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The Second Grand Persian Carpet Exhibition and Conference

By: Thomas Atiyeh

August 1993. Oh, what a time it was, the premier Oriental carpet event in the World, The Second Grand Persian Carpet Exhibition and Conference. For those of us selected to make presentations in Tehran we were caught up in supreme rugdome, the non-stop dawn to, well, almost dawn again, immersion into almost anything rug related. If we were not presenting our own version of the way things ought to be, we skulked about Bazaar Farsh after-hours with conspiring shop owners, showing and debating small carpet trinkets while dining on Chelo Kebab, discussing depressed warps and possible multiple-knot varieties of singular Kurdish carpets, or having late night meals in the homes of old friends. If we were not involved with our own activity, our host, The Export Promotion Center of Iran, usually had some group activity planned way into the clear Persian night.

It was as if, we were weaving a Persian carpet with our hearts and minds. Our moral fibers were hand-carded and spun into the into the yarn firmly knotted around a tight warp with the weft heavily pounded down. We felt like we were caught up a magic carpet ride we could not get off. If the ride stopped, we would say, come on - one more ride! We would not trade our experiences for anything. But, you really have to want to be there. No reasonable thinking American would dare subject themselves with a visit to Iran. Both nations choose to share verbal hostilities and no diplomatic relations in a course which is going nowhere. The U.S. embargo on Iran tactfully skates around the issue of oil imports by licensing oil imports to non-Persian companies, but has the temerity to ban Persian carpets. This, in my opinion, is not likely to change in the immediate future unless the two sides begin dialogue.

This year's carpet exhibition was streamlined to a more efficient 27,000 square meters in 15 pavilions. The Persian carpet market is either expanding or collapsing, depending on your point of view. The Islamic Republic of Iran is poised to crawl out of its humdrum past. Excitement is in the air! But can they pull it off?

Myself and twenty-three other presenters, from nine countries covered Persian carpet trade topics and the conference. Most notably were: Dr. Khosrow Sobhe's statistics and observations, Dr. Murray Eiland Jr. citing the use of Iran's city names being applied to foreign carpets, Fritz Langauer's thoughts on Europe's split market, Julia Bailey's reviewing legitimate auctions sales, Mr. M. R. Mashayeghi's urging innovation in new carpet design, Dr. Jon Thompson, showing by example, Turkey's DOBAG project and tactfully suggesting that similar projects could occur in Iran (get the hint?), Roger Cavanna's encouragement for village weaving, Dr. Annette Ittig's screening of the lost Pope movie "The Persian Carpet", and Bob Gibson's abbreviated musing and then challenging Iran to "Get with the program." We made observations, suggestions, conducted surveys and interpreted data. But will this have any impact on the future production and success of Persian carpets in the world market. I believe so, but Iran is being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. I can hear the Beatles singing - "Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged."

According to Iran's Minister of Commerce, Yahya al-e Eshaq, in his exhibition inaugural speech, Iran's export of carpets ranked first in the world with $1,100 million worth of export of hand-woven carpets. In comparison, statistics from China's Ministry of Foreign Trade and Development show China's sales of all types of carpets to be approximately one half of Iran's.

Even without the U.S.A. as a major player since the embargo, Iran has been losing significant market share to China, India, Nepal and Turkey. What we are talking about here is market-driven production, not wishful thinking. The world of Islam is great, Islamic art is wonderful, but Iranian carpets need to lead, not follow world trends. Turkey and Nepal have been eating Iran's lunch with hand-spun, vegetal-dyed carpet. India hammers on price and China commands shear volume with programmed sizes and contemporary colors. Iran wonders why the world buyers are passing Persian carpets by. The term, crisis, was repeated several times by Iranian presenters in regards to carpet production.

While I do not see the current situation as a crisis for Iran, those in the Persian carpet industry cannot continue to invite foreign speakers to elaborately staged conferences and ignore and criticize what we are saying. Figuratively speaking, do not shoot the messengers! If you do not want to hear it, fine - do not invite us.

The first recent sign of Iran paying attention the world market demands was seen at this carpet exhibition with mountains of Gabbehs blowing out the doors. The overwhelming demand for these hand-spun, vegetal-dyed village carpets, led by Zollanvari's production at January's Domotex has translated in a big push for Gabbeh production by anyone who can tie a knot on a horizontal loom. Every pile of Gabbehs I saw in Tehran was sold by the third day of the exhibition. Unfortunately, the wool quality of these Gabbehs is in reverse proportion to their sales.

Speaking of wool, when I was a young lad, restacking carpets after my father or uncles had showed them to customers, I could determine the difference between a Kashan and a Kerman by the hand or feel of the wool. This difference in wool is difficult to ascertain in today's production because of Iran's homogenized wool -- Kerman's with Khorassan wool and Gabbehs with wool from who knows where. Where are the differences in these carpets from their foreign counterparts? Iran, cannot afford to let wool quality go by the wayside in return for a quick buck, or in this case Deutsche Mark.

Iran doesn't even have to make any bold jumps into the future. Some of the hottest selling carpets on the world market are older classics based on tribal designs such as the aforementioned Gabbehs and village designs such as Sultanabad, Heriz, Bakhshaish, as well as, city designs such as Tabriz, Isfahan and Kerman.

These market demands are creating production in areas outside of Iran such as new Gabbehs and Woven Legend's Azeris in Turkey, Black Mountain Loom's antique reproductions in India, and Atiyeh's Kermans in China. But, the Persians complain, "you are stealing our designs?" Are we? Atiyeh's chief carpet designer in the 1930s was Georges Sermidjieff, a Bulgarian. Other companies now use computer- aided design for laying out Oriental carpet patterns.

Since Iran does not recognize intellectual property rights it makes their case of stealing designs, moot. If foreign Oriental carpet importers cannot safely take their designs to Iran for production, this removes a major portion of new and creative Oriental carpet designs from the world.

Even though the Oriental carpet industry still continues to function using arcane business practices, there are those key players around the world who actually have policies for pattern ownership, quality control and inventory management.

There are cries within the Oriental carpet industry for standards. Indeed, the current Iranian proposal, as articulated by Al-e Eshaq, is to certify every Persian carpet 30 raj and above (118 knots per square inch, for those of you think in this system). I inspected the proposed certificate which includes data as ordinary as width and length, area of origin, and as specific as the weavers name. The good news this will force some discipline among manufactures, the bad news is the "G" word - government regulation.

Perhaps, some of this regulation stems from Iran's biggest buyers, the wholesalers in the European Community. The EC in its rush for unanimity is standardizing regulations in everything from lawn mower noise emission to cheese bacteria. The logic follows that a 60 Raj Tabriz will now be the same specifications in Hanover and Highgate.

There is also a recent Iranian regulation to set aside ten percent of export revenue to future promotional activities. Such events may include annual exhibitions in Tehran or The Paris International Fair, January 1994 where Iran has a 350 sq. meter pavilion for displaying hand-woven Persian carpets.

This potential turning point reminds me of the American automobile market. The U.S. once commanded the lion's share of the world's automobile production, when it was tooled up and didn't have to worry too much about quality control. Slowly and with determination, the Japanese and Germans retooled, created designs which the market was craving, and perfected quality control standards far above complacent U.S. manufacturers. Soon, consumers were buying cars without country of origin being a prime concern. The same parallel can be draw to Persian carpet production today.

The American car producers are turning things around with slogans backed by real action - "At FORD, quality is job one!" Can Iran prevent further erosion of its market? Can Iran's designers make the switch from drawing the same old thing to evolving with the future? Can Iran maintain a long term commitment to quality control to hold its market?

With a moderate approach to modern business practices, The Islamic Republic of Iran will once again, lead the World in what was once synonymous with beauty and strength, the Persian Carpet. God willing - Inshallah.

Thomas Atiyeh is president of Atiyeh International, Ltd., an importing and wholesale company located in Portland, Oregon U.S.A.

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