German chemists. They empowered us, they ruined us, they controlled so very much.
My parents don’t pack any carpets with them when they leave Turkey for good in 1975. They’re allotted forty kilograms each, and they squeeze what they can into a pair of matching suitcases.
Mom has never been on a plane before, never been out of the country. She and my dad are among the first non-white immigrants allowed to enter Australia since 1901, the year the Immigration Restriction Act passed. It’s a terrible Act, but not uncommon policy in the western world. In explaining the motivation behind its drafting, the Australian prime minister at the time, Edmund Barton, argued that a “man’s equality” was “never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman,” which was another way of saying the Chinese were out. Ditto Indians. People from Africa. Afghanistan. Japan. The Turks. Basically anyone not of European descent.
So the Germans and Poles came instead, by the tens of thousands, and the Dutch and British were courted and wooed and incentivized to migrate, while people like my parents were denied at the gates. They were denied and turned around and sometimes even detained until gradually, the country’s needs began to shift. Australia grew and developed, requiring more doctors and engineers and this is why the gates were opened. It was 1973 when the White Australia Policy was finally dismantled. Two years later, my parents found themselves buying plane tickets, British Airways, economy class, one way trip only, zero carpets in tow.
The year before this, 1974, a German chemist by the name of Dr. Harald Böhmer moves from Delmenhorst to Istanbul, to teach high school science. Böhmer doesn’t feel one way or another about Turkish carpets, but when he sees them on display in Istanbul’s museums and palaces, they make an impression. He especially likes the ones with yellow in them. It’s this one shade of yellow, kind of golden, deep, that can’t be found anywhere outside the museums. He wonders what happened to that yellow, what happened to Turkish carpets generally. He doesn’t understand why the new carpets for sale at the Grand Bazaar are ugly by comparison, the colors neon and garish and obtrusively bright.
In Brisbane, there aren’t too many Turks, and for years our social circle is constituted by other academic families, mostly white. They’ve been in this country for one, maybe two generations. When there are reports of yet another hate crime against a new immigrant of color, they furrow their brows and cluck their tongues and we are reassured by their displays of concern.
On weekends there are dinner parties and sometimes we are invited into their houses where we see hand-woven carpets, even Turkish carpets. It surprises my parents to find these “oriental rugs” as they’re called at the time, not only in the country, but so en vogue. It surprises them to learn the ‘White Australia’ policy has not extended to products. My parents wonder what it means that, for all those years, the carpets were good enough to be let in, but the people who made them were not.
By 1976, Harald Böhmer has gotten serious about the yellow. When he finds out synthetic, also called ‘aniline,’ dyes are the culprit, ruining carpet-color in Turkey since they were first introduced in the 1860s, he embarks on a kind of crusade to get to the bottom of things. What was used before the aniline? No one really knows. There’s some oral history of what was done, but not much. Even less has been written down. How the yellow, in particular, was achieved is a mystery.
Böhmer sets up a crude lab in his kitchen at home, recruits his wife, Renata. They find collaborators at an Istanbul university and begin to run fibers from antique carpets through a thin-layer chromatography system. It’s not easy to convince the museums to hand over their precious carpets in the name of scientific inquiry, but somehow Harald does it.
Without harming the carpets, the TLC process chemically separates dye components. Samples from two hundred carpets are analyzed this way, then compared to various vegetable dyes, to dyes created from flowers indigenous to Turkey. The team arrives at some answers, but not all.
Harald and Renata begin traveling through the Turkish heartland. They meet weavers, spending weeks at a time with Anatolian villagers, earning their trust, watching women at their looms, watching men shear sheep and card wool and dye skeins much as those who came before them did. All the while, the Böhmers keep asking the same questions: Why did you stop using plant dyes? Why did you abandon your roots, your beautiful flowers and vegetables and barks in favor of aniline?
By 1981, my parents are living in rental, faculty housing with one small carpet (machine-made in China), and one small child (me). That same summer, the Böhmers hit the road again, this time to deliver free, outdoor seminars to Turkish villagers who live near the town of Çanakkale. The Böhmers have identified the source of dozens of natural dyes, including the yellow one, which turns out to be from the chamomile plant. They provide villagers with step-by-step illustrated instructions on how to use the new natural dyes. The villagers are enthusiastic, committed, and by the end of that year, twenty families have made twenty carpets in this way. Thanks to the Böhmers, a cottage industry is born. For the first time in over a century, Turkish carpets are free of synthetic dye.
Around the same time this is happening, oceans away, at Columbia University, a bright scholar by the name of Edward Said is making waves with his new book, Orientalism. Said argues that Western understandings of the Middle East have, for centuries, been deeply distorted. He says the way the West looks at the countries of the East—as a place of villains and barbarians; an inferior kind of people—has done a great disservice to the diversity and complexity of millions of Arab peoples, of Turks, Persians, Asians.
Said’s book breaks new ground, but my parents don’t read it. They’re engineers. Their English is good, not great, and they wouldn’t know what to do with Said’s theories anyway, wouldn’t know what to do with a line like: “a white middle-class Westerner believes it his human prerogative not only to manage the non-white world but also to own it . . . because by definition ‘it’ is not quite as human as ‘we’ are.”
They just wouldn’t know what to do with an idea like that.
Years later, my parents buy one of Böhmer’s carpets. They don’t know they’re buying a Böhmer carpet, have never heard of Harald Böhmer in their lives, but one rainy weekend in December, Dad drives to an auction at the local synagogue where he bids on a wool Döşemealtı, made in a dusty village, on the outskirts of Antalya. The carpet is burgundy and brown and purple and there’s the tiniest bit of yellow in it, too. All natural. A Böhmer carpet. My parents have spent more on it than they can afford.
Turkish rugs, often sold at auction like this, or in high-end furniture and specialty stores, have been folded into a particular upper-class white aesthetic of 1980s Australia, and the logic of this folding is simple. Australia, like other Commonwealth nations, other colonies, looks to Europe for cues on what makes for good art and food and wine and design. Since European ideas of luxury lean heavily on the handmade products of colonized regions, of developing countries like Turkey, so too is the case in Australia. Back in our apartment, my parents hammer the Böhmer carpet into the living room wall, where it hangs for years and years, on display for everyone to see.
When I discover a German chemist is responsible for saving the Turkish carpet industry, I have mixed feelings about it. Especially once I learn German chemists are the ones who introduced then forced those harsh, probably carcinogenic, dyes into the Turkish market to begin with, pushing them onto the reluctant villagers over a century ago. German chemists, with their eye on the bottom line, had nearly driven an art-form, a way of treating and coloring thread that dates back to 7000 BC, to complete extinction.
So. German chemists. They were sinners, they were saints. They empowered us, they ruined us, they controlled so very much. What was this if not a metaphor for the complicated, messy relationship between colonizer and colonized? Between Orient and Occident? Immigrant and host? Between those who labor, and those who are allowed to profit from the bounty?
That afternoon in the parking lot of a brick synagogue, it is raining hard as we roll the carpet up to take it home. The way Dad remembers it, we had to push the seats down in the back of our second-hand Chevrolet, to make room for our purchase. The auctioneer hands us a certificate of authenticity, assuring us that all dyes used in our new Döşemealtı are completely natural, made the traditional way as intended, just like old times.
“Only root dyes, guaranteed,” the auctioneer says. “Nothing but the very best.”