On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Rasul Salahi stands outside 3704 Grand Avenue with his 27-year-old son, Ali. The 63-year-old’s business, Rasul Oriental Rugs, occupies a small storefront beside a yoga studio and an interior design shop.
The rug store’s facade is painted an array of green hues. Its sign advertises rugs for sale, trade, restoration, cleaning, and weaving. For years, another sign hung in the window advertised a perpetual “liquidation sale.” But today, not a single handcrafted rug is in the shop.
The old tile floor is exposed. A giant green carpet has been stripped away and only a small ripped piece remains in the corner. The room is completely empty.
Rasul closed his shop temporarily when Alameda County’s health officer issued the first shelter-in-place order on March 16 due to the coronavirus pandemic. But on May 31, Rasul closed the shop for good after a health scare left him hospitalized.
In his 24 years of running the rug store, Rasul always wore a suit to work, signaling he was ready for business. Today, he is wearing a plain blue button-down shirt and jeans. A modest man, Rasul told The Oaklandside the story of his business in broad strokes.
He learned the rug trade in his home country of Afghanistan, working as a merchant in Kabul until the early 1980s, when he migrated to Germany. After a few years selling and repairing rugs there, he moved to the U.S., married, and raised two kids he’s immensely proud of. The pandemic caused him to reconsider keeping the store open, and he decided to finally shut it down when he had a stroke.
“When you get sick, you don’t worry about the economy or business or anything. Right now, I enjoy my life,” Rasul said.
Against the backdrop of the pandemic, adapting his businesses to a post-brick-and-mortar world didn’t seem feasible. Rasul never set up a website to enable pickup service or online shipping. Madina Salahi, his 25-year-old daughter, said it would have taken away from the experience of going to Rasul’s in person.
“There were huge antique pieces hanging from the wall, so you were kind of engulfed when you walked in. You’re literally surrounded by these beautiful, old oriental rugs,” she said. The store’s original dark green carpet couldn’t be seen; layers of intricately designed rugs covered the entire floor.
“There were so many times that I was there that people would come in [and take off their shoes], and physically walk on the rugs to see how they felt,” said Madina.
Madina is only a year older than the store, and has fond memories of jumping on the rugs. “There were two different kinds of stacks of carpets that were always there too. When I was little, I used to play on them and my dad would berate me,” Madina laughed.
As punishment, Rasul made his daughter roll up the rugs, and it had to be done a certain way. Recently, she had to roll up the rugs again to help move all the rugs out of the shop. “When we were closing up the store and taking a lot of the rugs into my parents’ garage, we would fold them up and roll them up. My dad made a comment like, ‘Oh, you still know how to do it, you never forgot.’”
Rasul worked six days a week selling his wares and repairing rugs that customers and other rug merchants brought in.
Rasul comes from a long line of Arab-Afghan merchants and traders who specialize in selling wool. He might have stayed in Afghanistan were it not for the decades of conflict that broke out in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded and seized control of his country. Shortly after, he was drafted into the communist-run military and served 2-3 years while stationed in Kabul. But Rasul decided to desert and seek out a new life. With the help of a well-connected Persian friend, he smuggled himself into Turkey.
“My dad hiked through the Turkish mountains, and he and his friends who crossed the border by foot were caught by the [Turkish] army,” his son Ali said.
Rasul was incarcerated in a Turkish jail until family friends in Germany were able to sponsor him and provide safe passage to Germany. He stayed in the city of Hamburg and went to work doing the thing he was best at: selling and repairing rugs.
“Ten years after, in the late 80s, that’s when he came to America and met my mom,” Ali said about his father. “My dad’s story is crazy, I’m enamored with it.”
In California, Rasul made a living repairing rugs for other Afghan rug dealers, building community and clientele along the way.
Rasul would tell stories about his old life in Afghanistan and his travels through Turkey and Germany to anyone who would listen. “My dad loved to talk about politics; people loved to hear what was going on with my dad’s family in Afghanistan,” Madina said.
Rasul spent hours at the store getting to know customers and fellow business owners who were passing by on the street. Johanna Dunning, the owner of Dekors, the interior design shop next door, said he was a fixture on Grand Avenue. “He was always here everyday except Sundays, walked around, and said hi to everybody.”
Local residents often stopped by Rasul’s with their dogs and their kids to chat.
“At the end of the day, my dad is a businessman,” said Madina. “I don’t think I would describe my dad as outgoing or extroverted the way he was in his element, in the store. He had to have that customer service and be able to talk people up to get them to buy things because that’s how you survive, that’s how my family made money, and that’s how the store was open for so long.”
As Rasul Oriental Rugs vanishes, so does a community, including locals and devoted customers in distant cities. Towards the end of his two and a half decades in business, sales had slowed. According to Ali, his father was barely getting by. He and his sister both have well paying tech jobs, and they considered bankrolling the store to keep the legacy alive.
Ali and Madina have spent lots of time thinking about what Grand Avenue and the rest of Oakland would look like without the immigrant-owned shops that make up a large part of the city’s economy. “I think Oakland has prospered in a lot of different ways in the past 20 years, and I think people like my dad have been left out of that prosperity,” Ali said.
Madina joked about her dad’s store turning into another yoga studio but is ultimately saddened by the belief that her family’s success story will not be easily repeated.
“The idea of being the child of immigrants and then coming to this country and working really hard to provide a better life for themselves and their families—what’s going to be the next wave of that? My dad opened the store 20 plus years ago, but he wouldn’t be able to do it now.”
Today, rents are much higher. Tastes have changed. Oakland’s demographics have shifted.
In their garage, the family still has a surplus of the beautifully crafted rugs that were Rasul’s life’s work. Other Afghan rug dealers are helping their former repairman by selling rugs on his behalf. Ali and Madina are considering setting up an email listserv for people interested in buying the remaining stock. Aside from business, Ali says they’ve received a dozen emails from past customers recounting fond memories of their father.
As for Rasul, he said he’s content to live a life at home with a wife he loves. What keeps him going is the pride he has in his two children, just like his father, who taught him how to “live with people, to live with anybody,” and how to raise a family. When asked if he imparted those lessons to Ali and Madina, he responded without hesitation: “Of course! Every day.”
Ali said there is one lesson his father taught him that he remembers the most. “I think integrity is the most important thing. My mom would always joke, ‘You guys are too much like your dad.’”