When USS Little Rock (CLG-4), the Sixth Fleet flagship, pulled into Tangiers, Morocco at the end of January, I had a more important mission than building US-Moroccan relations (which I helped do anyway). This was one of the few ports where my wife Carol (a singer with the Sixth Fleet Music Show) would not be with me. She had issued clear-cut orders to come home with a handmade, wool Moroccan rug. Not some little runner for the hall, but a full-sized beauty to lie beneath the entire living room ensemble. The detailed differences of thread count, hooking style, Berber vs. others, had been carefully studied. And we knew that Tangiers was the place to find a good-quality Berber rug.
Compared to Tangiers, the city shown in the movie Casablanca looked like a Midwestern cow town. At the time, it was the most exotic (and aromatic, and crowded, and dangerous) port I had ever seen. I could feel the excitement among the crew as we moored. Some, I am sure, were looking for girls, some for booze, many for drugs, and a few for cultural sites and Moorish architecture. I was looking for a rug.
My friend Greg Schmidt (not his name) was the NIS (Naval Investigative Service) agent for the Sixth Fleet. He often used my stateroom for confidential interviews, because I was in it so rarely. We agreed to go rug-hunting together.
Strolling (or rather, jostling) through the crowded streets was a workout. Small shop fronts of every kind squeezed into each block. The sidewalks were impassable for the wares on display. Spices, perfumes, engine exhaust and the smells of animals and people lay heavy in the air. Women bargained with the merchants, and old men sat around hookahs in the tea shops, chilling comfortably. The city and the people reflected its special, multicultural nature. Spanish, French, English, Maghribi Arabic and Tangierian mingled in the conversations around us.
“Smell that?” Greg said as we walked through a blue-white cloud coming from one door.
“Uh-huh. What is it?”
“Hashish. The good stuff.”
“Like marijuana?” I had no idea what either pot or hash smelled like.
“Not even close. This stuff will put you on cloud nine and leave you there.”
“It doesn’t smell like pencil shavings to me.” That was what we innocent officers were taught marijuana smelled like.
“Comparing hash to pencil shavings is the quickest way to lose a good drug bust.” Greg grinned. “The defense just has to allege that the defendant was sharpening pencils.”
We paused at a store displaying rugs, carpets and runners. The whole store consisted of two spaces made into one, with the arched openings into each one creating an open-air market effect. The entire inventory was on display. We walked slowly through the offerings, but nothing really caught my fancy, though I noted one possible white rug for a return trip if nothing panned out. I quickly began to skip the hundred of rugs hanging in the dirt and sun of the street.
Two blocks away we came to our fourth or fifth store. This occupied a large, thick-walled building with small windows on the upper level. Signs outside, but no rugs hanging in the sun. We were greeted by a solicitous man I thought was a salesman. Rather tall for a Moroccan, he was trim but not slender, wearing a white shirt with no tie, and grey slacks.
I described what I wanted, and he led us upstairs. We entered a warehouse of a room, cool, with light and air coming from the high windows. A very secure location, for good reason. The room was piled high with carpets of all sizes and styles – an inventory worth more than a mega-yacht.
Inviting us to sit, he signalled for tea. Clearly, this was the owner. We sipped and discussed rug making and the different styles of the Middle East and North Africa.
After the customary socializing, he began to show us what he had. He would have assistants pull back the rugs above the one he wanted pulled out, then bring it down to the floor. They would then clip it and haul it up on the wall for display. I could comfortably examine both sides of the carpet, feel and smell it, check the handwork and government seals and tags, and count the threads. All without bending down or lifting anything.
We looked at a half dozen carpets before he pulled out a carpet that he insisted was a Berber, but it did not have either the simple geometric designs of the usual Berber carpets, or the overwrought shapes and decorations of the Berbers made for the tourist trade. It was mostly white, with a pleasant floral border in green, pink and blue, exactly the colours in our living room. I let him show me two more carpets, and told him that I was interested in two different carpets (one was the carpet). Then Greg and I left to check out more vendors.
We actually went around the neighbourhood and discussed the carpets. We looked half-heartedly at one more store, just to kill the right amount of time. Then we went back to the secure building with the target carpet.
The merchant appeared delighted to see us, and invited us back upstairs. He had the two carpets brought out. I made a show of indecision before asking about the one that I wanted. The conversation was in a mixture of French, Maghribi Arabic and English.
He asked for the equivalent of $2,500 in Moroccan dirhams.
“No way,” I said.
“But this carpet. It sells for $3,500 in White Plains, New York”
“But this is not White Plains,” I said, and offered him $250. The wide disparity of my offer signalled to both of us that this would resemble an auction more than simple bargaining.
“Okay. $1,500. I have a family.”
“Me, too, and I want to keep her. $300. ”
“$1250.” He made a few more excuses. I pretended to confer with Greg about maybe getting “the other carpet at that other place. What do you think?”
He had more tea brought out. We discussed the details of rug quality some more. Then he returned to the carpet in question.
“$1100. Really I can’t do better than that.” The merchant crossed his arms.
“Well, I can’t do better than $450.” Going up more than a $100 step signalled that I was actually more flexible than that.
“$1000. That’s it.”
“$500. Can you meet me halfway?”
We let the silence hang. He broke first, extending his hand.
He had the carpet rolled in heavy paper. Greg and I carried it back to the ship like a couple of porters on safari. The sun went down over the Atlantic as we walked up the gangway to the quarterdeck.
Back in Gaeta, Carol was delighted. It was probably the only important household purchase I ever made without her help, so I was delighted, too.
I could not complain about the price. Our budget for the carpet had been $1,500. It felt like half-price.
Forty-six years and six homes later, we still have the carpet, and it looks like new. Quality lasts.
Next week, you may follow the Freewheeling Freelancer in Portugal. Then I’ll be back with another sea story.
All y’all come back now, y’hear?