Thursday, 22 May 2008

The Barbershop Quartet

I've done a fair bit of traveling over the years and whenever I'm in a new country, there are two things I love to do...

Firstly, I try and find a supermarket. I think that a supermarket gives you an insight into the real world of the locals. Seeing the different products is fascinating and also gives me an opportunity to extent my collection of products with rude names.

The second thing I like to do is get a haircut. I'm not sure why this has become a thing for me, but I do my best to get a haircut in every new country I visit. From Barbados (where I was initially turned away as the barber was too scared to "cut Caucasian hair") to Thailand, I've had haircuts in some weird and wonderful places.

One of the highlights of time here in Turkey is my monthly trip to the local barbershop. Whereas, back at home, I would dread the thought. I'm the most indecisive person at the best of times and a haircut means a whole host of decisions to be made.

Do you join the porn-thumbing, seated silence of the barber or perhaps splash out on a more up-market affair? If you do, are you really going to be able to pull off the highlighted Hoxton fin?

While I was back in the UK, I decided to try the latter in a posh soho coiffure. 15 minutes and £50 later I was given the invaluable advice "you should let it grow a bit" (first time I'd ever heard that with my trousers on).

Well in Turkey, options are more limited and that, for me, is a good thing. You take a seat for a couple of hours and leave your appearance in the hands of Allah.

You may be a little apprehensive about entering a Turkish barber but I'm here to take you through the average process from start to finish. With the permission of Ozkan at Adali Kuafor and my cousin Sevki's photographic skills I've tried to document the process as thoroughly as I can. As far as I'm aware, the only thing I've omitted is the inner ear and under eye waxing. Forgive my cowardice.

Stage 1 - The welcome
This begins before even entering the barber. First you say hi to the neighbouring shop owners and wish them successful business for the day. Then, outside the barber, there should be a group of men sitting next to a clothes horse covered with towels. You may know some of them but it's not important. You sit with a glass of tea and a cigarette and chat about football, girls, the Prime Minister, the price of petrol, why it hasn't rained this year, how this summer season is going to be the worst ever and why the only tourists we do get are 'low quality'.

The end of this stage is defined by a deep sigh, smashing your tea glass down onto the saucer, slapping both hands on your knees and standing up (with hands still on knees) and a breathless "haaaaaaaydi bakalim" (meaning "come on then" or "right, off we go").

Stage 2 (part A) - Shave preparation
Not many Brits under 60 have any experience of a cut-throat shave. I was a little nervous too on my first go but after a few visits I was so excited I bought myself a set. Needless to say, I almost filleted myself. Leave it to the professionals.


Smile at your barber. Show no fear.


You may be wondering about the health risks but the blades are changed before every shave so there's no chance of catching anything nasty from the bloke before you.


Working up a lather and we're ready to go...

Stage 2 (part B) - Lathering up

With glasses off, I'm now completely at the mercy of the barber. He can shave his initials in my cheek, perm my hair, wax my eyebrows or anything that takes his fancy and I'm going to be none the wiser.


This blissful expression wasn't for the camera. The lathering process is very relaxing. Notice also the dainty position of the barber's little finger.

Stage 2 (part C) - The shave
The shave itself is usually pain-free. There may be some nicks here and there but usually nothing to worry about. Try not to talk, cough, laugh, nod or, in any way, change the contours of your face. I did once see a barber almost pass out from fear when my cousin sneezed in the chair. Give them warning.


The shave starts here on the cheek and works its way around your face.


Notice my expression. I'm looking at the television but, without glasses, I'm just zoning in on hues while I consider all the possible ways I could die from this situation. What if the barber goes postal? What if he develops a twitch? Does he suffer from epilepsy? Has anything happened in the news recently that may have left him angry at Britain?

But most of all, I try not to think about...


...the fact his brother owns the butchers across the road.

By the way, being a vegetarian, I can't give it a personal recommendation but it's where all my family go for meat so hop along to Ada-Et!


Don't move a muscle.

Stage 2 (part D) - The sting


Once the shave is complete, the barber uses lemon cologne to close your pores. It hurts but it's a nice pain. He may also use a type of soap to stop the bleeding of any nicks. This hurts and it's not a nice pain. The stone-like soap is rubbed back and forth across the cut until you can't help but physically show your discomfort.


A wipe down with a towel and your cheeks are as fresh and hair-free as a baby's bum.

Stage 3 - Haircut
There's nothing revolutionary in this stage. A haircut is a haircut the world over. But if you look closely, you might notice some subtle differences.


This strip of paper used to keep the hair from going down your neck. It's stretched tight then stuck at the back.


The paper is then tucked over the gown and the cutting begins.


The forever scary 'Dad's Army' phase. This is the point I wonder if he's actually going to grade it in or leave me looking like George Formby.


Still nothing out of the ordinary going on here. Just a man and his barber. So what's so different between this and any London barber? For the answer, we need to see what's going on round the front...


And there it is. The cigarette. But it should be clear to anyone familiar with Turkish culture that there's still something missing.


Now the scene is complete. Fully accessorised with cigarette and tea, the haircut can proceed.

*Intermission*
The barber may allow a few minutes to relax and drink more tea and smoke more cigarettes. This break could happen at any point during your visit but it usually falls before or after the haircut stage.

Although small talk is usual throughout, the temperature of the topics can be raised slightly during the intermission.

I've picked up all sorts of useful information and advice whilst at the barbers. From delicious recipes (over which everyone has an opinion) to how to bring to woman to orgasm with a horse hair (apparently you tie the hair from a horse's tail around the erect penis and the loose ends tickle the woman internally resulting in a marriage proposal. I've just not figured out the chain of events. Do you tie the hair in place before you go out for the evening? The problem with tying it to a flaccid penis is that once fully erect, the hair would become dangerously tight. Or do you wait until you've achieved your erection, then attempt to tie the hair? I feel, however, that the concentration involved in tying a hair around the penis, cutting the ends to length and laying them in position may dampen the mood enough to lose rigidity. Even before any of this, how do you pull a hair from a horses tail without getting a kick in the bollocks of enough force to render the process redundant in the first place?).

The barber often uses this break to remind me how much more hygienic it is to be circumcised and that, in smaller villages, it's the barber who performs the circumcision. He'll then take my index finger and demonstrate the various techniques. From simple scissors to more elaborate equipment, there are a multitude of ways to cleanse your person of that grotesque foreskin. Personally, all the tea in Konya isn't going to make me drop my pants in the barber's chair and have half an inch off.

Perhaps there's a connection between the horse hair trick and his quest to circumcise me. You see, Turkish barbershops are much more than a place to get your haircut. I had a skin flap on my neck (you know those weird mole-like things). Well the barber took one look at it, tied it up with cotton and a few days later there was nothing to be seen. You think you can get that at Toni and Guy?
*End of intermission*

Stage 4 - Facial hair
If you, as I did, decide to leave some facial hair, this is the stage where that face decoration is tended to.

The moustache is a huge part of Turkish culture. Dating back through Ottoman history, this element of facial hair has been handed down from father (and sometimes mother) to son. Ataturk sported one, as did many other important Turks.

It is claimed that the hair acts as a filter when drinking Turkish coffee and there is a unique golden glow to the moustaches of elderly gentlemen coming from a mixture of cigarette smoke and coffee.

In more recent years, the moustache has become less fashionable. The young rarely wear them preferring instead to go for goatees or imperials. Even the older generation are starting to drop the moustache.

Some people remember exactly where they were when JFK was shot or Elvis died but I remember vividly the day my father decided to shave his moustache. I was sitting with him on my nan's balcony. As he gazed into the mirror at his newly exposed mouth, he said something that will stay with me forever.

"Look this mouth now. Like a cunt".

This was the one and only time I've heard him use that word. It goes to show the power of losing something as important as a moustache for a Turk.




Like cat's whiskers, a moustache should be at least the width of your body allowing you to negotiate narrow gaps.


First the beard is trimmed with clippers, taking away the bulk.


Then the strays are removed with scissors.


The final shaping to get that goatee just so.

Stage 5 - The unmentionables
It could be that Turkish men are generally more hairy than Brits ...actually, what am I talking about? Obviously Turkish men are generally more hairy than Brits. Even so, this next stage can be embarrassing for the newbie. After a few visits, however, you become more relaxed and see it as any other stage of the process.

This is where all the unsightly hair is removed from facial orifices. The focus here is mainly on nose and ears but it can lead to eyebrow trimming and even forehead shaving.


Nose hair trimming. Most commonly done with scissors. The art here is to try and keep exhaling through the nostrils to avoid breathing your own nose hair into your lungs.

Here's a piece of useless personal trivia for you. I hate having my nose squeezed. It's probably linked to childhood memories of holidays in Turkey when adults would squeeze my nose in an "isn't he cute" gesture. The problem was, I had a very sensitive nose that would bleed at the drop of a hat. So they would squeeze and grin, I would grin, my eyes would water, I would feel the vessels pop, I would sniff-sniff-sniff my way out of the room to the toilet where I would sit for the rest of the evening trying to stop the hemorrhage.

The only thing to top nose bleeds on my list of childhood trauma was when, at one of my parents' dinner parties, the cat-lady from next door dragged me into the middle of the room to demonstrate that it's possible to pick up a human child in the same way a cat picks up a kitten. Though technically my feet did briefly leave the floor, I can confirm that it's not a way to transport children. Also, had she used her teeth, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be here now to tell the tale.

Anyway, why am I telling you this? No reason, but looking at the pictures of the barber pinching my nose pissed me off. I think, actually, you can see the anger in my face.


The cut-throat's back. This time to get a nice sharp finish to the sideburns. Judging by his nails, you may be wondering whether my barber's a drag queen. Not that I'm prejudice. I once had a wonderful cut and blow-dry from two ladyboys in Koh Samui.

His nails are stained from dying hair, so I'm told. Many Turkish men refuse to grow old gracefully, leading to a wrinkled face with jet black hair and moustache. The finest example of this is Turkey's answer to Cliff Richard, Ibrahim Tatlises (or Ibrahim Sweet-Voice). I've never really understood why anyone would want to look as though they've fallen face-first into a joke shop but I guess some people refuse to believe that grey looks distinguished.


Paint it black - Ibrahim Tatlises. The belief that the classic Turkish look should be somewhere between Sadam Hussein and Groucho Marx.

So your nose is now free from hair. You can breathe like you've just sucked on a Ventolin bong. Now it's time to work on your wookie-like ears.

Why don't English barbers feel the need to trim ear hair? This opens up the whole chicken and egg debate. Do Turkish men need their ear hairs trimmed because they have naturally hairy ears? Or is it because a barber once trimmed their ear hair, there by leading to more ear hair growth? All I know is that when I returned from my 6 month retreat to the UK, my ear hair was out of control.

So what's the best way to remove that hair? I doubt you'll guess.


Yes, it's fire. A stick with a cotton ball tip is dipped in white spirit and ignited. The fire ball is then tapped onto the ear and the hair is burned off. The barber is careful not to start a chain reaction by brushing out any remaining flames after every 3 strokes. So you get the rhythm : burn - burn - burn - brush - burn - burn - burn - brush...


Here the barber is going for the more tricky inner ear hair whilst simultaneously giving you all the finger. Though I'm smiling on the outside, inside I'm screaming.

To really get a feel for the process, I've put together a short video. Pay close attention to my eye-lids. They tell the true story:

video

I think you'll agree that, though I fought hard, you could still see that the process isn't completely pain-free. Something you can't appreciate from the video is the smell. Anyone who's reached across a hot stove or worked in a crematorium will know the smell I'm talking about.


Though the burning removes the bulk, any remaining charred hairs are removed with scissors. Similar to the way bulldozers move in after a forest fire.

So you think you're through the worst of it? You're wrong. Because invisible to the human eye (which begs the response "so just leave me alone"), your upper cheek is a disaster area of fluff. You could use depilatory cream here or even shave but neither would bring the barber the sadistic joy of the most painful part this entire grooming process.

I was chatting to a friend of mine who got her eyebrows done in Stoke Newington by a Turkish beautician. And I quote:

Her: It was all fine but I had to ask her to stop because she wanted to floss my teeth.
Me: What??
Her: Yeah, I know. She started unraveling all this thread and...
Me: Erm, that's threading. She wanted to shape your eyebrows.
Her: Ooooohhh.

Ladies may well be familiar with this. Men probably wont have a clue. I've heard women say they'd rather give birth to triplets than to go through this again.

I present the nightmare that is ...threading.


Cotton is wound into a cat's cradle and laid on the cheek.


With a twist, hair is torn from its roots forcing you to disrespect the barber's mother.

If, for some sick reason, you want to learn how to thread, there's a guide here. If, on the other hand, you simply want to see women in Beverly Hills being tortured, watch this video (not for the faint hearted).

At some point during the threading, you'll pass out.


In order for you to regain consciousness, you barber will rinse your head with water. Like in the Hamam, the temperature of the water depends entirely on the mood of the barber.


Now that you're conscious, the barber will take this opportunity to wash your hair and face. Paying close attention to your ears to put out any embers that may still be glowing, his fingers will dart in and out of any available orifice. Keep your eyes closed.


Can you see something odd about this picture? Something that I only noticed after they'd removed the towel from my face? At some point, perhaps while I was unconscious, the barbers switched places. The one who cut my hair is now sitting having a cuppa. It's magic.

You see, I think there's a pecking order in the Turkish barbershop. At the top of the pile, there's the owner. Beneath him are the barbers. Then there are the young men (usually late teens to mid-twenties) who can wash hair, massage and maybe even shave.

At the bottom of the pile are the boys, and I mean boys. Maybe 10 years old and up. You'll often find them standing facing you while you're being shaved. They're learning the skill. They watch and they watch for years. Stopping only to sweep the floor or fetch tea. The rest of the time, they watch and learn.

We could enter into a debate about child labour and the loss of youth, but I can't help thinking that this isn't so bad. They always seem happy and interested in what they're doing.


After the hair wash, cotton wool is twisted into the ears like an enormous Q-Tip, removing wax and drying the ears.

Stage 6 - Massage
You've made it. Everything from now on is plain sailing.


Your head is doused with lemon cologne and the barber begins firmly massage your face. Starting with the forehead and temples, he works every facial muscle. The only mildly uncomfortable moment comes when his fingers push into your eye sockets releasing a squelching noise that can be somewhat unnerving. I've learned not to wear contacts at the barbers.


Repeated kneading of the skin can lead too a loosening...


...your looks will return in time. Just don't look in the mirror for a while.


The massage, for me, is the highlight of the whole experience. Whenever I visit Adali Kuafor, I always see the same guy. Not because he's a fantastic hairdresser (which he is), but because he's an amazing masseur.

What Ahmed could do with his bare hands and a bottle of baby lotion is more than a straight man is willing to confess. Unfortunately, he's been called up for 15 months military service. I wish him all the best.

In the picture above, I'm getting a very rare 3-way massage. I've never been happier.


The finale of the massage is the device shown above. Only in Turkey would I bend over while a man goes to work on me with something that can only be described as a vibrator.

Stage 7 - Finishing touches
Your whole body is now jelly. You're face is free of any unwanted hair and your torso is tingling from the massage. The only thing left is the preparation for facing the outside world.


First is the application of, what I hope to be, moisturiser. Then you're offered hair gel and, finally, lemon cologne.


That's it. You're done.


It only took 4 men 2 hours but I'm ready to face the world again.

How much did it cost for this whole adventure? A little over £5. I love Turkey.