If you want to see how improved US-Iran relations will play out on the ground in America, head to Westwood Boulevard in Los Angeles. There's a stretch there called Little Persia and it’s the commercial heart of LA’s large Iranian-American community—full of Persian restaurants, bakeries and Farsi-language bookstores.
It's also where you'll find a store Damoka Rugs, a fine Persian rug business that hopes to benefit almost immediately from the lifting of trade sanctions against Iran. Owner Alex Helmi has already started calling rug dealers and weavers in Iran, especially in the city of Tabriz, to say that they should start packing and shipping their rugs.
When I visit his store, Helmi talks to me in his spacious two-story showroom filled with exquisitely designed, handcrafted rugs, many antiques. Piano music tinkles over the store’s sound system.
“See, this is like 200 years old, it’s a tribal rug,” Helmi says, pointing to a 100-year-old rug from Tabriz.
Because of US trade sanctions against Iran, Helmi has long been banned from importing rugs like these into America. Now that some sanctions have been lifted, including those covering rugs, Helmi couldn’t be happier. He says rugs and politics shouldn’t mix.
“You cannot sanction an art, because this is an art that has been there for hundreds and hundreds of years,” he says. “The rugs that were made 150 years ago don’t have anything to do with politics, or even the people who weave these rugs.”
The handweaving of rugs, with elaborate colors and intricate designs, has been a part of Iranian culture for centuries, and each rug requires an enormous commitment of time and skill by artisans.
“Some of these rugs take 10 years and 5 people to make,” he says. “It’s incredible dedication. A family has to work for years and years until the carpet is finished and then they can sell it.”
The showroom at Damoka Rugs in Los Angeles. Some of the rugs are 200 years old. "Age matures the color," says storeowner Alex Helmi.
In his showroom, Helmi shows me one of his favorite rugs hanging on the wall featuring calligraphy and a riot of colors that come from natural dyes derived from pomegranate skins and walnuts. “This is around 80 years old, silk,” he says. “The colors! Look how this turquoise, cinnamon, ruby red color, browns, blues, gold are next to each other. It’s beautiful.”
But such beauty costs. The rugs in Helmi’s inventory range in price from a thousand dollars to a quarter of a million. He says, no matter the price, American collectors will be eager to buy new rugs that will be imported from Iran, both new and antique. “It is like wine, age matures the color,” he says. “That is why the older carpets are very valuable.”
Helmi has sold fine Persian rugs since he first came to the US in the 1970s. He learned the trade from his father who started exporting rugs from Iran to Europe after World War Two. He also keeps to his father’s courtly approach to business by serving Persian tea on a silver tray to people who visit his store.
Helmi also makes housecalls, making sure his customers are buying just the right rug for their home or office. “I go visit their home first. I look at the ambiance of the room. I look at how furniture should be placed in the room. Is the house Mediterranean, Spanish, Italian, French, American? It’s like psychology. I spend hours with them.”
Helmi says his first shipment of rugs from Iran should arrive this week, and he hopes every rug he sells contributes in a small way to weaving better ties between Iran and the United States.
From PRI's The World ©2016 PRI