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Time for a Trim

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Friday, 23 October 2009

The past few days have been a whirl of activity, finally. Among other things, I have arranged a schedule for the first set of collection development training workshops. We begin next Monday and I will offer six sessions over three days. Each of the workshops will be offered twice so that all reference shifts will be able to attend. So that’s three preparations for six classes and it will no doubt be intense. I’m looking forward to getting the party started. Look for reports about how it goes…

Second, I have engaged an Arabic tutor who has agreed to work with me on my colloquial Egyptian. We have arranged to meet for two two-hour sessions each week. From now until the middle of January (with some exceptions), Sayed Abd al-Kader and I will be speaking colloquial Arabic with each other. That should jump start the linguistic engine. Dr. Abd al-Kader is one of those professors I mentioned in an earlier blog as holding two posts; for him, one here at the University of Alexandria and another at the University of Cairo. He lives in Alexandria most of the time and commutes to Cairo on the days he teaches there. Our first week has gone well, I think and it is encouraging to me that I can understand 90% of what he says the first time. Now, if only I could get to that level of comprehension when dealing with Alexandrine taxi drivers and shop clerks!

Suddenly, there has been a spate of social events on the calendar, as well. This weekend about twenty Fulbrighters are coming to Alexandria for a visit and tour and I’ll be joining them for most of that; I’ve intentionally held back from visiting a lot of the tourist attractions in the city precisely because I knew that my fellow Fulbrighters would be coming and I thought that once I have seen the sites on that itinerary, I can then go out on my own and see what we don’t see together. In addition, there is a lecture at the Swedish Cultural Center next week, an Egyptian Architectural award ceremony at the library, and a Fulbright dinner in Cairo. The first two of these events Dr.al-Wostawy invited me to attend (In her stead, in one case, I think…). So the social calendar begins to fill as well.

Having been here some five weeks now, there are certain personal matters that it becomes important to attend to. I refer to those cyclical events that one doesn’t necessarily think about at home, but which, when you’re abroad, suddenly take on increased import. Buying (or trying to find) your favorite soap or toothpaste (realistically, how much of that stuff do you want to schlepp along in your already overweight luggage?) sits at the lower end of that list. Finding a good dentist, pharmacy or clothing store, depending on the length of your stay, assume much greater importance. The Cairo Scholar Google group postings are FULL of queries about these concerns as well as finding a good plumber, carpenter, yoga class, contact lens solution supplier, computer repair person, and barber or hairdresser. It is this last category which has been of particular interest to me of late.

Now, this category doesn’t apply to everyone—mostly to those of us fortunate enough to still have something up there to cut. For us the issue is: what is the result going to be? Will one emerge from the chosen establishment looking like a military draftee on induction day, or will the barber/hair stylist’s handiwork require you to wear a wool cap for the next four weeks? Not a happy prospect in this country, I can tell you. So, the issue, then, is to find a decent barber shop and how does one do that in a foreign country? Well, you could camp out in front of a different shop each evening (barbers, like most other businesses are open primarily in the late afternoons and evenings in Egypt) and observe how exiting customers appear, or you could ask around among fellow European or American sojourners—or Egyptians—who might be sporting a cut you admire for a recommendation. Or you could simply scout out a clean, well-lighted, heavily visited shop and walk in. Not having too many American or European acquaintances close at hand, my option was the latter.

On the designated evening (Wednesday last), I screwed up my courage and walked out into a very pleasant, cool and breezy evening toward my destination. On one of my many walks along Abu Kir Street, a major commercial thoroughfare not far from my apartment, I had passed a very nice-looking shop with two or three chairs advertising itself as a “men’s hair stylist.” I saw this as a positive sign thinking that anyone who aspired (at least) to actually style hair, rather than simply cut it, might be a cut above the generic barber shop. The door of the shop stood open but a rather tattered bead curtain hung from the interior of the frame. I pushed my way through, with a rattle of beads, and was immediately greeted by the barber (okay, stylist) who invited me to sit in a chair in the waiting area. He was engaged in a conversation with two twenty-something Egyptian males so I picked up an Alexandrian newspaper from the stack on a nearby table and began to work my way through the headlines.

After some minutes, one of the young customers apparently reached a decision and proceeded to have his hair washed while his companion waited. The barber took over as soon as the shampoo had been completed and started to work on his customer’s head. The teenager who had performed the shampoo on the first customer then appeared at my shoulder and motioned me to take a seat in front of the sink. A towel is draped around my shoulders and I recline into the notch in the sink. The water is shockingly cold and raises a doubt or two about my choice of barbers. But I decide to suck it up and withhold judgment a while longer. It’s only water and soap, after all. The shampoo is too heavily scented for my taste. The boy’s hands are gentle and he’s obviously been taught some sort washing technique because he’s thorough. More cold water to wash the lather out and another brief scalp massage using a fresh towel.

I’m then led to the second of two barber chairs in front of a large mirror. I take my seat and a second barber suddenly emerges from an interior room somewhere. A paper strip is wrapped around my neck and the customary cloth drape is tied on top of it. The second barber, like the first, is in his thirties, clean shaven and casually dressed. His hair, tight dark brown ringlets, is tidy and cropped pretty close. I wonder who did his do. He asks me what I want done. I reply that I want a trim, nothing severe, not more than a centimeter or a centimeter and a half taken off. He looks a little taken aback but then nods his head okay.

My initial fear is that he is going to whip out the clippers and in a few short minutes undo what it has taken my regular barber ten years to work into shape. To my relief, he picks up his scissors and begins to snip away. He’s being cautious and seems intent on his work as I watch his progress in the mirror. He makes his first pass around my head, getting the general outline of the finished product. When he gets to the sides of my head, he asks whether I want my hair to cover the tops of my ears (my customary fashion) or shorter. I tell him to uncover the ears. I figure that way I may be able to postpone my next visit for a week or two longer. Just in case I don’t like what he does. A second pass brings us closer to the desired result. The teenager shows up again and slips a single edge razor blade into a holder lying on the shelf beneath the mirror. The stylist uses this to even up my sideburns and to scrape away the gray hairs marching down the back of my neck.

So far, this has all been relatively conventional and I’m starting to feel a bit more at ease when things start getting interesting. I’m asked to recline against the headrest. As I lean back the stylist dips his fingers into a jar of some sort of lotion which he proceeds to apply to my face: a stripe across my forehead, each cheek, upper lip, and nose. The lotion is heavily scented; as I said, I’m not a fan of scented grooming products. Okay, now this is unexpected and a little unnerving, but I decide to see what this is all about. The next five minutes or so are devoted to a facial massage which I experience as a kind of heavy petting. It is sensual and shockingly intimate, a reaction that surprises me and brings unbidden images from the Thousand and One Arabian Nights to mind. I’ve never had anyone massage my face before, and certainly never a stranger! Not on the first date anyway. Not even dinner and a movie. Just at the point where I think this is getting a bit kinky–having your eyelids and nose (your nose!) massaged is a weird experience– a hot steamy towel is produced and placed over my face. After a few seconds, it is used to gently remove the excess lotion. A second towel follows the first and the process is repeated. The steam from the towel heats the lotion and its fragrance colors the air.

I am directed to sit up again and the stylist returns to his scissors to make a few final adjustments to his work. Those pesky geezer-ish ear and nose hairs are clipped away and the eyebrows pruned. Next the hair dryer is unholstered and, with the assistance of a rat tail brush, a final styling is wrought. Then, the aerosol hair spray appears and is liberally applied. A cloud of mist surrounds my head and a totally new odor intrudes on my senses. Again, I’m not a fan of scented personal hygiene products. Finally, the cloth drape is untied and the paper collar unwound. The teenager is called and he brings a hand mirror with which I can assess the result from various angles. Well, it’s only hair and I’m not unhappy. There’s way too much artifice in the result but it’s not terrible so I ask the cost (25 Egyptian pounds= $5) and pay. The teenager gets a tip for his shampoo work; I thank the barber and exit the shop.

The cloud of fragrance follows me and I find myself wondering what sort of insects or feral animals might be attracted to the multitude of odors I’m wafting into the night air. My only hope is that the cacaphony of odors will prevent any potentially threatening species programmed to respond to a single fragrance will be confused and not immediately identified me as a potential source of food–or an object of affection. My first task when I get home is to shower this stuff out. I also need to give myself a couple of days to make a dispassionate assessment of my new haircut and to consider whether or not to find a different place next time. All in all, no permanent harm done; the hair–or at least some of it–will grow back and I haven’t seen any shocked expressions on the faces of people I encounter in the street, so maybe it’s okay.

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