After finishing School for the day, I was pottering about my flat aimlessly when the electricity went out. Rolling blackouts are very much the norm in Tripoli throughout the summer and – as frustrating as they are – you quickly learn to just get on with things as much as you can. Today however, rather than just sitting about waiting for my Candy Crush lives to regenerate – which happens more than I’d like to admit – I decided to pop out for a stroll and see what’s about.
Now considering it’s Ramadan, everything either shuts very early (2pm) or opens very late (10pm) so I wasn’t expecting very much. I grabbed my tablet – with its vital English-Arabic translation tool – but spotted that it wasn’t working properly. After shaking it a little and turning it off and on, my tablet awoke and decided it was now 2am on Monday, the 1st of January, 1970. As such, after a degree of existential doubt, my Kindle deduced it hadn’t been invented yet and so pointblank refused to function. I shrugged my shoulders, placed it back on the shelf and went for a wander regardless.
Although it was early evening, the heat was still sweltering. I meandered a few blocks going nowhere in particular when I noticed a shop that was open. A cool, air-conditioned shop which seemed to beckon me in with its frosty promise.
It was a barbers.
I paused to look at myself in the reflection of an empty bakery next door. My sweaty, knotted hair hadn’t been cut in a couple of months and my ginger speckled beard was starting to look a little unprofessional for a teacher. In fact, the harder I looked the more I appeared to look like a weary Jamie Oliver on the wrong side of a hostage ordeal.
On impulse, I strolled over to the barbers and began rummaging around in my bag for my tablet in preparation for the inevitable translation issues. It wasn’t there, It was back in my room sulking after its temporal tantrum. I would just have to wing it, no other option.
‘Salam-alaikum!’, I said, using up approximately 10% of my Arabic language skills in one fell swoop. My cheery wave was returned by a portly, middle-aged man with a tight perm and a garish shirt. He looked like the token foreigner from a bawdy 70’s sitcom. I should have brought my retro Kindle along I thought, they would have gotten on famously. I immediately christened the man ‘Donny’ in my head.
He pointed to a seat, sat me down and started fussing around me. First, he turned my collar inside out and tucking it into my shirt. Then he wrapped a sort of white gauze tightly around my neck before chucking a black apron around me and folding the gauze down over it. It looked the world like I’d involuntarily taken the cloth. It was an unsettling image.
After this little warm up act, the barber stood behind me, laid his hands upon my shoulders and then said something in Arabic.
I apologised for not speaking Arabic and made a few ‘scissor’ motions around my head and face to try and explain what I wanted to happen. The shaving gesture was easy and we soon understood each other (‘Mouss!’) but ‘a general tidy-up on top’ was much harder to convey. I pulled my hair a little and made a cutting gesture.
Donny blinked a couple of times and half-heartedly repeated my actions with his fingers.
I tried ‘schweir’ (little) but then panicked that he’d only leave a little hair left. I settled for ‘nusf’ (half) which seemed to work (either that or he just got bored of watching me point fruitlessly at my head).
He slid a little headrest up from somewhere and pushed my head back on it and then began to drop little splashes of something onto the cleft of my chin. It smelt strongly like cleaning alcohol. After a few more careful daubs, he forced the headrest forward so I ended up staring at my own crotch. Then Donny left.
I was left in that rather uncomfortable position for quite a while. Occasionally, Donny would wander past, use his finger to scoop up some of the liquid that was now pooling around my navel and returning it to my chin. This continued for a solid 15 minutes.
Soon I was getting very stiff and my feet were beginning to tingle disconcertingly. I stretched my neck back, only to be swiftly grabbed by Donny and the solution wiped from my chin. It dawned on me I was probably meant to sit back earlier. No wonder he looked a bit impatient. It’s a ritual I’ve never experienced before or since.
Anyway, no sooner had blood started venturing to my extremities again, Donny had forced my head forward and I helplessly began to inspect my crotch all over again. I heard the clippers buzz into life. A short ‘whirr’ later and two things strike me.
1) A distressingly large clump of my hair tumbling to the floor.
2) A sharp pain where I’m pretty certain I used to have a protruding mole.
Metaphorically touching the cloth I unexpectedly received earlier, I tried to mumble my discord but Donny carried on like a man possessed, ignoring my feeble protestations. A minute later, I’m dragged upright to witness a very proud Donny showcasing his handiwork.
It’s short, very short. But the thing that immediately draws my attention is that – for no clear reason – I now have a 2 inch curly fringe slathered across my forehead.
Donny smiles at me encouragingly.
‘Uh… cut?’, I finger-scissor my baffling wall of forehead hair.
‘La, la quase! (No, no, it’s fine!)’, protests Donny.
I make some more adamant cutting gestures.
‘Arjouk (please) Donny? Arjouk?’, I beg.
With a pained look, he eventually lops off my fringe, muttering disconsolately as he does so. I notice later he left a wee tuft as a tribute to his lost art.
The shave is less harrowing. Well, save for the one occasion he began arguing with a customer who came in. As their discussion got louder, Donny absent-mindedly started pressing a cut-throat razor firmly into my neck and possibly would’ve drawn blood/decapitated me if it wasn’t for an urgent, nervous cough. Oh and the fact we started the whole process by both saying ‘Bismillah’ (please God) at Donny’s request. That was a little worrying too.
As he scraped the last ginger scrap away with one hand, he pulled the robe clear with the other rather flamboyantly, making me spin around in the chair involuntarily. The gauze caught and choked me a tad. As the paper collar came loose and flittered to the floor, I couldn’t help but notice quite a lot of blood and went to touch the spot where my mole sits (sat). Before I could do so, Donny had grabbed me and splashed firey, liquid death across my face. I have no idea what it was but by Christ, it had a kick.
After paying a princely 4 quid to Donny and promising to come back if my hair recovered, I stumbled out and weaved my way home. My housemate screamed a little when she saw the little trickle of blood down my neck. She rushed me into the bathroom and doused my wound in something equally painful.
I spent the rest of the night trying to scrub off my dried blood by candlelight. The next day my colleague remarks that I should’ve kept the fringe.