AP correspondent Murphy (The New Men, 1997) shares his passion for Persian carpets.
This richly reported homage is, he writes, “a scrapbook from a world that, if not yet vanishing, is certainly under threat”: the world of handmade rugs from Iran and Afghanistan. We open at a Tehran bazaar boasting thousands of carpets, then travel through Heart, past Hafez’s Tomb in Shiraz, and through villages near Hamadan. Murphy seldom falls prey to the temptation to romanticize or Orientalize as he moves from the most remote outposts to Internet cafes in Iran. Along the way, he explains the vocabulary of carpets, the warps and wefts, the symmetric and asymmetric knots. Want to find out if the supposedly silk fringe on your carpet is the real deal? Clip a bit and light it with a match. Silk won’t burn very well; cotton trim smells like paper burning and will hold a flame. Murphy’s discussion of carpets is riveting in its own right, but he ultimately reaches beyond rugs and provides a helpful introduction to a region whose role in geopolitics is unlikely to diminish in the near future. He dips into Sufism and Persian philosophy and poetry. He analyzes the complex gender politics that attend carpet making. In Murphy’s hands, we see that the rugs intersect with a remarkable number of currents: technology, globalization, economics, the Iranian revolution. The author talks to a nomad weaver hired by an Iranian family to weave a copy of a famous carpet; the Iranians will then sell the carpet at a huge markup to a family in Germany. Our naïve narrator asks the nomad if she wouldn’t prefer weaving carpets from her own design and selling them herself. She bites his head off: She needs money, and the Iranians pay her well enough to buy medicine. “We get upset when people think nomads should have different ideas and dreams than those who live on in homes,” she says.
Lovely and profound.