The room was not so much dirty as it was dingy. It was a small space, the walls appeared to be made out of mud or some sort of clay. Random chairs and pieces of furniture were scattered along one wall, across the other was a counter and a mirror. An exposed incandescent bulb bathed the room in a dim, cozy glow; the yellow light could have just as easily come from a flickering candle flame. A man stood behind me and it wasn't until he applied the razor blade to my neck that I had a moment of panic.
It was night out and I was deep inside one of the labrythine souks or markets of Marrakesh. Jen and I had met an Arab couple on the train from Tangiers and they had stopped by our hotel earlier and invited us to go for dinner. We were staying in the medina and Abdul and Fatima suggested we go for a walk through the nearby market before we ate.
The entrance to the market, a covered hole between two buildings, looked like the mouth of a dark cave. Jen and I had spent most of the day walking around the covered alleys and narrow corridors of the same market. At night it was a different, more exotic place. Most of the tourists were gone and the folks shopping were locals buying common-place goods. Electric lights gave the little shops and bakeries a warm glow and threw dark shadows along the walls.
Jen and I strolled along comfortably with Abdul and Fatima. Abdul stopped here and there to joke with the shop owners about an upcoming soccer match or to give a few clinking coins to beggars.
“I need to get a haircut,” he told us at one point.
“You're joking,” I said. His hair was crew cut – it was no more than 5 millimeters long. He looked like he had just stepped out of a military barber. The last time I had gotten my own hair cut, on the other hand, had been a couple of months and a few continents ago in Mexico. I was looking every bit the shaggy backpacker that I was.
“No, no, I like it very short,” he replied.
“I've been thinking about getting a haircut too,” I said. Abdul looked at me and I could tell he approved of the idea. He led us farther into the souk and into a tiny shop.
The man inside looked surprised to see anyone coming in so late. Abdul exchanged a few words in Arabic with the man. “You go first,” Abdul said.
I sat down in a chair and held my thumb and index finger a half inch apart in the universal sign of how long I'd like my hair. The man picked up a pair of scissors and began snipping.
I have to confess that I love getting my haircut in foreign countries. I've gotten my haircut in Spain, Mexico, Morocco and Guatemala this year and the barbers in these places do a much better job than any place I've gone to in the States. In the little hole in the wall shops of these countries, being a barber is a real profession. The shops are populated with older and stern looking men who take their job seriously. I always sit in the chair silently while they take a half-hour to forty-five minutes to snip at my hair with real scissors. The skill and dedication that they exhibit show that, to them, it is not so much a job as it is an art. This idea has been lost in the States, or at least in the clipper-happy places that I go that cost under $15 dollars.
That night in Morocco, I felt a small bit of panic when the barber took his straight-edged razor blade out and began to shave my neck. I looked around the small room but could not see any sort of disinfectant. In fact, as I peered into the dimmer corners, I realized I couldn't see any sign of running water or any other way to clean the blade. I worried for a minute or two about rusty and dirty blades but when my neck was bare, I noticed the barber snapped the blade out of the handle and threw it away and replaced it. I reassured myself that he did that every time between customers.
Usually, this is my favorite moment. It is an exotic and yet familiar feeling as warm lather is applied to my neck and the cold edge of a blade scrapes it off. Afterward, the barber puts alcohol on my neck and it burns in places where the skin has been nicked.
Abdul gave his approval with a hearty laugh and said that it still looked too long. I paid for my haircut, about $3 USD.
* * *
Tonight, I find myself walking into one of the McFranchise haircut places in Southwest Portland. It is brightly lit and a McFranchise Top 40 radio station is playing in the background. As I sit in the chair, the perky blonde “stylist”, as her plastic name tag states, asks me the inevitable question:
“So what would you like?”
I think it's obvious - I would like a haircut. I think about holding my thumb and index finger a half inch apart and pretending that I do not speak English. That way I could also avoid the small talk that goes along with the whole process.
“Just shorter on the sides and top,” I reply.
“So what is that, a three or four on the clippers?”
I'm not sure if she is speaking metric or some other measurement system.
“Oh, about this long,” I say and hold my fingers apart.
Seven minutes, fourteen dollars, and one conversation about the weather later, I leave with shorter hair and a yearning for an old barber in a dingy, dim lit shop.