Chapter 9

“Perhaps the gentleman would be more comfortable looking at shiny new rugs?”

Holden’s Kuba—it was now Griff’s Kuba—was born in the northern foothills of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, in Zeykhur, a village that lies along a river near the Caspian Sea. Most of Zeykhur’s villagers were native people known as Lesghis, renowned for weaving rugs of two distinctive designs. One, not often seen, was based on realistic looking flowers that seemed strangely European. In fact the flowers—the way they were drawn—were European. They were French flowers, woven in the 19th and early 20th centuries for Russian intelligentsia in love with all things French. But there was another design for which Zeykhur was famous, and this was the design of Holden’s Kuba. Known by the world simply as Zeykhur, the design has two or more medallions that look like the colorful snowflakes in a child’s kaleidoscope. Each seems to have exploded from its center and to have hurled arms of energy and color out into the universe of its field.

By 1880, when Silamova Breshev wove Holden’s rug, she and her fellow villagers had forgotten the origins of the Zeykhur design. (Unknown to them, it was a simplified and, some might say, a corrupted element from the famous dragon rugs woven in the Caucasus a hundred and two hundred years earlier, which, in turn, were most likely based on even earlier dragon rugs from China, such as the Ferrier Dragon Rug, and were, some might say, corruptions of them.) Silamova didn’t care much about where the design came from. In fact, the merchant who commissioned her to weave the rug called it “design twelve,” and that’s how she thought of it, too.

But if she had no deep curiosity about the antecedents of design twelve, she was not indifferent to the quality of her work. Not at all. Now 39, she had woven 26 complete rugs and, as a learner, had worked on others with her mother. She was at the top of her powers. So when she began to weave Holden’s rug, she had a picture in her mind of how her rug should look when it was finished. Some of her friends were experimenting with the new dyes that came in cans and were cheap and easy to use, but she had her doubts about them. She loved bright, happy colors as much as her friends did, but these colors from cans seemed to her bright almost to a fault. When she imagined the rug she was about to weave, she pictured it in the deeper, darker shades of red, green, blue, yellow and rose that she could extract from the dyes she had known all her life. And so she chose the harder road of extracting natural dyes from plants near the village.

Silamova had reached that stage in her craft in which she was unconscious of her hands as they wove. Like a musician, she worked within a rigid form—design number twelve—yet managed to express herself within it through grace notes of weaving, whimsies of color-choice, and by improvising when the spirit struck her.

And then one day she tied the last knot and her rug was completed. She pampered it for a while, clipping imaginary loose ends like a barber unwilling to say fini, and patted and straightened it when she walked by. And finally there came a day when she gave it to her husband to sell. It was gone. She never again thought of Holden’s rug in particular, nor did it ever occur to her that she should have kept it. But her rug-weaving was a source of pleasure and income throughout her long life.

Silamova’s rug quickly made its way up the mercantile ladder from her village to the district’s rug center, Kuba, from where it was sold to a dealer in Moscow. It is a strange fact that rug dealers love rugs. It is rare for a dealer to be indifferent to a charming rug. Even helpers who toss them into stacks or sweep them recognize and love special rugs. Dealers often take home their favorites, even when they really can’t afford to. Their mates berate them and insist that they return the rug to their businesses to be turned into money for a modern bathroom or a kitchen re-model, and so the rugs go back into inventory and a homemaker or collector eventually becomes its owner. So it was with Silamova’s rug. Every dealer who put his hands on it wanted to keep it, and some did for a time. They all recognized that it was different from run-of-the-mill rugs. It was gorgeous.

“Oh my God,” the wife said. She wrapped a forearm low across her abdomen. Her husband noticed and wondered about it. Something visceral had happened to her, more sexual than spiritual, he thought. “I want it,” she said. The husband experienced a twinge of jealousy. The rug dealer noticed her unconscious self-embrace, too, of course, and thought he had a sale. He did. Ludmila Badilova and her husband Pierre took the Kuba home with them that afternoon and became its first real owners.

Pierre and Ludmila were members of Moscow’s rising bourgeoisie. Pierre had developed an inexpensive way of galvanizing lead pipe at a time (the waning years of the 19th century) when indoor plumbing was becoming widespread in the cities. When he and his wife bought the Kuba, they already occupied the estate in which they believed they would spend the rest of their lives, a wonderful house and thirty forested acres close to the Moscow city limits. Later, after all the troubles began with the Bolsheviks, they came to regret that it was not somewhat more removed from the city. In 1913, the Bolsheviks seized Ludmila’s and Pierre’s mansion, their land and all their possessions, including Silamova’s Kuba. But, during the twenty years that Pierre and Ludmila owned the Kuba, Ludmila, especially, was devoted to it. It lay at the foot of a staircase, and each time she descended the stairs, at least several time a day, the glowing little rug infused her with a little burst of joy, which she felt quite palpably in some abdominal organ or another. And then it was gone, seized along with everything else, and the two were lucky even to be alive and living in a one-bedroom apartment in Moscow.

For a time, the mansion served the Bolsheviks as a regional administrative center. Its furniture remained in place, including its rugs and carpets. But rather than admiring the rugs and art and furniture, the Bolsheviks barely tolerated them, for to them they represented the self-indulgent excesses of the bourgeoisie. Eventually, after the crushing years following World War I, the Bolsheviks rounded up hundreds of thousands of Caucasian and Turkmen rugs from the old estates and exported them to raise money for the struggling new Soviet economy.

Under the cover of moonless nights, Henry Garemejian was spirited out of his Turkish village and then out of Turkey by relatives after both his parents were murdered there during the persecution of Armenians in 1911. As a young adult in 1930, he began a long career in the rug business in San Francisco by importing Caucasian rugs that, at that time, were pouring out of the Soviet Union. A family member in Armenia sent him a consignment of 200 Caucasian rugs and told him to pay for them as they sold. They cost Henry an average of $23 and he sold them for $35.

At that time and until well into the sixties, all the heavy, rather course rugs from the Southern Caucasus were known in American rug circles as Kazaks (even though there was no people or village by that name), and the finer, thinner rugs from the north, including Kubas, were called Cabistans (even though there was no such place or people). One of the Cabistans that came into Henry’s possession in that first shipment from Armenia was Ludmila’s Kuba. Now 34 years old and still in good condition, it had bloomed with the luster that rugs blessed with good wool and good dyes acquire from reasonable use on the floor—these were the years before everyone came to wear rubber-soled tennis shoes indoors—and its colors had softened nicely from use and time. Very soon Henry Garemejian sold it and 24 others to an upscale San Francisco department store, W.J. Sloan’s. Sloan’s rug buyer, also an Armenian, recognized that the Cabistan was special and he priced it at $135 rather than the $110 he charged for the others. Nonetheless, it quickly sold to a doctor from a wealthy suburb of San Francisco called Hillsborough.

Men often are left cold by the fine linen, silverware, crystal, lace and other household notions that drive their wives nearly crazy with acquisitiveness. Yet many men are charmed to pieces by Oriental rugs. They feel they can sink their teeth into a good rug. There is no accounting for it.

Dr. Chase was one such man. His very first acquisition, the Kuba, was like the birth of an unplanned baby. It was a love child. He stumbled upon it in the rug department at Sloan’s while his wife was shopping for feather pillows upstairs. He was fooling around, killing time. He turned the corners of a few rugs in stacks and looked at the price tags of rugs on the walls. He checked the time on his wristwatch. With one wingtip shoe he turned the corner of a carpet on the floor. He stooped lower to flip through a stack of smaller pieces that reminded him of Navajo rugs. He felt that these were more his style. Blessedly no salesman approached him and he took his time looking at these rugs since he had at least another half hour to kill. Some had flaws and that surprised him: designs that seemed cut off or, at least, unfinished; stripes of color that changed unexpectedly; and some were even a little worn. Yet they were expensive. One was more expensive than the others. That was annoying. He liked it especially, he thought. From the half he could see, it seemed…not-Western. It seemed not-anything: not European, not Oriental, and (on closer examination) not Navajo. It was unlike Islamic tile, Greek art, or Grandma Moses.

“Can I help you, sir?”

“Blast,” Dr. Chase swore silently. But still, maybe he did need help. “Well, perhaps you could let me see this rug a little better?”

“Of course, sir.” The salesman was in a well-tailored suit and Dr. Chase thought he had a bit of a superior attitude. Effortlessly the salesman exposed the Kuba and he held it for Dr. Chase to admire, letting its bottom third lie on the wooden showroom floor and holding the rest in the air so that it caught a beam from a spotlight, just so. “This is a Cabistan, sir, one of our finest.” Dr. Chase struggled to think of the right questions to ask but found nothing to say. The salesman was not bothered at all. “This rug,” he said, “was the work of a young bride and it was woven as part of her dowry. That is evident in the care she took in its weaving.” He was warming up. “You see how finely it is woven, sir?” With a deft move he flipped over one of the rug’s corners, exposing its back without even having to kneel to do so. The doctor stared at the rug’s back for a moment but had no idea what he was looking at. He supposed it looked pretty fine.

Finally he thought of something to say, something appropriately skeptical. “Is this rug in good condition? It looks tattered there along the edge.”

Evidently this was the wrong thing to say, because the fellow in the expensive suit frowned slightly and explained with strained patience, “Sir, this is a very old rug, an antique, sir. A certain evidence of use is appropriate. But perhaps the gentleman would be more comfortable looking at shiny new rugs?”

Dr. Chase thought he detected a patronizing tone and refused to let himself be led to a stack of “shiny new rugs.” Instead he asked, “How old is this one?”

“1846, sir, give or take a year or two,” he answered without hesitation.

“Eighty four years old?” Dr. Chase was sorry he had let his amazement show, like a rube. The salesman nodded complacently, evidently in a better mood now. “Uh, how can you tell that it was woven for a dowry?”

“Sir, can you see that the selvages are wrapped in blue thread?” Of course he could. “And do you notice that each end is finished in blue?” Certainly. “That, sir, is an ancient tradition in the Caucasus: Blue ends and edges, the sign of a dowry piece.”

Dr. Chase was secretly considering buying the rug, but the thought put him in some confusion. What would his wife say, she who dictated all that went into the house? He considered going to find her but he thought that might seem weak. In the meantime, the fellow was explaining something about the border of the rug, something about the tortoise and the hare, but he was barely listening. “After all,” the doctor asked himself, “why do I work from sunup to sundown? I have the money. What good is life without a little joy?” The salesman now addressed the center of the rug, the field, he called it. Something about a sun-god. “Maybe she’ll like it,” the doctor speculated.

Surprisingly, she did, though she would not let him put it in the library where he thought it would look good. She was firm about it going into a guest bedroom. He used to visit it there and sit on the edge of the bed with books he bought about Oriental rugs, comparing his rug to pictures in books. From what he could tell from the books, the salesman had got it just right, though some writers thought the border was about dogs running rather than hares racing tortoises. This was the beginning of Dr. Chase’s fifty-year love affair with Oriental rugs, and when finally he sloughed off his mortal coil, his Kuba really was 84 years old.

In 1980 Dr. Chase’s estate was consigned to auction and a Berkeley antiques dealer named Al, with an eye for Oriental rugs, bought the Kuba. He was the first since the rug had left the old country to identify it as a Zeykhur, though at that time the word was commonly pronounced it Seyjour. It never saw the inside of his shop but rather it went home with him and became an honored part of his collection. In 1999 Al was unable to pay his payroll tax and, under duress, he sold the Zeykhur for $1500 to avoid being shut down.

Our friend Holden bought it and hung it on the wall of his new rug store and fiercely admired the rug until it had hung there so long and had been passed over by so many collectors that he nearly ceased to see it. Then Avery Deane told him he was “giving it away” and had suggested loudly that he “lock it up.” That was when Holden raised the price and sold it to Griff. Or was it Avery who had done the selling? He wondered.

handspun wool for oriental rugs

When a Dragon Winks

  • A novel by Emmett Eiland

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