The Kurdish Barber
I had my nose waxed the other day. When Ray the barber dropped down dead at the age of 89 (fortunately not whilst he was cutting anyone’s hair) there was a sudden dearth of men’s barber shops in town. There were lots of unisex hairdressers who offered treatments and perms and colouring whilst you sat in a huge goldfish bowl of a salon overlooking the High Street but no proper barber shops.
Rays was marked by a traditional red and white striped pole and you entered up a short flight of steps leading down a dank, dark, damp corridor to a small room at the back of the building. The front shop used to be a tobacconist’s but was now a florist. There sat Ray in one of his two chairs reading ‘The Racing Post’ waiting for his customers. He was tall, slim and willowy, ram-rod straight, a legacy of being Co Tipperary Ballroom Dancing Champion 1954, 1955 and 1956 as the trophies on the glass shelf attested. The yellow Formica counter tops were from the same period as were his scissors and shaving brushes. He still used a cut-throat razor to shave the back of my neck.
Most of his customers were from that era too. One old guy came in sweating and cursing about the parking. He had just finished a game of table tennis. He was about to celebrate his 100th birthday and needed to look his best for the photographers. He had more hair than I did.
Ray’s jokes were unchanged too. When asking after Marie, his dancing partner and wife of sixty odd years who would help out in the shop if it was busy, Ray would always reply, “Ah, Marie! She won’t hit the streets until they are well aired.”
Anyhow, when Ray’s closed down I was forced to choose between the hairdresser with the man bun, tattoos and a ginger beard or Tom the Alcoholic who once hijacked the little train that carried tourists up and down the esplanade and drove it and all its passengers into the sea. I inadvertently mentioned ‘Twelve Steps’ to Tom whilst he was hacking away and he took me for a fellow member of AA . He constantly pestered me to accompany him to meetings, asking me, “How many days have you managed?” and “Hang in there, one day at a time, remember?” But at least he didn’t have a man bun.
When the pandemic lock-down closed all the shops it was a blessed relief but my hair took on a shaggy, unkempt appearance unsuitable for Jack’s wedding.
When the restrictions were eased I was astonished to see the organic whole foods shop now sported a huge sign announcing ‘Kurdish Barber’. There were large photographs of young men in the window sporting haircuts usually seen on Premiership footballers’ heads. There was also a photo of a man having his ears flamed. I went in to check it out and met Omar from Idlib in Kurdistan. Due to the American invasion of Iraq, Omar had never been to school, couldn’t read or write and had arrived in the United Kingdom at the age of 18 without knowing a word of English. Seven years later he had opened his own barber’s shop and I was one of his first customers. It was during Ramadan and he was fasting. He was sleeping on the floor of his cousin’s bedsit and travelling in on the twice-a-day bus, arriving at his shop at 7 in the morning. I learned all this through the thick beard and face mask he wore as he clipped and scissored away behind me. Having finished cutting my hair, he dipped a taper in methylated spirits and lit it then casually wafted the flames over my ears to remove the fluff that flourished there. Marvellous!
Gave him a five pound tip and vowed to be back.
The next time I went, Omar and his young cousin were now living in a mobile home at the top of the hill behind the town and commuted on electric scooters which were re-charging in the corner. Omar suggested I let his cousin cut my hair which was a mistake as in his youthful enthusiasm he removed my left eyebrow almost completely, giving me a permanently quizzical air for the next three weeks.
In preparation for Jack’s wedding I went for a tidy-up. Omar trimmed and snipped and shaved and flamed and then said, “Do you want to have your nose waxed?”
‘Why not?’, I thought and said, “OK.”
He took a cotton bud and dipped it into what looked like a jar of marmite then stuffed it up my right nostril, squeezing and massaging my nose to distribute the stuff inside. Then he did the same to my left nostril so I had to breathe through my mouth. In the mirror I looked like Michael Palin being tortured in ‘A Fish Called Wanda’.
I sat there wondering what was going to happen next when Omar place his hand gently on my forehead then yanked the cotton bud out of my nostril. The pain was excruciating and my eyes welled with tears. He proudly showed me the cotton bud which now looked like a miniature black shaving brush. “See? Good!” he said. I gripped the arms of the barber’s chair in terrible expectation of the next move. Knowing what was coming made it worse. He held up the two tufty black cotton buds in triumph. “You want?” he asked. I shook my head. “No thanks,” I was able to splutter through my tears and agony. My nostrils were now hollow, dark holes on my face like the entrances to the Dartmouth Tunnel. The air whistled and roared up the empty passages and I sneezed continuously for the next two days.
Omar still got a tip though.