September 22, 2018

The Rug Seller From Iran

Shuki Shlomi. Photo by Deborah Danon.

Even if you happen to live in a trailer, Shuki Shlomi will convince you that you need a Persian rug. Rugs of all shapes and sizes fill every inch of the 70-year-old’s 100-square-yard store, located in the heart of Jaffa’s flea market and sandwiched between similar Persian rug stores on either side. He pulls out his phone and proudly shows a photo of himself posing with Israeli celebrity Chana Laslow, to whom he has sold a number of rugs.

His go-to tactic is convincing would-be customers that he’s dropping the price just to make a “siftah” — Hebrew slang for first sale of the day — even if it’s almost closing time. But his smooth talk, laced with a thick Persian accent, isn’t without reason. The Afghani rug I was eyeing cost three times the price in the posh design store around the corner.

By the end of our meeting, I walk away with two new rugs and a possible shidduch — suitable match — between my brother and Shlomi’s daughter, who is, by his account, a beautiful angel with two degrees and a high-flying career in finance.

Shlomi comes from Isfahan, Iran’s third-largest city, which is famous for producing fine carpets and textiles. Aside from the odd squabble with the Muslim children in his neighborhood, his childhood memories are generally positive and life was good for the Jews of Isfahan under the shah.

At the age of 16, Shlomi, who described himself as a staunch Zionist back then, persuaded his parents to immigrate to Israel so he could avoid the Iranian draft. So together with his parents and four younger siblings, he settled in the Negev city of Dimona.

In 1967, he was drafted into the Israeli air force and was stationed near the Egyptian border during the Six-Day War. He recalls a lot of praying and listening to the tiny transistor radio he brought with him from Iran.

“I asked God for all the Egyptian planes to fall from the sky.” — Shuki Shlomi

“I asked God for all the Egyptian planes to fall from the sky,” he said. “And then, I promise you, I turned on my radio to hear that we had bombed all their planes right out of the sky.”

After the war, Israel was hit with a recession. Nevertheless, the ever-resourceful Shlomi managed to set aside enough of his meager salary as a handyman to buy a Fiat. He became a traveling merchant, selling linens and rugs and, within a short amount of time, bought a house in Beersheba.

Shlomi married and divorced, and in his mid-30s, was seeking another wife.

“I was handsome, I had a lot of offers,” he said.

But, he said, he was extreme, and insisted on a virgin bride. “That was my No. 1 requirement.”

He went to meet a girl at her parent’s house in Tel Aviv but she turned him down for being a divorcee. It was to be another six years before their paths crossed again.

“In those years, I travelled a lot,” he said, “but I was fed up with the world.”

One day, at the suggestion of a friend, he called the home of a potential wife. The woman’s mother answered the phone, and he realized from her accent that she was also from Isfahan. He arranged to meet the woman’s daughter by the clock tower in Jaffa.

As it turned out, she was the same girl who had rejected him years earlier.

“But now she was 30 and that was very bad for her,” he said. “In Persia, they marry daughters off at 17.”

But Yael had not sat waiting for her Persian prince to rescue her from perpetual spinsterhood. Working 12 hours a day as a button and buttonhole maker, Yael had saved enough money to buy a house. A month and a half later, Shlomi asked her parents for permission to marry her.

“In the end I got what I wanted,” he said. “She is the best woman in the world.”