Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Buying a Carpet

Because our apartment is all ceramic tile, we decided to add a little color and warmth by purchasing a couple of carpets. There are many places to buy carpets here and it's quite a big business so we weren't quite sure where to start.  Our first look was at the carpets at IKEA, because we were there shopping anyway. They had some nice ones, certainly not Arabic in any way, but were too small for the rooms we needed them for. In fact, we realized as we were looking that neither of us had taken any measurements, so we had to postpone anyway - then found out these would be too small.

Next, we looked at the various hypermarkets, most of which have a carpet section. We saw a few that might fit the bill, but nothing that really jumped out at us. The nice thing is that it started to give us a sense of the prices, styles and sizes available. I also looked in some of the furniture stores I had been visiting, but again, couldn't find carpets big enough. We did find one carpet store that sold gorgeous carpets of all styles and sizes. This place was amazing! The whole store had these huge hangers for the carpets that you could roll out and in to see the whole carpet. They carried both contemporary styles as well as more traditional Arabic styles and they were very well made and beautiful ... and a lot more expensive than anything else we'd seen. We found one we liked, but decided to keep looking and do a little research online.

That was were I found the posts about the Carpet Souk (market). A strip mall of stores selling only carpets and an opportunity to bargain, which we were very much looking forward to. We don't know much about carpets, which would be a distinct disadvantage to our bargaining leverage, so I did enough research to learn a few terms to hopefully sound intelligent like "knots per centimeter", the difference between hand and machine made and that most come from Iran, Turkey and Pakistan. With that very limited knowledge, we set off one evening to have our adventure.

And the first adventure was finding the place. Unfortunately, I couldn't find detailed directions on the web and there is no phone number for these kinds of places, so we had to wing it. I knew it was near the fruit and vegetable souk, but seriously, that didn't narrow it down much. After about 30 minutes of searching, asking a security guard and a taxi driver, we finally spotted it ... on the other side of the road. (sigh) Another 10 minutes to figure out the correct U-Turn and how to actually get into the souk area and we finally made it.

As we pulled up, a number of shopkeepers and helpers (all men) got up from where they were sitting and talking and started to move towards our car. We knew we were in for our first hard sell experience in Abu Dhabi. We experienced a lot of that while in Guinea and felt comfortable with it, but hadn't seen much of it here. Sure enough, as soon as we opened our doors and stepped out we heard all kinds of variations on the following:

"Hello Sir (or Madam), please I have good carpets for you."
"Come see, I have high quality."
"I give you good price, very good price, come look in my shop."
"You come here. I help you get good carpet, good price."

Although we'd experienced this before, it was still a little overwhelming, and of course, we didn't know the best way to respond. In Guinea, you just ignore them or say "no thank you", so that's what we tried here, and it seemed to work okay. The challenge was, the only way to see these carpets was to walk into each shop and have a look around. And once you were in, the shopkeeper did whatever he could to keep you there so you would buy from him. Our other challenge is that it wasn't very busy, so the shopkeepers had plenty of time to focus on us (as if we weren't conspicuous enough already! :) Let's just say it was a tough place to browse.

The shops themselves are incredible. I'd say they're each roughly 15 meters long by 10 meters wide and crammed with rolled up carpets. This wasn't like the fancy store where each carpets was lovingly hung on it's own hanger and stayed flat and very visible. These were rolled up side by side and the only way to see the whole carpet was to point one out and then wait for the shopkeeper and his assistants to extricate the carpet you liked and then unroll it on the shop floor. And unfortunately, we were looking at the biggest carpets they carried, so they were all in the very back, which meant the shopkeeper would first need to pull out the 3 rows of carpets in the front and then wrestle the big mama out so he could unroll it for us to see. We were told over and over again that unrolling a carpet for us was "no problem", but I still felt guilty for the work we were putting them through. In some cases, we'd see what looked to be the perfect carpet only to have it unrolled and find a huge bright pink flower design in the middle.

In one shop, we mentioned that we were looking for a gray carpet and the shopkeeper's helpers promptly scoured all the other surrounding shops and started hauling in any carpet in our size that had gray in it! We think in hindsight that this is actually the way you're supposed to shop for carpets - pick one store and make yourself comfortable, explain what you're looking for and let the shopkeepers bring the carpets to you. I came to this conclusion after one of the shopkeepers laughed a bit and said I was working too hard - this after we came back to his shop for the 3rd time to compare one of his carpets to another shop's. In any case, after what felt like a couple of hours, we settled on two carpets. Now came the fun part ... bargaining.

Brian and I perfected a good cop/bad cop method of bargaining when we were in the Peace Corps and were surprised at how easily it came back to us here. As most of you have probably guessed, I'm most often the bad cop, partly because I'm more convincing and partly because, as a woman, I can a little more easily get away with the hard bargaining without coming off as rude or insensitive. So the process goes something like this. (NOTE: I certainly don't remember the exchange verbatim, but this is close enough to give you the flavor and see why we find the bargaining process so fun.)

"So, what is the price for these two carpets?"
"Hmmm, these are very good quality madam, very good carpets. I think for you, I give good price for the two carpets. 2100 dhiram."
"2100 dhiram? Oh no, that's too much - we can't pay that much for these carpets."
"Okay, how much you pay?"
"How about 1500 dhiram?"
"(laughing) oh madam. (shakes his head smiling) For you, because you are my friend, I give you good price. 1900 dhiram."
"(silence - my own head shaking and smiling) That's still too much. How about 1600 dhiram?"
"(more laughing) Oh Madam, no, this is good price for these carpets. Look at the quality of this carpet (runs his hands over the carpet). This is very good carpet, very good price." He then tried to appeal to Brian and took a look in his direction. But we've been down this road before, so right on cue ...
Brian: (shrugs) "Madam is very difficult." (laughing between the men)
"Okay, I give you good price, final offer. 1800 dhriam." At this point, he typed the number into a handheld calculator and showed me - maybe to make sure we were very clear on the numbers?
I then pressed Clear and typed in 1600. He laughed some more and we sat in silence for about 30 seconds.
"Okay madam, we have problem. You say 1600 and I say 1800. You give some and I give some and I give them to you for 1700. Do we have a deal?"
"1700. We have a deal." And we shook on it and laughed.

I actually have no idea if we got a good price or not, but we had fun, felt good for knocking him down 400 dhiram (about $100) from his original price and he didn't seem offended or upset in the least, which could either mean that he still took us for a ride, or more likely that he respected that we knew enough to bargain for a better deal. His assistants began folding up the carpets and he offered us tea, which we accepted. We then spent the next 15 minutes or so drinking tea and chatting as much as we could given the language barrier. We found out his name is Jan, he's been in Abu Dhabi for 13 years and is originally from Afghanistan. And because we are now such "good friends", he let Brian take his picture inside his shop.


  1. Where are the pictures of the carpets you purchased?? Better yet, show us what they look like in situ! All those garage sailing days with Mom and the Aunties paid off after all. A bargainer in training you were. I would be the good cop too. Apparently I didn't get the good haggeling genes. :)

  2. Yes Abu dhabi carpet souq is interesting place with sleeping sellers. In winter covered in carpets like dead bodies sometime preparing you a small shock :) If you are looking for a carpet not interesting much about quality its nice place. They offer Belgium (yes really) and Turkish carpets from wool and artificial silk (be careful about that, it very easily lost color in touch with water). But if you are looking for much more interesting stuff for good price visit the Sharjah Central souq (as well known as blue or carpet souq), lot of small stores with carpets offering from cheap ones wool carpet from India (Bangladesh) to very expensive Persian carpets 100% silk with high density. Really nice place.

  3. It is not worth thinking about it now, but I reckon you should have started by asking for 1,000 aed for the carpet. Probably you could have knocked much more out of the original price! think about it as a game. Worst scenario, they say no and you walk away.

  4. Generally, I found the place quite expensive and the people ridiculously ignorant about the carpet artistry. Pretty all carpets I saw there were machine made in Belgium and China (yes Made in China. The few which were handmade had London gallery price tags. The place is a joke but if you manage to bring the price to 30% of what was offered initially, you may walk away with a carpet at an OK price. All carpets are Afghani. They may try to tell you that they are Persian. They are not. The Persian carpets at the Irani market a few miles away are ALL machine made.