Ode to My Barber
There are basically two types of places men can get their hair cut in Abu Dhabi. The first are upscale, high-end salons, mostly in hotels, which cater to the “expat” population. They smell good, you need an appointment, they are well-designed and comfortable, the employees all speak English as well as a range of other languages, and they are exceptionally expensive.
Then there are the street-side salons, or “saloons” as many of their signs unintentionally and hilariously call themselves. No appointment needed, but you’re also not going to luxuriate in the smells or chairs in these establishments. They seem to be independently run, usually by south Asian men, and almost nobody speaks much English, since their clientele is almost entirely the “laborers” of the city. They’re also quite inexpensive.
Because I am a) a cheapskate and b) at least mildly adventurous, when we moved here I decided to try option B, the street-side salons. They are on every block in the city, so are not hard to find. Whenever I needed a haircut while I was downtown, I would just make time to wander into one that looked at least passably clean, and grab the first available chair.
I quickly learned that almost all of the street-side barbers are alike in terms of quality, with the outcomes falling into a tight range from “not quite what I was looking for, but that’s ok, it’ll grow into something better in just a couple of weeks,” to “hey, not bad, I like that.” Everyone seemed to have the basics of what they were doing, and more-or-less cared about getting it right, but there was nothing that inspired me to make sure that I returned to the same place.
Until I met My Barber, at Speed Salon.
I had been to Speed Salon once or twice before. It’s in a convenient location, right outside of the World Trade Center Mall, which offers both copious amounts of underground parking and a lot of places nearby where I often need to run errands. It’s a typical street salon: a very small shop with just a couple of barber’s chairs, staffed entirely by men from south Asia. There are a couple of beat-up chairs right in front of the door as you enter, with a table on it that has today’s newspaper on it, usually from India. One of the only things that makes Speed Salon different from all the rest is that the chairs are each in a small cubicle with a sliding door. In my previous visits, I had received the very typical, average haircuts. I went back because of the convenient location more than anything else.
The first time I met the man I have come to think of as My Barber, I wasn’t entirely sure about him. He’s a bit older than the other men who usually cut hair, probably in his 50s. He has a bit of a belly, which makes getting around the chair in the small, cramped, enclosed cubicle an occasional challenge for him. And he’s mostly bald, with just a ring of hair around the sides of his head. But, all of these guys seem to know what they are doing, I figured, so I gave him a try: he was available, and I needed a haircut. Why not?
We immediately had the same conversation we now have every time, which is two words long:
I’m not sure why we need to have that conversation (is there a different option? How would he react if I said no, let’s try “long” this time?), but we do, every single visit.
I’m not sure if that is the extent of his English; it’s certainly the extent of my Hindi (or Sinhala, or Urdu, or the other language that he speaks at home; I am pretty sure he is from south Asia, but I do not know from which country). But it does the job.
And then he goes to work. I think my favorite thing about his labor is how quickly he snips the scissors. He does not use an electric cutter, like all of the other barbers I have been to in the city. He cuts and cuts and cuts. Small, precise, rapid, repetitious cuts all over the head, my hair falling away in smaller and smaller pieces from across my scalp. He cleans up the edges with a straight razor (new, unwrapped from its plastic every time), and finishes with a scalp massage. Every haircut is fantastic, some of the best I have ever had. He’s an expert.
So I started going back. I don’t remember how many times I had to return before I first saw the glint of recognition in his eyes, but I do recall that look well: the time I walked in, and he saw me, and I could see him think, “Ah, yes, him. I have cut his hair before. He’s back to see me.” Now when I walk in, there’s a palpable recognition on both sides. For my most recent visit, when I walked in he was sitting in a back corner, watching TV. Several of the other barbers approached me, gesturing me towards their chairs, but I pointed at him. Someone said a word to him, and he spun around; seeing me, he said something in a language I don’t know, but must have been something to the effect of, “Yes, that one’s mine!” We smiled and shook hands for the first time, recognizing that there is an ongoing relationship here, slight though it may be.
Our interactions are always silent after he gets started. He’s focused on his work, and I usually just let my mind wander. I do sometimes wonder what his story is: where is he from? How long has he been in Abu Dhabi? How did he learn to cut hair? Does he plan to be here much longer? Where does he live in the city? What does he do when he’s not working? Does he have a family? But there is no easy way for us to have a conversation about these questions, or for me to answer any questions he might have about me or my life.
And I really have no idea what he thinks of me. I hope he thinks fondly of me, as I do of him, and that he looks forward to our silent-but-companionable bimonthly exchanges, but it’s certainly possible that he just sees me as That White Guy Whom I Secretly Overcharge And Who Keeps Coming Back For Some Reason. I hope not.
I went to get a haircut this summer during the opening ceremonies of the Rio Olympics. He had the broadcast on the small tv hung in the corner of his regular cubicle. I thought about cheering when Suriname entered, since I lived there for two years in the mid-90s, but realized how utterly confusing that might be for him. And I was very happy when Uganda marched in, led by a flag-bearer who is currently enrolled at my alma mater, but that certainly wouldn’t have made any sense to him. Whether or not he has connections to other countries around the world, I’m sure he has complexities and pieces of his life that would also be really surprising for me to learn, and almost impossible for him to express across the linguistic and cultural barriers we share.
I’ve thought about bringing a friend along with me who is also from the subcontinent to see if they could translate for us, or even just having someone write “What is your name?” on a piece of paper in Hindi to see if I could find out this most basic piece of information. I thought about asking him to take a selfie with me to include with this blog post. But in many ways, I don’t want to do any of those things. Somehow it feels like it would intrude on the friendly yet simple relationship we started two years ago. While I respect the hell out of his professional abilities, we don’t really know one another, and can’t. There is a certain comfort in the simple, blank, yet friendly canvas that we form for one another.