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MY MENTOR AND FRIEND - My Agent for Afghanistan and Pakistan

In the past I would be using this newsletter to inform my friends and customers about all the things I have seen and heard on my travels, what is happening in the carpet world, and what the people in the areas that I travel to are thinking and saying. But on this occasion I would like to tell you about a most remarkable man – my agent for Afghanistan and Pakistan, my mentor and my friend, Mahomet Ilyas. Sadly Ilyas has passed away but his influence on me and my business has been immense and I’m sure that without his support, in the early days especially, my business would not be what it is today.

I was first introduced to Ilyas in the early 80’s and from the moment I met him there was a certain quality that he had that I liked.  At that time I couldn’t really articulate what that quality was but to me he seemed like a very nice man. However one thing was evident and impressed me enormously.  Ilyas was greatly respected by all the Afghans and Pakistanis that I had met and was regarded by everyone as a man of his word  (and as I was to discover, this is a pretty rare thing in his world).  So I asked him to be my agent. Ilyas promptly agreed and then offered me the unbelievable; he would lend me as much money as I needed to buy as much stock as I wanted, to be paid back when I could, free from any interest. His view was that I should begin as I meant to go on – confidently, being the very best I could be from the outset. So that’s how I started with the carpets.

What began as a business relationship quickly developed into one of mutual respect and then genuine affection between two men who, in theory anyway, by geography and upbringing should have been worlds apart in their thinking, with nothing more than the buying and selling of carpets in common.

Obviously we did have something in common.  In my view the unifying factor was two-fold (though Ilyas would never have analysed the relationship – it was what it was - so there were some differences between us).

Firstly, we both had a passion, almost an obsession for excellence in all those things that mattered to us. I must admit that this could make us both a little demanding of others, but if excellence was achievable, then why not?

Secondly, and more importantly, whenever we were together, no matter what the topic of conversation was, the very nature of our relationship enabled us to let go of our normally strongly held opinions and beliefs.  Quite naturally it seemed that the more we talked the more the individual views we had would gradually expand, they would become more inclusive than exclusive. We were able to shake free from the limits of our so-called traditional and cultural values, all acquired and reinforced through a lifetime of habit and conditioning, and a greater understanding would be revealed.

With the benefit of hindsight and given that Ilyas was a relatively conservative Muslim and I was anything but, I realise that our relationship was truly remarkable.
I admired Ilyas immensely and that I am a better man because of our relationship I am in no doubt.


Mahomet Ilyas and Haji Rhemetullah.

Unexpectedly Ilyas took seriously ill.  So serious in fact that, although I had been with him on a buying trip just a couple of weeks earlier, I immediately flew back to see him. He had no idea that I was coming so my arrival on his doorstep at 9.00 on a Saturday morning was a complete surprise – I told him I had just “popped over for the weekend”.

We spent the two days together, Ilyas propped up in bed, me sitting on the other end, talking, joking, reminiscing, and finally,covering all those things that two friends shouldn’t wait for twenty years to say to each other. It was a wonderful time, but on the Sunday evening just as I was about to leave for the airport to fly home I was very much aware that there was still one matter that we hadn’t discussed.

This was something I had always been curious about but too embarrassed to ask.  I didn’t want to leave it unresolved so I finally put it to Ilyas: Why all those years ago did he go out of his way to help me when he didn’t even know me? His reply humbled me: “Richard, I loved you from the first day when you walked into my shop” – he had always known me. I was almost reduced to tears. As a good “kiwi bloke” I might think in these terms but I could never, never speak them out.  Ilyas could. Mahomet Ilyas Butt was the sweetest, most generous, and given the country he lived in, where it was absolutely against the norm, the most morally courageous man I have ever had the good fortune to meet.  But Ilyas would have disagreed with me – there is no such thing as good fortune – it was “Kismet”, fate ordained by the Will of Allah that we should meet. It was always going to happen.

When I look around me, the success of my business, the house I live in, the car I drive, in fact all my family’s material well being, I acknowledge that all these things came about because twenty years ago this man took a chance on me.  And again Ilyas would have disagreed.  Chance, what chance?  It was the will of Allah!  I can hear his voice now, “Richard, when will you learn these things?”  Slowly, my dear Ilyas, slowly.

While putting my thoughts about Ilyas down on paper I suddenly realized the obvious; that I could be using the exact same words to describe the qualities of my new agent, his son Bilal.  Bilal, although he is, relatively speaking, still quite young, commands a huge amount of respect from both the  Afghans and Pakistanis and some of the most important carpet dealers in the world, and he has inherited all his father’s very fine qualities.  What a legacy for a man to leave behind him.
Forgive me if you find this epitaph self-indulgent but it seemed to me that in this day and age and particularly in my kind of business, the life of a good man, a truly decent man is such a rare thing that it would be less than honourable on my part not to acknowledge it.

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