In the back pocket of my grandpa’s trousers lay hidden a tiny, pale blue-hued plastic comb. He’d take it out once or sometimes twice a day. I’d watch the tines work their magic on his silver hair. Grandma, on the other hand, owned a fancy hairbrush, which enjoyed a prominent space on her dresser. I loved her long henna’ed hair and was fascinated by how she tied it in a bun. Growing up, I made note of how my mum and aunts made appointments at salons, whilst dad and uncles would just walk to the barbershops, sans any prior arrangements.
During my growing-up years, I had the chance to visit both the air-conditioned (water coolers in those days) parlours serving the women and the makeshift (under the tree back then) shops attending to the men. I learnt that the aromas and conversations of the barbershops went beyond mere grooming routines. Today, it’s said that the days of barbershops are numbered, as plush salons are a looming threat. But then can traditions die so? Intrigued, I began to question and spy.
My baby cousin brother, now 18, continues to get a haircut at the same shop, where we’d taken him for his tonsure ritual as an infant. Dad’s barbershop is called the Handsome Point. He is a loyalist, even though the shop still offers the three services it did once upon a time — a haircut, a hair oil massage and a straight razor-cut shave. My husband is comfortable waiting an extra month or more to get a cut from his regular guy than trust any other barber who is filling in for the former. I’ve watched men wait for their turn, patiently, as they speak about politics, share markets, jobs, gadgets, recession, etc. Often, they don’t know each other. They advise as they share newspapers and cigarettes.
I’ve spotted little boys sitting on wooden planks placed between the arms of the chair, with their legs dangling and eyes drawing comfort from the reflection of their dad’s image in the mirror. Perhaps, that’s how a dad’s barber becomes a son’s as well? “You can’t trust just about anyone to hold a razor to your neck,” a male colleague laughs.
A couple of weeks ago, I took Handsome Point (a short story in The Trees Told Me So, a book I authored recently), a tale derived from these thoughts and observations to a men’s salon, The Groom Room, Dubai. A charming spot offering the trendiest grooming services for the clients. Hussein Balhas, the owner, and I decided to open the doors to a unique storytelling session to men, old and young, known and strangers.
Hussein was kind enough to let me, the only woman in the room, play host. Within minutes, amidst the sound of a scissors click and the whiff of shaving foam, the men began to speak of relationships formed in such space — of an elder sibling teaching you to shave, of a radical haircut in college gone wrong, of getting perturbed at the sight of an old shop being brought down, of embracing dad’s barber as their own, et al.
As I sat there on a hairdresser’s chair, the words of my grandpa rang in my ears: A barbershop is a round table of wise men. If he were around, I’d tell him, “Grandpa, yes, the drapes are fancier and the services bespoke, but what’s not changed is that on the chairs men share and express, unabashedly.” And with that, the sense of permanence lives on. And if you were to look closely, you’d spot many combs hidden in the back pockets as well.
As for me, I seem to be gradually learning the difference between why men say they’re headed to barbershops and not salons. For at some spots, you’re welcomed irrespective of prior appointments.