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Tucson Salvage

How a rug-weaving master found a little grace after surviving war, depression

Brian Smith Oct 19, 2017 1:00 AM

Finely manicured fingers rotate like a miniature flesh-and-bone loom, looping and sliding yarn through a tattered selvage. Sinatra croons atop strings on an unseen stereo, and it's only just past 10 a.m.

After some minutes, the rug weaver pauses. He shifts the 70-year-old fabric, a fetching cotton-wool Bijar accented in midnight blues and catholic reds, to continue stitching its edge. He talks of finding meaning in the monotony of his work, and his Farsi-shaded English is spoken so softly I lean in closer to hear him.

"Sometimes you really go somewhere, you go into the design. Sometimes it's 40 knots, sometimes it's a thousand knots." He lingers on that. His fingers move to his inner rhythms and it's so hypnotic I'm lulled into thoughtlessness. Makes time feel arbitrary.

"Ninety percent or more is repetition."

He flips a corner of the rug to reveal the underside and its flattened random patterns of whorls and flowers. "There's a thousand different colorings," he says. "One side dark, the other side light." Another pause. "The challenge is matching the color. Especially the parts that are worn."

When the light side shows decades of wear and part of the soul of the fabric, of the million footsteps of people he'll never know, he'll match that color, too. And no one will be able to tell.

His monotony has true meaning, he says, "like meditation." And Ol' Blue Eyes' croon compliments the rug weaver's grace, efforts that seem to be anything but possible.

* * * 

See, rug weaver Ali Shahinpour is a masterful craftsman and repairman, able to restore new and old rugs, and no one can find the repair so great is his work, and confidence. The 55-year-old learned his craft after surviving the Iranian Revolution of '79 and Saddam Hussein's ensuing invasion.

There's perfectionism in his work, unyielding patience. A relaxed relentlessness to a dying art and tradition. It's his vispanna.

He's perched on a low chair at a dining-room sized table in a back corner inside the Asian Trade Rug Company. Stacks of rugs organized by size fill the showroom around him—carpets from Pakistan, China, Afghanistan, and his Iranian homeland, and Turkish, Persian, Indian, French, Navajo, contemporary and so on. Hundreds of rare, pricey antiques too. It's a room where practically every damn thing in it is beautiful, flickering of art and something archeological.

A mad, tangled mountain of vintage silk, wool and cotton yarn, in soothing Middle Eastern colors, occupies space on the floor beside him. Mostly reusable threads, discarded from years of work, now essential to his repairs and color matching. This is his workstation, five days a week. This chair, this table, this mad psychedelic mountain of yarn.

Behind him on the wall hangs a large rug in pastel browns, taupe and red. A lovely replica of an antique he weaved himself.

There's a slight forever grin on his face, as if nothing can break his reserve. His bright but dark eyes don't waver or dart from my mine when he converses, yet his fingers keep working.

He explains lots, with few words. He talks of the beauty of worn-in rugs, and how silk sometimes makes the best foundation. How knots per square inch can vary from country to country, tribe to tribe. How tribal rugs from southern Iran have multi-hued selvages. He talks asymmetrical knots versus symmetrical, and how wool weft threads aren't twisted. Talks knot counts, quality of yarns and dyes and the sweet blends perfected hundreds of years ago. How so many Persian rugs came over to the states in the 1920s, and before, "to be aged."

Now, he adds, the antique rug market, especially from the Middle East, has taken a dive commercially, perhaps especially after 911.

 * * *

Ali came up in Dezful, Iran, the son of military parents. He tutored with a master rug weaver in Tehran, from whom he learned everything about rugs—from weaving and repairing to cleaning and wholesaling. An artisan trade, passed down from generations.

He was a teenager in 1980 when Iraq invaded Iran, which was already weakened by its own revolution. He relates terrors of Saddam Hussein, the sickness and the horrors of genocide.

"Hussein blew up anything," he says. He blew up hospitals and mosques and architecture dating from ancient civilizations, and whole residential cities, and "used chemical weapons, on women and children."

Dezful was the sight of the biggest tank battle of the Iran-Iraqi war, and was home to one of Iran's largest air force bases. "I could see the Iraqi pilot's faces—they would fly so low."

He recalls the shock of seeing his blood-covered pop roll by in an ambulance. The shock of an Iraqi missile flattening his home. Family members survived by huddling in the basement, terrified as the world exploded down in fire and dust and rubble above and around them. He endured the loss of friends and classmates, destroyed by bullets and bombs.

During the invasion, the Iranian government gave families firearms for protection. "[The Iraqi Army] was bullying everyone. Saddam was not human. They were blowing up everything." His parents, sister and two brothers survived.

In the early '80s he did a stint in the Iranian Army. His voice, now full and slow, seems to lose things in translation. If only I knew Farsi.

He touches his cheek. "This scar here," he says, and straightens up. He touches his abdomen, "Right here, too." He reaches around his back. "And here." War wounds, shrapnel from bombs. He nearly died.

"My back pain was very bad," he says. "I needed help to stand up. I had so much pain. Doctors in Iran didn't know what was wrong. That's when I got out."

An old classmate facilitated an invite for Ali to a London-based doctor. It wasn't easy getting out of war-torn Iran. He relates an exploit involving a "bicycle guy" in Abu Dhabi who helped get him out of the country. Ali says his name was "Nasir," which, in Arabic, loosely translates to "helper."

He arrived in London broke, with only a very slight grasp of the language. But he also had the "friend who took care of everything." The doctor there discovered that his pain was, at that point, long after the wounds had healed, all in his head.

Ali married an American woman during his year in London. She worked real estate, and the couple moved to Salt Lake City, where she'd worked before. He came to America with a wife and a few rugs and attempted to set up shop in Salt Lake, where he found no demand for exotic rugs, or any rugs at all. Things looked sour.

He shrugs, and says, keeping his fingers moving, "It wasn't good for me there."

One day the couple was moving into a new place and thieves broke into their U-Haul in a mall parking lot. The two were in the store. They lost anything of value including a rug that didn't belong to Ali. He only had it for repair. And it was his only work.

"I was responsible for it," he says. "That was 28 years ago and the rug was worth $16,500. That changed everything. That's when I moved alone to L.A."

He had an Iranian friend in Los Angeles who invited him to stay at his suburban home.

He went to work for the outfit whose rug had been stolen from the U-Haul. That was his start in California— a recent immigrant who went to work for acquaintances and had to quickly learn the Los Angeles rug market, which was centered around La Cienega and Melrose.

As long as you have a reputation you can earn a living in rugs, Ali says. Designers and dealers from all over the country began calling him. He rented a storefront and lived inside, and his wife moved out from Utah.

He was selling, repairing, even making his own. Profits grew. He opened House of Rugs, supporting, at one point, 26 employees. He trained each person. The couple had twins and purchased a comfortable house in the Glendale suburb of Los Angeles.

He tells of one customer who purchased rugs and had his house built around them. And a German guy who dropped $1.5 million on rugs in one day.

Then the marriage collapsed. "It was better for the kids if we weren't together," he adds.

The day after his divorce finalized, Ali turned on himself, a festering depression deepened. The next day he was in the psychiatric hospital, and spent a month inside.

"I'm glad I didn't do anything to myself," he says. "But I was on a list that said I couldn't buy a gun for five years."

Asian Trade co-owner Kasra Massarat, who'd been sending Ali rug repair work through the years from Tucson, offered Ali a job here. That was 14 years ago. He's been in Tucson since. He let his wife keep everything back in Los Angeles. Left his business behind. The afterburn of a California life.

He started over in Tucson. His children would visit summers and Christmas (now each are 19 and in college, the daughter on a computer science full-ride at Boston University. His son studies in Louisiana).

Ali and store owners Kasra Massarat and Tomas Almazan regard each other with a kind of brotherly respect, love.

And Ali met an Iranian woman here seven years ago. They married. He's done well enough to have recently built his own house. This rug weaver from Iran.

* * *

An hour or so later, Ali stands and lifts a heavy rug from a nearby stack, one tagged ready for repair. It's handmade lovely—yellow, cerulean and black—large enough to flatter any bedroom floor. He gazes at it a second or two, says it's only 20 years old. But someone had machined onto it an unsightly dirty-white fringe, and he grimaces. Then he begins to carefully tear the fringe away. Those fingers like a concert pianist's, exposing so little of his effort.

When he first arrived in Tucson, Almazan told him that if he wanted to find peace he should go walk along the river. "So I walked down and looked for the river. I looked for two weeks! There is no river. I didn't know you called a wash here a river."

"But here I found peace," he adds. "I'm glad I didn't do anything to myself." Then he continues to oblige his vispanna.