An ode to my Turkish Barber

He sets my ears on fire and doesn’t say a word. To me, he represents self-care in the most London of ways.

It is a Thursday morning. I’m walking down Old Street in London, having just arrived off a plane from Amsterdam, following a particularly delightful New Year’s celebration. I spot a gruff, well-coiffed man stares off into the middle distance. He drops a cigarette by his feet and thoughtfully exhales, a cloud of poison escaping his lungs. He steps on it, crushing the embers under his heel. To my surprise, he then bends over, picks it up again, and walks inside the door behind him.

Before the door fully closes, I catch it and follow him inside. He’s a barber at a Turkish barbershop. I’m a scruffy-haired customer.

“Got time for a walk-in?” I ask, eyes scurrying around the barbershop. A couple of people are engaged in conversation, having their hirsutity tended to.

He doesn’t say a word and points at an empty chair by the window. I take that as a ‘yes,’ as he offers me a thimble of Turkish tea by holding up the typical small glass vase used for traditional Turkish teas.

“One or two?” he asks. My eyes telegraph my confusion. “Sugars. One or two. For the tea.” I hold up one finger. He looks at me, shrugs, and shuffles off to make tea.

If you’ve never been to a Turkish barbershop in London before, it’s a unique place. To me, it is a place captured between universes, wedged among a collection of cultures. It’s not quite London, but not quite Turkey either.

It straddles the taint — if you’ll forgive the expression — between the timidly homo-erotic and the gently homophobic. The barbers know their trade. They take great pride in their work. One of the barbershops in the area has a neon sign in the shop that says, “If we can’t make you look good, you’re ugly.” It’s funny — but also accurate; they can make just about anyone look properly good. They always smell of cigarettes. They are always men. They are usually silent types. They look Mediterranean, but whey they speak, they speak with the thick east London affliction of second- or third-generation immigrants; not a trace of Turkish accent.

The beginning

I once attempted cutting my hair; I had one of those re-chargeable shears. I had quite the mane, and made it about halfway through buzzing my hair down to my scalp before the battery ran out. Whoops — now I was half bald. I started looking for the charger but realized I had moved house not long before. And that the charger was lost in the move. Crap.

With half-a-mullet and half-a-bald head, I was stuck in a predicament. I pulled on a woolly hat and, at 7 pm on a Friday, started walking around my neighborhood in Bethnal Green in East London. I found an open barber. I pulled my hat off and pointed. “Help,” I muttered.

I expected laughter and got none. He merely cocked his head a fraction of an inch, never breaking eye contact. “What the fuck happened to you, mate?” he said. Too embarrassed to tell him the real story, for some reason, I told him that a friend had shaved half my head as a prank.

Without batting an eyelid, he produced a massive switchblade from somewhere. He clicked it open, and the glint of steel in the bright barbershop lighting still follows me in my nightmares. “If that were my ‘friend,’” he said, making clear that when he said ‘friend,’ he meant something different entirely, “I’d stab him in the eye.”

I believed him. Moreover, I was not at all sure he hadn’t stabbed any number of people in the eyes. If someone at that point had told me that eye-slicing was his primary profession and that being a hair-slicer was a side-hustle, it would have enveloped me with a profound absence of surprise. He put his knife away, again without breaking eye contact for a millisecond — to this day, I have no idea where the knife came from and where it went — and he beckoned me to a chair. He shaved the rest of my head.

“I can’t let you pay me, mate,” he said when it was all done, waving at me to put my wallet away. With a long stare, he concluded: “I only did half the job. But if I were you, I’d have a long, hard think about who my friends are.”

And so began my love affair with Turkish barbers, and with ‘thinking about who my friends are.’ This relative stranger cared about me — and did a damn excellent job at rescuing what was a hair-saster of epic proportions.

I’ll cut you.

Sitting in the chair at Old Street, fifteen years later, I smiled at the memory of tough love.

“What do you want, Habibi,” he said. My brain skipped a beat — why would he address me with the Arabic word for ‘friend’ — before I explained the vision I had for my unruly rag of yarn and my face-fluff.

The next half hour passes without a word. Occasionally he moves my chair into a lying-down position without warning, leaving me crashing backward in surprise. At one point, he gives me a tissue, and It’s not clear why. He asks, “Eyebrows?”. I affirm, and he trims my eyebrows. He shoves a shaving implement up my nose. He pushes my head hither and thither, never saying a word. In a country where touching others — especially strangers — comes with a layer of taboo, the casual way he manipulates me to where he wants me is jarring.

At several points throughout the process, he points a hairdryer up his shirt — I have no idea if he’s trying to dry his sweat, or if he’s cold, or what the plan is, but it’s all probably part of the well-orchestrated performance.

At some point, he grabs my lip — one finger inside my mouth, the other on the outside — to be able to reach a couple of stubborn little hairs with his straight razor; no ceremony, no questions, explanations, or apologies. I can smell the thirty years of heavy cigarette smoking on his fingertips, and I can almost feel, by proxy, how he’s craving another.

He nicks me ever so slightly with the straight razor, which triggers a whole ceremony of stopping the bleeding, applying some vaseline, and later removing it again and applying some moisturizing. I glance at him. He’s not ashamed. He’s not perturbed. This is all part of it. I’m reassured.

Enter the Dragon

Next, he dips a long q-tip in some alcohol, sets it on fire, and uses it to burn off my ear hairs. After a little while, it gets so hot that I squirm away. I may be making this up, but I swear my barber sighs in disappointment. “If you can’t stand the fire, stay out of the barbershop,” I read in his whisper.

I remember the first time a Turkish barber set me on fire. He used a pair of tweezers to grab a cotton ball. He dipped it in alcohol and shoved it up my nostrils, one at the time. “Whatever you do, don’t breathe in,” he said. I nodded. He then set my nose hairs on fire and said: “Breathe out.” For the briefest of moments, I was a fire-breathing dragon, with two small puffs of fire emanating from my nostrils. The rest of the day, I could smell burned hair. My own burned hair. In my nose. It’s a hard-to-escape smell, for obvious reasons.

I get a hot towel treatment before he whips out a straight-edge razor. The faint smell of chamomile from the steaming hot towel intermingles with his cologne and the smell of cigarettes that seem to follow his hands around whenever they get close to my face. He’s cutting my hair and shaving my beard, so his hands are consistently close to my face. Somehow, it reminds me of the smell of my father; it’s not that the smell of cigarettes is pleasant, but within the context of my barber, it’s expected. I don’t love it, but I certainly don’t mind it, and I absolutely wouldn’t dream of complaining about it.

Towards the end of the session, he pushes my entire body forward into the sink in front of me. No word of warning. I don’t know what he wants or why he’s shoving my face into the shallow porcelain tub. Eventually, it dawns on me; this isn’t one of those lean-backwards-into-a-sink-with-a-neck-gap-in-it situations. I’m just leaning forward over a sink. He’s washing my hair — twice — and gives me one of the best scalp massages I’ve ever had.

A second hot towel happens — I don’t know why — followed by a lotion of some sort. It is pungent with alcohol and so sharp that I’m worried my face will melt off. I try to hold my breath, but eventually, I have to breathe, and the smell burns my lungs. With the towel still on my face, he gives me a gruff, painful shoulder, and neck massage. On the one hand, I’ve had many massages that were less brutal, painful, and bordering on reluctant. On the other hand, he somehow found all the places in my back and shoulders that were tense, and in only a few minutes, he beat it out of me. At some point, I got all floppy, dropping into a state of complete relaxation.

My hair looks good. My beard looks better than it has in a long time.

“You’re going grey,” he says. “Looks good,” he grunts.

“What do you think?” he says, making no attempt to hand me my glasses.

“I don’t know; I’m blind as a bat,” I say. He stands there, still ignoring my apparent need for my glasses. So I get up, grab my eyeglasses, and put them on.

He is right. I am going grey. I do look good.

Of course, the barber doesn’t take cards. I forget every time.

“Shop,” he says, pointing out the door and to the left of the barbershop with his thumb. “ATM.”

I get some cash. I leave a big tip. I’ve started 2020 with one of my favorite types of self-care: an hour of being shoved about in a barber’s chair by someone who is trying his damndest to seem like he doesn’t care about me, but somehow is helping me focus my attention on the things I care about myself. The things I need to change. The things I want to keep the same. The people in my life I care about.

“Happy new year,” he says, as I gather my things. “This is going to be a good year for you,” he concludes, in a voice that makes it clear that that isn’t a prediction. It’s an ice-cold fact. He keeps eye contact, almost as if to defy me to challenge him. I don’t.

“You know. It just might be,” I say, with a nod.

I walk out into the crisp London air, a new man, into the new year.

CEO of Konf, pitch coach for startups, enthusiastic dabbler in photography.

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