x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Finding souls in old rugs: carpet seller Attif Hellal

From Shakespearean actor to seller of fine carpets the life of Attif Hellal, of Tabriz Carpet in Sharjah, has been a colourful one.

"When you buy something you like, you sell it also with love," says Attif Hellal, the owner of Tabriz Carpet and Novelty Exhibition, at his store in the Central Market in Sharjah.

SHARJAH // For Attif Hellal, the carpet's the thing to catch the conscience of the king - or at least that of the customer.

The former Shakespearean actor has turned his artistic talents from performing Hamlet to a more lucrative purpose, buying and selling floor coverings from the icy mountains of the Caucasus to the sweeping steppes of Kazakhstan. Travelling by plane, train and donkey, he will risk food poisoning and fist fights to bring you a beautiful product.

"When you buy something you like, you sell it also with love," says Mr Hellal, who admitted to being "over 50" when asked about his age. "A carpet must talk to me. When you live in art, when you study its history, and you study Da Vinci and Michelangelo, all this will be in the back of your head when you buy a carpet. A lot of people have carpets but when you have the talent to choose, it's a gift from God."

His predilection for the arts is part of his heritage. Mr Hellal was born in Egypt, the son of an art dealer, and grew up on the banks of the Nile. He completed a degree in theatrical arts at the Academy of Arts in Cairo, with a speciality in stage lighting and costume design.

He soon took to the stage as a Shakespearean actor at Cairo's Balloon Theatre. He performed Hamlet in classical Arabic and created the scene design for Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion at the Mansura Theatre.

However, Mr Hellal soon found that all that glisters is not gold in the thespian world. He decided to find another way to fill his empty coffers as he approached his thirties.

"Art doesn't make money," he says. "To earn in the arts you spend money at parties. You don't have money in the pocket, it comes and goes. It is the acting life. The morning is acting, the evening is acting. It's not the true life."

The promise of a brighter, richer future brought him to Sharjah with his fiancée in 1981, and he landed a job as a set designer for a Dubai television station. It was but the fate of place that led him to meet a stranger at a mosque who asked him to tutor his son, a civil engineering student, because of his background.

When Mr Hellal entered the family's home, a cotton-and-silk rug in the dining room caught his eye. Its beige border and medallion of blue tendrils were unmistakable to his eye and he identified its motif as a nain, a Persian design. The father was impressed and offered to nearly double Mr Hellal's salary if he would join him as a carpet merchant.

However, the man who had been his patron became his bitter adversary after Mr Hellal opened his own business, the Tabriz Carpet and Novelty Exhibition in Sharjah's Central Market, a few years later. Mr Hellal's friend-turned-rival published a newspaper ad saying that any man dealing with Mr Hellal would be banned forever from his own shop.

The announcement backfired, showing people know how to find Tabriz Carpet instead of hurting the business. Once in the shop, Mr Hellal ensures customers have a wide choice. He believes his commitment to buying the carpets where they are made, no matter how far the journey, sets him apart. "Most [merchants] order, but I go myself," he says. "I can choose one piece, two pieces from hundreds."

Nomadic carpets lure him through the deserts of Turkmenistan, the forests of the Caspian sea and into sleepy Iranian towns he says are almost unchanged in the 600 years since the conquering hordes of Tamerlane rode through. He shares close relationships with families in each village.

While his olive skin, almond eyes and broad face allow him to blend in, he knows when to keep his mouth closed to avoid losing a deal. He has faced danger on more than one occasion over an agreement gone wrong, or the deceit of a would-be swindler, and takes appropriate precautions.

"I have people who are my eyes wherever I find good carpets," Mr Hellal says. "I have people like bodyguards."

Although he has travelled untold distances and seen thousands of designs, the antique carpets of the Caucasus region are his favourites, representing such stuff as dreams are made on. "They have a soul and they talk to you whenever you see it," he says. "They tell a story, like colours and classical music. You can read them like a composition."

Or a play.

azacharias@thenational.ae