A Cut Above

Ask a Turkish barber for the standard “shave-and-a-haircut” and you may get more than you bargained for.

Let me tell you a secret.

I’ve always wanted to pop into a barbershop and have a professional shave with a straight razor. There’s something quintessentially masculine about this. It might be the thick stack of car magazines, the testosterone-heavy pre-feminist atmosphere, the disembodied sketches of classic haircuts (the Ivy League, the Landing Strip, the High and Tight) taped to the wall, the black combs swimming in blue Barbicide. Or maybe it’s the threat of death by jugular slicing. Whatever it is, a man is not truly a man until he gets shaved by a grizzled old guy with jailhouse tattoos and a pompadour, a guy named Duff, Mac or Sam.

On the other hand, there’s also something quite feminine about being shaved. It’s a pampering, a treating-yourself-special, a looking-your-best. Perhaps American men don’t want to think about this aspect of the ritual. But I gained a whole new perspective on grooming when I left Arlington and headed to the Middle East.

It didn’t take long, getting lost in the crooked side streets of Istanbul, to find a barber. I quickly stumbled on a faded-red drying rack, covered in old rags, with a flimsy handwritten sign: BARBAR. An arrow pointed to the right, into a cramped shop below a travel agency. I had to bow to make my way across the threshold; the doorway couldn’t have been more than 5 feet high.

Let me tell you another secret. I’m scared to death of going to a barbershop and being professionally shaved with a straight razor.  

In Turkey, a haircut is serious business. To start with, foreigners are not allowed to become barbers. It’s as if the haircut were a sacred religious act (and perhaps, in a sense, it is). A would-be tonsorial artiste must apprentice himself for years to a master barber before he’s even allowed to begin thinking about snipping a lock of hair.

When Dagh, my barber, explained this to me, I thought he was taking the job a bit too seriously. But at this point I didn’t know any better.  

In Turkey, a typical man’s haircut takes about two hours. You heard right. A man’s haircut. Personally, I like my barber to cross the finish line before the 15-minute mark. “Are you going to perm my arm hair?” I joked. Dagh smiled thinly, like someone who thought the Mona Lisa was too emotive. “You will see,” he said.

The first hour, I was told, is generally spent lounging around while the others have their hair done. You know, a lot of gossip and whatnot. All very manly. I should have used this time to observe the goings-on, but I was too busy enjoying the complementary çay (Turkish tea) and fielding questions about where I was from, why I was in Turkey and where I bought my shoes.  

The haircut itself was short and sweet. The shave, I’m happy to say, took a bit longer. Dagh was an expert with what seemed like a machete-sized blade, leaving no cuts or bruises, and I barely shrieked. I may have winced a bit, though. Afterward, one of his minions jumped in to give me a back, shoulder and neck massage.

When Dagh returned, he had some sort of alcohol-based solvent on his hands, which he then used to “massage” my face. His fisty massage was slightly violent and quite unpleasant.  

But the massage was more pleasant than when he began to pluck, with an ancient pair of tweezers, whatever incorrigible hairs remained on my freshly shaved face. Still, I had survived. Alhamdulillah (thanks be to God).

Little did I know the really scary stuff was yet to come. That’s when Dagh put on his biggest smile. I think he must’ve had three rows of teeth, maybe four. What’s that? I said. Sorry, didn’t quite catch that? You want to stick a burning cotton rag up my nose and lightly singe the hairs? Right. That’s a good one. A clean shave and a stand-up comedy routine. All for the equivalent of $5.

But Dagh didn’t look like he was joking. What, you were serious? No, no, I’m good. Really. You’re going to do it anyway? It’s all part of the package? No, no need for that. Look, I’m fine up there, see? Hardly any hairs at all. No, seriously. You don’t mind? Not the point, actually. I mind. Immensely. This…may be…some sort of cultural…misunderstanding, but I didn’t sign on for facial immolation. Where I come from, we don’t stick fire up our noses. Not most of us anyway. Well, there’s my Uncle John, but he’s, well, that’s not really the point.…

The last thing I remember was the smell of methylated spirits. Well, Dagh, you’ve gone and done it anyway, haven’t you? Oh my. Could you please remove…? I don’t really.…

Hmm. That’s quite nice, actually. Who would’ve thought that shoving a fiery ball of (old T-shirt?) into my schnoz would’ve been so…exhilarating.  And safe. Now I understood why you needed to train under a master to become a Turkish barber. The thought of a cotton torch being plunged noseward, by an untrained barber? Now that’s terrifying.  

I felt strangely liberated. My first rhino-tonsure. I was invigorated, but relaxed. Tough, but pretty. And hairless in all the right places. I wanted to fight a bear, and buy a purse.

The session ended with a shampoo, blow-dry, mousse and a rugged scalp massage. Various unguents and powders were applied to my face, neck and head. For once in my life I was completely masculine, and somehow totally emasculated.   

My family recently moved back to Northern Virginia after 15 years of world travel. It’s time to settle down. My oldest daughter wants to attend a real high school where they have proms and pep rallies. We love it here, but Turkey has ruined me when it comes to haircuts. I can’t go back to Hair Cuttery for a safe, generic, 15-minute dry cut. I’m on the lookout for something more extreme. Say, a local barber in his 90s, with twitchy snipping fingers, a quiver of rusty blades and a cavalier attitude about fire safety.

Andrew Madigan has taught creative writing in New York City; Tokyo and Okinawa, Japan; Dubai and Al Ain, United Arab Emirates; and South Korea.

Categories: People
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