The Barber of Tartous

The first impression I leave on people is that I 'm a tiny bit more interesting and different from the hordes. I really am not. Like most men, I am a creature of habit. I'm as boring as the guy next door, probably more if you ask my kids. Even my seemingly interesting volatility is, in due course, banal and predictable. What sets me apart, or so I'd like to believe and transmit, is my obdurate loyalty.
I've been cutting my hair for the last 22 years on the hands and with the scissors of the same barber, Abu Ali. This is not so unique in the world of men, especially those who require low or no maintenance like me. I still remember my first haircut. The moment was immortalized by my mother, rest her soul. I was about four perhaps with long and curly hair colored like fields of wheat in early summer. Mom thought that I was the handsomest kid in the world and she probably was right (I don't know what happened as the years went by though). She called our family photographer and asked him to document the occasion. Abdul Karim, the assistant pharmacist took me on his black Chinese Phoenix bicycle to Mahmoud the barber. It was customary to carry a passenger on a bicycle by seating him sideways on the crossbar. From that position and right at the apex of the only steep climb on the way (between Cinema Al-Nejmeh and Cinema Al-Amir, both distant memories from the past) I stuck my foot in between the spokes of the front wheel. I wailed like an owl being harassed by a penguin of the same gender while Abdul Karim laid spread on the sidewalk with blood running from his nose and lip. He didn't pause with me later for the black and white photograph but he continued to take me places until I was old enough to prowl Tartous on my own bike.
Years flew past in the blink of an eye, over forty of them. I crossed the Atlantic to America and drove and flew all over the place but only managed to frequent one barbershop or perhaps two. Like clockwork, and except for a period of time when I let go of everything including my hair (a beta version of Yazan), I went to the barbershop once a month. I never requested any particular style for my haircut. I would just sit on the barber's chair and passively accept whatever creativity or inanity the trainee's dexterity or clumsiness produced. Occasionally God would put in a nice word on my behalf with the angels and I would end up in the hands of a buxom apprentice. But in real life you can't win them all unless you cheat. Eventually my scalp would get caressed by a gay trainee. I think the bald spot in the back of my head is the result of such moments of torment.
In 1986 I came back to Tartous. My first impulse was of course to continue with Mahmoud as my barber. I was surprised when I saw that the building where his shop was located had been replaced by a big hole in the ground. A modern 6-story office building was to be erected on site and Mahmoud was taking a break. I had to make a quick moral decision, one that will affect me for the rest of my life. I would either have to wait until the construction of the new building reaches the ground level and the barbershop reopened, a 4 to 5 months period at least. Or, I had to find me a new barber. Decency and shyness prevented me from choosing one of the nearby alternatives. The well-established barbers knew my father and me and the fact that we were Mahmoud's clients. "So now that Mahmoud doesn't have his shop you came to us", they would think if I approached them. The newcomers were too trendy for my taste with the word Salon instead of Barber on the neon-lighted sign and posters of fashionable male faggots all over the damn place (I don't give a shit if this is politically incorrect, male models are faggots as far as I'm concerned).
Like an outcast I rode my bike to the furthest southern edge of town. I lived on Al-Mina St. back then, very near to the port which defined Tartous northern border. Near the Ghamka River, I found Abu Ali's barbershop which was, and still is, the furthest shop from my neighborhood. The man never saw my face before and assumed that I must've been one of those dumb tourists who cut their hair anywhere on a whim. He should've known better back then as he's been cutting my hair since. I have visited Abu Ali exactly (22 x12 = 264 times). Fares has been escorting me reluctantly for the last 6 years, much to his chagrin. I promised him that when he's old enough to go about the city alone he can choose his own barber. For the time being, however, he has to succumb to the quirks of his old man. Of course Mahmoud reopened his shop a few months later back in 1986 but I was already committed to Abu Ali. He's been my primary source of news, local and international, for the last 2 decades. He specializes in Lebanese politics, a subject which had always put me to sleep instantaneously. I have made my own vows very early in our association that I will never disagree with him. I really don't give a horse's ass about local, Middle Eastern and international affairs so I see no point in disagreeing on a subject which after all, he is a glib expert on. We always talk about the weather, the high cost of living, Al 3arsat Al Arab and the prices of real estate in Tartous. I never told Abu Ali how I like my haircut but I reckon that as my hair had thinned over the years he's been cropping it shorter and shorter. My haircut takes 10 to 15 minutes maximum with all the talking and gesturing. With Fares, Abu Ali needs twice as long as he's bombarded by special requests for modifications and adjustments. Damn, he's barely eight years old and already way more sophisticated than me.
The other day Abu Ali confessed something which really made me very happy. Before opening shop in Tartous he had worked for years in Tripoli, Lebanon. When I first visited him in the early spring of 1986 he had just moved in. I am his oldest client, he told me. "I still remember when you walked in for the very first time", he said. "I thought you were a tourist." "When you came in one month later, I inquired whether you had moved into our neighborhood." "Less than a year later, I knew that we are friends for life." "What do you think about this Akhou'l Sharmouta Junblatt?", he angrily asked switching gears. "kiss Immo", I blissfully replied as I faded into a deliciously hedonistic short nap.


Yazan said…
Abu fares,

is there anyway we get to see that photo of the boy with the golden curls?
Abufares said…
You got it my friend!
Just remember... The photo was taken minutes after the bicycle fall, thus the big frown.
Anonymous said…
I have the same hairdresser since I was 15 years old. An Italian lady that is the complete opposite of what the" norm" stylist looks and acts like at home. Excellent taste, knowledge in the classics (music, art and literarure) and the ability to make anyone look as natural as possible. I am very lucky in that, because otherwise my hair would be completely or almos completely white!
She has seen me grow old, marry and become a mother, and now does the Hair of my to grown up daughters as well. Needless to say I have already decided to shave my head the day she decides to retire! : )
w.b. yeats
Anonymous said…
PS. I love the picture! : )

w.b. yeats
Anonymous said…
Abu Fares,can you please write more, I check everyday your page, I hope you'll publish your blogges; You are a fantastic man;when any one ask me where are you come from i give them your web page,thank you very much mate,God bless you,and best greetings from England.
Abufares said…
@ w.b.yeats
you just let me in on a big secret. now i know that your hairdresser was partially responsible for your beautiful natural looks:-)
had you known me when i was 4, i'm sure you would've cuddled and showered me with kisses.
Abufares said…
Dear Anonymous
Thank you for your kindness. There's no greater reward for a blogger than reading such a comment.
I wish I could dedicate more time for my writing but unfortunately this is not possible at the moment. I look forward the possibility that one day I might be free to pursue only the things I love in life. Writing is on the very top of the list.
Again thanks and please come again/
Anonymous said…
Abufares, the tradition in old Halad(medine) was different , the barber used to visit his clients, my father had a (kherda/fishing)shop, I still remember him sitting on his big and old chair and the barber cutting his hair, ofcource some times there were clients at the shop waiting my father to finish his hair cut,
people had time, eaven a hair cut was a feast, usually at the same day Mom was preparing the bath,
KJ said…
Since nature rendered me a rebel against common social norms, I am considered a "barber whore" amongst my fellow male friends, since the most I stuck with any barber is 2 years!

Please excuse me whilst I snort my laughter away at office!
Anonymous said…
Hello, I am a faggot too. Mwah.
Anonymous said…
Some people ARE wierd... what's with the faggot declaration?

Anyway, today I missed you... I think I neeed someone to make me smile.

w.b. yeats
MomTo5 said…
i also look here everyday....whising for something new to read.
nice photo!
Abufares said…
Mahmoud still makes house calls and my father is one of his lucky clients. This post, although mainly personal, is about a way of life which is quickly disappearing. The relationship between a service provider and a client is totally different today from what it was 25 years ago.
Loyalty is a dying habit.
Abufares said…
Well, as long as you live in a place you don't consider your home you really can't have a normal barber/barby relationship. Once you settle down, whoring becomes a little bit more difficult.
Abufares said…
I'm happy for you.
Abufares said…
@w.b. yeats
I miss you today and everyday:-)
Abufares said…
Your comment means a lot.
As I've mentioned earlier I wish I can write more.
Yazan said…
Priceless ya Abu Fares, this photo is priceless.

I think you can guess by my photo that I havent had any contact with barbers for a quite a while now. But, back in the days, when I did go to the barber, I had the same barber too, since I was 7. It's an awful feeling not to be comfortable in a Barber's place, that's why I think most people tend to stick with their barber... even these days... people do stick with their barbers.
Abufares said…
You're right Yazan
it's not a comfortable feeling to be handled by different people and that partially explains why we tend to stick to one barber.
However, the barber/client relationship has changed over the years. The barbershop was a significant social institution and the barber himself was a more prominent member. Like the Moutahher (Circumciser) and the Dayeh (Midwife), a barber solicited respect and loyalty regardless of his personal traits and character.
Anonymous said…
This is such a great post- really evocative and based on such a simple and almost mundane idea- you've made something wonderful!
Anonymous said…
p.s....kunt amoor wa inta sughayar!
Abufares said…
thank you for your first comment on my blog AND for intriguing me with your preference to remain a mystery.
p.s. you are still an Ammoora :-)
Dubai Jazz said…
Similar to the case of KJ's barbershop's whoredom :))) I've changed 5 barbers in the span of 4 years that I lived here. The first one being an Iraqi who once knew that I am a Syrian started a ramble about immorality and about some terrorists infiltrating some borders. I didn't pay much attention, barbers and argelih guys are the best self-proclaimed experts in politics, life and religion. It's funny. The second one was a nice Lebanese dude originally from Al Dahiey, we got along fine until he had a fight with the shop owner and moved to a far away shop. I could have stuck with him but traffic is a bitch. Luckily at the time, my next door neighbour from Aleppo had just got an employment with one prestigious saloon full of trannies. So I committed with him for a while until I found out that he speaks with his mother on the phone everyday. Knowing that his mother is in daily contact with min; the intelligence surveillance circuit was complete. It had to be cut. I didn't even bother to give him an excuse, he's a decade younger anyway. I recently found this nice barber from Mashta Al Helo and I think he's done a good job so far. So I am committed with him for the time being. That made up for 4 barbers so far right? I really forgot who the fifth was. Such the nuisance of hair cutting is for me.

Nice post Abu Fares, the photo is brilliant!
Anonymous said…
The Barbarian of Tartous:
Abufares said…
a barbarian indeed.
this dude, thug, gangster, whatever started his miserable life as a police informer and ended up as enemy of the people no. 1 in tartous for many years.
like Ghawar in Sah El-Nom (but without his sense of humor of course) he walks in and out of jail regularly with obviously some protection (though certainly on the city level).
this last episode won't be his last one for sure. the sad and disturbing fact, however, is that some people are actually finding humor in it.
Abufares said…
Lak Na3eeman Ya Zalameh.
3a2bal 7emman Al 3eres.
jimmy said…
kiss emmo indeed

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