of reason and sees me to the door with the graciousness of a host seeing a house guest to a gentle exit. The Iranian diaspora has found its feet in the carpet trade, as elsewhere, and they will undoubtedly change the face of La Jolla in the years to come.