Working Shoulder to Shoulder with Hajji Rahimpour

“You cannot earn good money from a bad transaction.”

I returned annually to Iran and Afghanistan during the 1970s, and until the 1979 Islamic revolution intervened, Hajji and I conducted steady business, grounding my career-long specialty in tribal rugs. Throughout this period a unique friendship grew.

Our encounters were colored not only by our personalities and respective levels of knowledge but also by the subtleties of commercial exchange evolving over the millennia in Asia. Bargaining is, of course, central. However, bargaining styles are like tones of voice and personalities, varying greatly from person to person. Most bargaining sessions engage both verbal and non-verbal factors, and the space separating two individuals is less than experienced in Europe or North America. Standing face to face, an individual’s body, and even one’s atmosphere, plays a vital role in the transaction.

Hajji Rahimpour’s negotiating style made greater use of his eyes than did most dealers. He warmed me with them and kept me close; he directed, chided, cautioned and, on occasion, laughed with his eyes. Others used their hands and arms more, especially in bargaining sessions nearing an agreed figure. A dealer grasped my hand, all but forcing me to “shake” on his price, or warmly placed his hand on my arm or shoulder, indicating the collapse of all barriers between us. However practiced or premeditated, these gestures could be highly effective.

Learning to deal in these circumstances required practice, and time. All hopes and assumptions of facing a honest dealer, eager to please me and seemingly on my side, had to be penetrated. Like magicians, clever dealers in Iran and Afghanistan create “illusions” out of thin air, advancing the value of their goods. Quoting the price just paid for something and reaching for a record book to prove this—surely a lie. Suggesting that a rug languishing in stock for months had been acquired moments before I arrived—not true.

In contrast, Hajji Rahimpour was straightforward and thoroughly honest. Reserved by nature, he used bodily contact—slaps on the back, handshakes, or moving directly into another person’s atmosphere—sparingly, except when crowding another dealer bodily in a challenging transaction. Moving straight into the action was one method he used to command “bargaining space.”

During my years with him, working shoulder to shoulder, buying from many dealers in the bazaar, his exceptional skills pursued one objective: I was to pay no more than local wholesale prices for any goods, and never be treated as an outsider. He extended his reputation, even his personhood, to me, and everyone in the bazaar saw this. As a consequence, I enjoyed far more commercial credit in the Bazaar Vakil of Shiraz than in my own bank, back home.

While Hajji always granted the other dealer what he truly needed in a transaction and avoided personal insults, appended to his humane understructure were extraordinary bargaining

skills. I have never seen anyone bargain over fifty cents or a dollar as this man did. Yet, looming above all were universal principles, beyond buying and selling. Honest to his core, Hajji Rahimpour’s life as a self-disciplined Muslim, living under the Koran’s guidance, was his greatest asset. It took time for me to understand all this, but bazaar dealers who had known him for years saw clearly what he was made of.

My own culture’s current encounters with distorted manifestations of “Islam” have nothing to do with the Islam practiced by millions of Muslims, living quietly under the guidance of their faith. In contrast with popular views in the West, human values, viewed from an Islamic perspective, are not infinitely flexible products of biologically driven forces, but must express universal values, true yesterday, true today, and true always. In Islam, to know oneself and become master of one’s multi-sided self is key.

Individuals vary greatly in our capacity to know what is motivating us at any one moment. An absence of self-knowledge has many handicaps, one being the tendency to shift what we fail to see in ourselves to the other person, rather than deepening a questioning attitude, within.

Hajji Rahimpour was quite different. I think he knew himself exceedingly well. Yet it was impossible to know him in a casual, familiar way. He remained too interior, too disinclined to make the deals we often make in pretending to know each other thoroughly. Unless engaged in the throes of a bargaining session or guiding me in the ins and outs of the business, he remained undemonstrative and nearly silent. Asking him about these traits, he once said, “Flies never enter a closed mouth.”

Although his work for me in the bazaar involved feigned moods and reactions, he was never slippery in ways that erode a person’s character. He was thoroughly himself, and those drawing near him never doubted who was behind any posture he took. He was there, and his slightest glance told you so.

These hints of something solid and permanent made the days and weeks in Hajji’s company deeply appealing for me.

Appealing, also, were his skills in expressing himself through Persian proverbs. A transaction evoking wordy commentary from another dealer evoked only a proverb from him. Some I struggled to understand, including one related to planning. When needing to chart out a morning’s work, lining up the dealers we would visit, he often said, smiling, “First dig a deep well, then steal a minaret.” Minarets are the tall, tower-like structures attached to mosques, from which the “call to prayer” is sung. No thief would ever think of stealing one, but if he did, he had better be prepared!

Mohammed Kashef, a local teacher of English and professional guide, who translated for Hajji and me, suggested that Hajji sometimes made up proverbs on the spot. Whether this was true or he tapped levels of folk wisdom that disappeared during the 20th century hardly matters.

And if anyone accused him of inventing anything, he might say, as he did in my hearing many times, “God forgive you – and me, as well.” Which left the matter in doubt.

The Bazaar Vakil’s passages and corridors burst with activity throughout the 1970s. Built in the 18th century with foundation stones from much older structures, the bazaar harbored dust and grit from every year since its construction. Slanting shafts of sunlight entered from ventilation holes in the vaulted ceilings, illuminating the air we breathed, and the dust in it.

In Islam, mosque and bazaar always have stood adjacent to each other, intimately related. The call to prayer, broadcast by loudspeakers throughout the Bazaar Vakil, invites shopkeepers, their employees and customers to retreat from the gross concerns of our lower world to attend a higher one. Hajji Rahimpour always heeded the call, maintaining a quiet inner practice touching everything he did.

An extraordinary volume of business brought prosperity to the bazaar during those years. Mixtures of Shirazi citizens, tribesmen and tribeswomen from the mountains, visitors from other provinces and touring Europeans and Americans created an endless, colorful spectacle. Many dealers and tourists visited Hajji Rahimpour’s shop, searching through collections of small bags, functional weavings for work animals, and small rugs and gileem (kilims). Goods from the two major tribal confederacies of southern Iran, the Qashqa’i and the Khamseh, predominated, but there were Afshar pieces from southeast of Shiraz and pieces from the ancient Lur tribes, from higher ranges in the Zagros Mountains.

The ranks of nomads steadily dwindled throughout this decade as hundreds of thousands of families abandoned “transhumance”—moving flocks to find fresh grass—for the relative comforts of town or city life. Their khorjeen (saddlebags), namakdan (salt bags), sofre, (flat-woven pieces on which meals were often taken), chanteh (single bags, used to hold various personal items), so important in the life of nomads but of no practical value in sedentary lives, filled the bazaar. I watched carts piled high with these things being unloaded near dealers’ stalls in the bazaar. Seeing one of these carts, Hajji sent me running to choose the best pieces. Walking at his steady pace, he soon joined me to bargain over the goods and help carry purchases to his shop. Some days his shop was stuffed to overflowing.

In the midst of all of these goods stood Hajji Rahimpour, short and muscular, with piercing blue eyes, a living hearth of Islamic values, and a force to be reckoned with in the bazaar.

Encounters with his strong Islamic perspective occasionally made me uncomfortable. My wife Patricia and I, married in 1970, began to divorce only five years later. While difficult for us, few painful family decisions have been addressed more amicably. We had two children needing cooperative parents, if not married ones, and agreed to live near each other, sharing parenthood but not living together.

The word “divorce” was extremely distasteful for Hajji and, hearing it, he stared me down for a full minute. Unable to withstand his gaze, I said in faltering Farsi, “Hajji, it can’t be helped.”

Hajji waited for Kashef to appear before expressing himself bluntly. Quoting Mohammed, he said, “Some things that are lawful are disliked by God. Divorce is high among them.” His words supported the look I already absorbed.

“Go to the telegraph office now, this moment,” he said. “Send a message to your wife. Tell her you have changed your mind.”

This was as unthinkable for me as the notion of divorce was for him. We did not bring up the subject again.

During our years together, Hajji and I developed a loose modus operandi, a pattern of functioning in the bazaar. Arriving in Shiraz, I never looked at another dealer’s goods first, but bought everything possible from Hajji Rahimpour. We never spoke about this, but I knew that to buy from another dealer before approaching him would have been an insult.

After a morning’s unfettered crack at my dollars, with little or no bargaining, we moved into the bazaar, where lots of bargaining ensued. We approached other dealers in roughly the same order, year after year. The following notes, written in 1976, present a familiar pattern, experienced many times throughout the 1970s.

Looking at goods in a shop one hundred meters removed from his own bazaar stall, Hajji speaks with the dealer, communicating quietly about the goods, the state of the market, and, if I understand him, traditional Islamic codes of commercial behavior, restricting dealers to limited profits. “We both know what these goods are worth,” he seems to say. “The prices I willingly pay must be close to the prices you ask.”

It is an unorthodox bargaining posture, yet an effective one.

The dealer nods uneasily. He is hungry for business, yet resistant. He respects Hajji, but fears him.

Mohammed Kashef accompanies and translates for us, when needed.

Speaking softly and making eye contact with our host, Hajji Rahimpour, the senior figure here, dictates prices on a few chanteh. Initially the dealer accepts Hajji’s prices with bits of grumbling. After the fourth or fifth item his temperature rises. Kashef translates the dealer’s comments.

“He says, ‘I agreed to your prices when they are reasonable, but you are going too far. It’s fine for you to look after your American friend. But what about me in this transaction? I am here, too!’”

The dealer yanks a chanteh from Hajji Rahimpour’s hands and throws it to the farthest corner of his shop, yet not so far that it cannot be retrieved.

Is there a glint of mischief in this dealer’s eyes? Is this, significantly, an act? I hope so, but Kashef once referred to him as “a living argument.” Hajji Rahimpour insists that he learned his bargaining style from his father, a carpet dealer before him. Kashef say, “No, I swear he has a bad liver.” Whatever ails him, our host digs in his heels, hanging on to each gileem, rug and bag for dear life, shouting prices tailored for the year after next.

Hajji calmly resists the downward descent, calling a halt to our transactions and saying, “He who refuses a full loaf today may search in vain for a half a loaf tomorrow.”

The dealer is unmoved by this proverb and, teeth clenched, holds tightly to the object of struggle, a rug about six feet long. Hajji holds the other end, insisting that everyone knows what a sensible dealer will pay for such a piece. Standing firmly on this principle, he wears the dealer out and we buy the piece, paying Hajji’s dictated price. My purchase pile grows.

With some items, Hajji gives ground, especially when, using our pre-arranged gestures, I signal strong interest.

We call signal system, “left foot, right foot.” If I wish to buy a piece that is on the floor, I place my left foot on it, taking care to not touch it with my right foot. If the object is on the wall, I lean on it using my left hand. Hajji notices, and knows. His glance tells me so.

On the other hand, sometimes it is useful to bargain over rugs that I do not want. These I touch with my right foot or right hand.

We use this system occasionally with this dealer and end up buying twenty items from him, mostly Qashqa’i and Luri rugs. In the end, a bit incongruously, given all the struggling, we all shake hands, smiling.

The dealer says his son will deliver my goods to Hajji’s shop and I offer a tip to the son. The tip is declined. I repeat and insist, and again the my gesture is refused. A final and more forceful effort succeeds. Tip accepted.

After leaving the shop, Hajji smiles and holds up three fingers. Three. Offer a tip two times and a dealer resolutely refuses. The third time, he accepts.

Business flows more cordially at our second stop, at least initially. The owner, a slim, bearded man, presses his right hand to his heart and nods, gesturing heartfelt welcome. He asks about my journey to Shiraz, my family, my health. He orders tea and a pretense of ease and casualness totally obscures what, inevitably, will soon take place.

As Hajji begins examining a Qashqa’i rug, Kashef and I hoist ourselves onto oversized carpets, where I can study all the stacks of goods in this shop. Overhead, fragments of an ancient Afshar gileem, disintegrating from age more than from wear, form a tent-like ceiling. A single light bulb casts dim light on our work.

Judging from his goods, this dealer’s primary sources are in Afshar villages, to the southeast of Shiraz, close to Kerman.

The dealer and Hajji begin open rugs together, saying little. From prior business, the dealer understands my tastes. Ten or twelve rugs into the first stack we come upon a unique rug, a century old Afshar with a stylized tree pattern, and an inscription. Rugs with writing are easy to sell and the colors in this piece are exceptional. I slide down from my perch to touch the rug with my left foot. Hajji does even glance at me. He knows.

He says in a soft voice, “Chan?” (“How much?”)

“Dah hazar tuman.” (Ten thousand tumans. Roughly $1,300.)

Hajji chortles and his eyes brighten, with a sardonic edge. The price is a joke, an amusing one. He speaks a few sentences which Kashef quietly translates.

“The Hajji said to him, ‘If you throw a stone, throw it far. But be careful you don’t throw it around the earth. It could hit you!’”

The seller snaps back, offended. Hajji smiles and, glancing my way, gestures that the price we just heard cannot be taken seriously. I start to lower myself again from my perch but Hajji nudges me back with a glance. He knows full well I want the rug.

Bargaining begins in earnest. Shouting over the seller’s protests, Hajji tells me to mark the price in my record book “haft hazar bazaar tuman.” Seven thousand tumans, about $900.

The seller cries as if stabbed. His voice mixes desperation with anger as he yells in Farsi, “No Hajji! I paid eight thousand tumans for it.”

Unmoved, Hajji Rahimpour chuckles and instructs me to keep the price at seven thousand tumans. The seller’s neck is turning red as he stands inches from Hajji, insisting he had paid eight thousand tumans. Hajji says something that neither Kashef nor I catch and the dealer responds harshly. Hajji turns on him and the subdued tones of a minute before disappear in noises worthy of a dogfight. I wait to see if a concrete price emerges from all this but there is no agreement.

The seller draws close to Hajji, whispering to him. He reasons calmly, building his logic quietly and firmly. Yes, he agrees, we used to sell for small fixed profits. The Koran commands us so. But even the mullahs no longer follow this injunction. Besides, the gens, the goods, . . . when will he, when will any of us, ever see its equal?

He continues in this manner, attempting a quieter approach. Hajji listens and I look to his eyes for hints of receptivity. His look says a lot: he has heard it all before. But perhaps he is slightly receptive. He gestures with a hand, indicating the tagging device I always carry, saying, “Tag it. Mark it half hazar o hast sad tuman.”

Seven thousand, eight hundred tumans, up a hundred and five dollars from his first offer but far from the seller’s offer. Hajji urns to the dealer and says, “Aga, accept a fair price and be satisfied.” But the seller is not satisfied. Again he is stabbed, though perhaps not so deeply this time.

As I extract my tagging device from a satchel and tag a corner of the rug, the seller comes to my end and takes hold of the piece. Hajji’s eyes are fierce with determination as he grasps the other end, and shouts resound above the rug as Hajji and the seller pull from their respective ends. Slowly, Hajji pulls the rug his way, foot by foot, his strong forearms bulging under the strain. The seller loses ground as the rug, like a net full of fish, steadily moves toward Hajji Rahimpour.

My tag, and our price, stay put. Hajji has the rug at his feet. Seven thousand, eight hundred tumans. I ask the name of the village where the piece was woven and the dealer names an Afshar village.

With several dealers in another corridor there is never any bargaining at all. Business with them functions like my initial buying from Hajji’s goods. Approaching the first of these men, Hajji speaks with him and the dealer places his right hand on his heart and nods. The stream of respect flowing between the two men is all but visible, and there is no rush. He offers us chai—tea—and we accept. After a leisurely glass of tea, we begin looking at the gens. Here, Hajji is a participant and not the dictator. His talents can rest as his relationship with this gentleman is both old and deep. We look at the goods calmly, with clouds of dust the only impediment to comfortable business.

After passing on ten or twelve items, a large lion on an antique Luri rug stares at us. These rugs are close to the soul of “truly tribal” weavings, as nomads made them to symbolically guard the tent. Hajji Rahimpour and the dealer speak quietly. Hajji asks the price and we hear, “haft bazaar o panj sad tuman.” Seven thousand, five hundred tumans. Almost exactly $1,000. The decision is my mine and an easy one. I buy the rug.

So it goes for an hour as we purchase a dozen pieces from this gentleman. With several other dealers, transactions flow just as smoothly – mutual respect making bargaining unnecessary.

We finally visit shops in Hajji’s own corridor, close to his stall. Here, near home base, dealing with men he sees every day, we resort to pre-agreed patterns. If Hajji thinks a reasonable price is possible, we proceed without coded gestures of comments. If my presence will inevitably drive the price up, Hajji fixes me with his blue eyes and asks, “Mehauhee?” “Do you like it?” By asking this, he is saying, “Show absolutely no interest.”

With mixed feelings, I respond according to our formula: “Namehauham.” “I do not like it.” This is not easy, as the piece may be something I will never see again, an antique bag with bird motifs, or a rug filled with peacocks. Yet feelings must not bend facts. I answer according to our code: “Namehauham.”

Later, after I have left Shiraz, Hajji will return to the dealer and buy the piece as if for himself. (“The American dealer did not like this, but I do.”) The price will come down.

Occasionally he makes me wait eighty or one hundred feet removed while he talks to a dealer. I once asked Kashef why Hajji insisted on speaking to a dealer alone, keeping me removed, in this way.

“Leave him be,” Kashef said. “This man is sly, but Hajji knows how to approach him.” Kashef searched for words.

“He is making a psychology with this man.”

Hajji’s bargaining skills are well known in the bazaar and when I am alone and buying items without his help, merely mentioning his name works wonders. In a stall near the main entrance to the bazaar, close to Zand Avenue, I find an antique Khamseh Confederacy bird-rug, with diagonal rows of birds in a blue field. The young brothers owning this shop exude playful qualities, like amateurs practicing to become cunning dealers. Glances they exchange boil down to an unconcealed desire to get the best of me.

The bird-rug is so old and desirable it is impossible to conceal my interest. However, my ties with Hajji Rahimpour save me. Before asking the price, I mention Hajji, suggesting it could help us if he came, to lend a hand.

“No! Please don’t bring the Hajji.” one of them pleads. “We’ll make you a good price. I swear we will.”

It is tempting, but in the end I bring Hajji Rahimpour into the transaction. The two brothers, and their price, wilt before him.

Occasional, Hajji refuses to let me approach a dealer he views disapprovingly. The offenses landing these men in an “untouchable” category are never clear. Perhaps they cheated him once, or occupy a place among “bad Muslims.” He never helps me bargain with dealers in this class and urges me to avoid them.

One Sunday morning, an ordinary work-day in Iran, Hajji leaves to say his prayers and I seize the opportunity to visit one of these “bad Muslim” gentlemen, whose goods include a pair of warp-face Qashqa’i saddlebags I find attractive. The dealer wants to secure business with me and bargaining proceeds smoothly. I walk away with saddlebags, paying seventy-five tumans – ten dollars – for them. Back at Hajji’s stall, I place my acquisition on top of other goods at the back of his stall, feeling nervous about Hajji’s reaction.

Returning from the mosque, Hajji notices the piece but initially says nothing. After ten minutes, gesturing toward the saddle bags, he asks, “Chan?”

I tell him “haftdad-o-panj tuman” – “seventy-five tumans.”

The price is good, surely. Can there be any doubt?

Hajji repeats the price. Looking me firmly in the eye, he calls for Kashef to translate and helps that he does so. He speaks four or five earnest sentences.

“The Hajji says, ‘You know how hard he works every day to get to the real price for you. Why do you spoil the market this way? All of the dealers talk. The tourist price for this piece

doesn’t matter. You should not pay a tuman more than shashtdad-o-panj – sixty-five tumans for it.’”

I had overpaid by ten tumans. A bit over one dollar.

Hajji lever let me deal with an emaciated opium-addicted man, slumped in his stall near Hajji’s space. Hajji once said of him, “He ate so many snakes he became a viper. Do not buy from him. You cannot make good money from a bad transaction.”

The site of Hajji Rahimpour’s shop remains where it has always been, and will be, for decades—perhaps centuries—to come. When I last visited Shiraz in 2005, several years after Hajji’s death, I was stunned to find a vendor of cell phones operating there. But I recalled a statement of Hajji’s: “Death is the camel that comes to every door. All we see here will change, and then change again.”

During my years with Hajji, I recorded proverbs he expressed. The first group he attributed to the Prophet Muhammad:

No judge must decide between two persons while he is angry.

He is not strong who throws people down; he is strong who overcomes his own anger.

Goodness is a thing from which your heart finds firmness and rest, and badness is that which throws your heart into doubt, although men may acquit you and even admire you.

Hell is veiled in delights and Heaven in hardships and miseries.

The following are Persian folk sayings Hajji quoted, or perhaps made up.

Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.

Brothers are brothers and a goat costs one hundred tumans. (Said when references to “relationship” were crowding out business principles.)

A stone thrown at the right time is better than gold given at the wrong time.

Patience may be bitter, but its fruit is sweet.

What is brought by the wind will be carried by the wind.

Even loss can be a profit, if our minds are clear.

Do you love roses? Then you must also love thorns.

This is the bread that I baked with my own hands. (Said of costly errors.)

 

A statement Hajji Rahimpour repeated many times summed up his understanding: “What we identify with, we are. Everyone drinks the water of his own heart.”