A Haircut and A Lesson

We walk by Desiree salon on Kafr Abdo Street every day on the way to and from school.  It looks like a legitimate establishment and the women who I saw coming out the door looked happy and well-coiffed.  For a while now, I’ve been tired of my flat hair that curls under and my split ends that make my hair straw-like and unmanageable.  Prime time for a haircut.

After seeing the movie Caramel by Nadine Labaki, which centers around a group of women who run a beauty parlor in Beirut, I fantasized for months about experiencing a Middle Eastern salon for myself.

Salons seem like they would be kind of a big deal here because they are one of the few places, outside of private homes, that women who wear the veil uncover themselves (obviously because it would be impossible to get a haircut with a hijab in the way).  For that reason most salons that cater to Egyptian women have shades on all the windows.   I wanted to enter into that secret pact of sisterly intimacy, witness the unveiling (literally) for myself.  I imagined it as something rosy and cathartic, the same kind of feeling you get when you swap stories about your crushes when you’re 12 or when you find out other people have periods, too.  Silly, now that I think about it.

To my surprise when I walked in to the salon today, I found a room full of men.  There were female clients in the chairs, some getting dye or highlights, some preparing for what I can only assume was a wedding (VOLUME and GLITTER being the operative words), some getting your regular wash and cut.  But it was almost all men running the place: cutting hair, shampooing, working the register, chatting up the little girl in rollers. There was a maid in a hijab and a girl who must have been somebody’s sister who stood around thumbing her smartphone.  Nonetheless I approached the counter.  After trying to say in Arabic that I wanted a simple wash and cut, the manager threw up his hands and fetched a guy who spoke English.  I pressed on in Arabic, determined to make this work, while the dude, Bassam, asked me questions in English.  Once we agreed on a price (60 pounds= $9.99) he led me to the shampoo station.

The shampoo guy didn’t talk to me and gave me what I can only assume was an attempt at a scalp massage.  Maybe he wasn’t used to handling thin Caucasian hair or maybe that’s just how shampooing goes here, but he worked through my hair as if he were gently trying to find something he had misplaced between my roots.  It was actually quite pleasant, though unlike any shampoo-job I’ve gotten before. I stared at the ceiling and tried not to look pained.  When shampoo dude toweled me off, he led me to the next styling chair, where Bassam greeted me with, “What style you like?”  I explained that I wanted the ends trimmed (thank you, Dorling Kindersley visual Arabic dictionary) and that I wanted 3 centimeter layers.  He nodded and pulled a smock across my front.  I sat back, made eye contact with myself in the mirror with a sort of “here we go!” sigh.  Bassam got to work.

A woman came in with her daughter, maybe 4 or 5 years old.  She led the little girl to the shampoo station and let the child clamber up but when the manager offered magazines and towels instead of a proper booster seat, the mother made a fuss and stormed out, her daughter’s curly ponytail untouched.  The TV blared a soap opera in which the characters were learning how to tango, but there was an awkward woman in a business suit there, too, at whom the other characters laughed. Bassam took a tea break just as a serious scowly lady in a pantsuit walked in.  She said some very angry-sounding things to the manager and sat down for a root touch-up, keeping her sunglasses firmly in place the whole time.   A little girl with big curlers eyed me inquisitively.  One woman came in in a brown hijab, said hello to the manager, and took off her veil without a shrug.

For the past half hour I had been prepared for that moment when I’d realize it was too late to step off the road to tonsorial hell and I’d spend the next few weeks making excuses for wearing hats.

please, please, no

I ran through all the bad hair days I’ve ever had and realized I could actually pull anything off with aplomb:

  • The time my hair turned green after I tried to get rid of the red dye by covering it with ash-blonde (blondes who spent too much time in a chlorinated pool will know the color I’m talking about).  There are no remaining pictures from this for a reason.
  • The time I had 13 inches cut off and after the first wash I looked like a Barbie who’d been attacked by someone’s malicious older brother (cue “Psycho” shower scene violin shrieks).  
  • The first time I went from red to dark color I missed a spot on the back of my head a layer or two down but still visible enough for well-intentioned people to comment.  I didn’t want to completely wreck my hair, so I waited out the two weeks until it recovered from the first dye job with a big ol’ reverse cheetah print blob on the back of my head.

None of those were really that bad.  Yes I looked silly, but I figured this time if things went pear-shaped or poodlish I’d thank them and go for a pixie cut somewhere else.

Bassam finished cutting the back, then blew everything dry and curled the ends under.  I really like it!  Bassam did a great job and I’m a little disappointed to say that I sort of wished he hadn’t because that would have made a better story.  But just the fact that I am happy with it tells just as much about how much translates between here and the US, about the ordinary ubiquitousness of international hair trends, or maybe just that my few key Arabic words spoke more than my foreign face.

I definitely recommend this to anyone in need of a trim while traveling, as an experience just as much as a necessary service, though unlike me you should probably have the foresight to bring a picture.  Worst case scenario, hair grows back.  I am already here, seeing things from a new culture’s perspective, trying new things, tasting new foods, having entirely foreign experiences.  It has been eye-opening and awesome so far.  That’s a new mantra for me this semester: I am already here. What have I got to lose? 



Filed under Egypt

5 responses to “A Haircut and A Lesson

  1. Loved this – you have captured Egyptian beauty salons perfectly and all the characters that come with them. I remember being shocked in both Egypt and Pakistan at the number of men in the salon! In Pakistan one time I wanted a long perm and ended up looking like a shorn, curly haired lamb…I knew there was a problem when anyone under 40 hated it and anyone older loved it….! Then in Egypt I remember my friends hair going from straight to “Madame, we will have your hair looking like a flower!” and it literally did with all the petals. Great storytelling Thea!

    • Thank you, Marilyn, what a lovely thing to say! The shearling look isn’t one I’ve seen before, but it sounds… fluffy. Kudos for having the cojones to do that! You must definitely understand what I mean having survived such an experience. Cheers

  2. Pingback: Essay Contest Follow-Up: I WON! | The Cultural Sponge

  3. You are awesome! Writing is in your roots!

  4. from your fan Sarah in Texas:
    how are you doing?I love your blog it is awesomely amazing!!

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