In the Middle East, carpets have generally been too highly prized to be routinely trodden underfoot: unrolling one’s prayer mat is central to daily worship, while taking off one’s shoes is a sign of respect and correspondingly, as we have seen on the news, flinging one’s shoes at someone is a powerful insult in the Middle East. Rugs cordon off a place of higher value to protect it from pollution, and their various uses carry memory traces of the nomadic makers. Carried into the countryside for picnics, and spread out beneath trees or beside springs and pools, oriental carpets become mobile pictures and ornaments as well as furnishings. They also transform somewhere that is outside into something domestic, as it were inside. When laid on rooftops on summer nights, for example, they move the salon or coffee room upstairs in order for the household members to enjoy the cooler temperatures: as recalled by Naguib Mahfouz in The Cairo Trilogy, for example, and Hanan al-Shaykh in her short story, ‘The Persian Carpet’.
There are humbler carpets; but the humbler variety also does duty as a prayer mat, a portable precinct where someone can be contained, separated from whatever is happening around. In an essay on the poetics of the carpet, the Italian art historian Sergio Bettini rejects any thought of decoration and insists instead on the architectural function of rugs laid out on the ground: for the nomadic societies who make them, carpets demarcate their home. Not in the manner of a fence or a wall, but to build the dwelling itself. ‘The true carpet,’ he writes, ‘…isn’t a garment that covers the body or a drape that adorns a house; for the simple reason that it is itself the house.’
A carpet can be hung as well; in function it can be used like an arras, a curtain, and a coverlet. Bettini censures those who blur these categories, but he is too severe: if the carpet rolls out the space of home on a plane, the nomadic tent institutes it in three dimensions by means of hangings, awnings, covers, canopies, which are also worked with intricate patterns. The fabrics create distinctive spaces, sometimes public, sometimes private. The Kaaba itself is screened by richly patterned curtains. But fabrics are suspended to screen private places of intimacy too—nooks, pavilions, alcoves. Shahrazad is depicted with the Sultan on the frontispiece of the Galland edition illustrated in Amsterdam in 1728-30 [C.E.] in such a bed-tent, and her sister Dunyazad, when her presence is invoked, is present but screened behind a curtain. Cleopatra—so famously delivered to Caesar rolled up in a rug, according to Plutarch’s entertaining account—was not improvising on the uses of carpets, unusual as her mode of delivery has generally seemed to modern readers. The carpet carves a private world for its user; it is a kind of portable sanctum, a more than usually splendid mobile home.