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Tue, Jan 10, 2006 - Page 12 News List

`Hajj' good for the carpet business

PILGRIMAGE ESSENTIALS Turkish prayer mats are popular this year, according to the carpet merchants in Jeddah, but the trend is toward cheaper Chinese mats

AFP , JEDDAH

An Afghan worker takes a rest next to carpets and prayer mats in the Afghan market in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah last Thursday. Afghan carpet merchants on Jeddah's Bukharia Street are doing a brisk business in prayer mats, an essential item for the estimated 2 million pilgrims flocking to Mecca.

PHOTO: AFP

Afghan carpet merchants on Jeddah's Bukharia Street are doing a brisk business in prayer mats, an essential item for the estimated 2 million pilgrims flocking to the Saudi holy city of Mecca.

A white-bearded elderly man in traditional Afghan dress seated behind a counter fiddles with his blue turquoise ring as clerks stack up rows of carpets of every color and design at a busy store in the old quarter of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's second-largest city.

"Turkish prayer mats are big sellers," said Sheikh Ahmed Mohyeddin, 65, as his assistant Hamidallah Khan, 28, displayed several green and brown mats with elaborate patterns and gold glitter.

The best ones are woven at Istanbul's Kadifeteks factory, said Hamidallah, who has been working in Sheikh Ahmed's store for the past 15 years.

Mats and worry beads are the most popular items bought by pilgrims coming to Mecca to perform the annual pilgrimage, known as the hajj. Mats are used for the five-times-a-day Muslim prayers.

Although they are imported from Turkey, Iran, Egypt and increasingly China, most pilgrims perceive as blessed all purchases made during the hajj, which is one of the five pillars of Islam and a duty for devout and able Muslims.

Nearly 2.5 million pilgrims have arrived in Saudi Arabia for the start of hajj, according to a local press count.

Sheikh Ahmed said shopkeepers and middlemen from Mecca and Medina have been coming to his store for months to stock up on mats in preparation for the hajj season, the busiest time of the year.

The wholesale price of an average Turkish mat is 17 Saudi riyals (US$4.5) and it retails for about 25 riyals, he said.

Sheikh Ahmed, considered the doyen of the Bukharia street traders, is a member of Afghanistan's Uzbek minority.

He fled his native Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan in 1978 in the aftermath of the pro-Soviet coup that brought the communists to power and landed in Jeddah where his uncle was a carpet merchant.

He said he immediately immersed himself in the business and took it over when his uncle died.

"There were only four little shops back then run by Afghans, now there are more than 100," he says.

It feels like little Kabul on Bukharia with bearded men in turbans and traditional baggy trousers and long shirts strolling down the street. Several bakers whip up Afghan flat bread.

Kheir Mohammed, 47, waits in his truck outside Shiekh Ahmed's store as workers load up boxes of prayer mats that he plans to sell in Mecca.

"The trend is toward Chinese mats," he said noting their price advantage at 3 riyals a piece over the Turkish ones.

In another part of old Jeddah, a Saudi store owner concedes the monopoly Afghan rug merchants have on the business.

"They have long experience and a knack for the trade," said Omar al-Attas, 60.

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