"The Barefaced Pleasure" By Thomas Goltz
The Barefaced Pleasure
Getting a shave teaches a cultural lesson that lasts a lifetime
IT TAKES A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF FAITH TO LET A PERFECT stranger singe your ears, stick scissors up your nose, and run a straight razor around your throat.
But it is all part of a visit to a Turkish barbershop, a hallowed institution that, I hope, will remain unchanged: Men with three- day stubble themselves lather you up twice or thrice, scrape away at your chin with a piece of steel that could slice a sheet of paper in half the thin way, and then wipe your shorn whiskers on the thumb of the hand that was just pushing back your nose to align with your right car-chatting with another honored client in waiting all the while.
Yes, the Turkish barber- "berber" in Turkish, not to be confiised with "barbar," a Greek word that filtered into Turkish during Ottoman times that means barbarian, not the individual you are seeking in the City of the Sultans.
After some fifteen years of visiting or living in Turkey, I've got a tip for all newcomers: get thee to the nearest barber straightaway. It is always my first stop in Istanbul. Not only is it a fine way to immediately get over jet lag, but, if one can speak Turkish, also a far better way to take the political pulse of the nation than, say, the traditional method of chatting with cabdrivers. I'm fluent now, due in large part to the time I have spent in the barber chair over the past two decades, I am sure.
I had my first shave in Turkey in 1976. Then a bearded young hippie traveling to Africa from Europe via the Middle East, I found myself in a central Anatolian bus station with a lot of time on my hands and a ferocious itch beneath the handsome whiskers adorn- ing my cheeks and chin. I was sure it was lice, and getting rid of the itchy critters was going to require a radical move. But having no razor handy@l had not shaved for several years I was obliged to take an even more radical step: to enter the tiny, dingy cubical in the bus station for a shave.
"Hoshgeldiniz!" exclaimed a ferocious-looking barber, address- ing my reflection in the cracked niirror. I spoke no Turkish at the time, and had no idea what he was saying as he was running his blade over the throat of his current client. The customer was so still that, had it not been for his bobbing Adam's apple, I might have taken him for a corpse.
With growing trepidation, I felt a dim memory play through my brain of Ottoman Turkish barbers doubling as executioners, and I was tempted to flee before I became a headline in a local newspaper: BEAPDED HIPPIE INFIDEL BITES THE DUST IN Bus STATION SLAUGHTERHOUSE! But it was too late. A young man bearing a tray with small tulip-shaped glasses filled with tea had blocked the door, and the ferocious-looking barber was growling something at me, indicat- ing that it was my turn to mount the swivel chair. The previous customer was on his feet; at least he was still alive. In retrospect, it was a turning point in my life. First, I was shorn like a sheep, my beard falling away in curls to mix with the sawdust on the floor. Next came the first lather and rough shaving of the-remaining stubble. Not content with this, the barber then proceeded with yet another lathering, and, with a new blade, scraped away a second time only now against the grain of the remaining stubble.
"Bak," he barked, laying aside his mini-scythe and directing my eyes to the cracked mirror to adnuire his handiwork. Indeed. Aside from the unsightly blotches on my alabaster white chin that had not seen the sun for an age, there was not a nick or a scratch. I looked about thirteen years younger, too.
"Atesh?" asked the barber. I presumed he was fishing for a com- pliment, and nodded approval.
"O.K.!" I said, adding the internationally recognizable thumbsup signal for good measure. I regretted my ignorance of his language bitterly a mo- ment later. As amusement turned to amazement and then horror, I watched as the barber spiked a large nail through a ball of cotton, dipped it into some sort of lighter fluid, struck a match to ignite the torch-and then began bouncing the burning swab on my cheekbones with one hand while flicking away the ash of incinerated hair with the other.
The process did not cause any pain. Nonetheless, I tried to move my arms to defend myself. But the effort was in vain. The towels and bib pinned them down for the two seconds needed to singe away not only the little white hairs on the upper cheek, but also the little white hairs that grow, unnoticed by most, on the top and back gides of the ear.
"Atesh," repeated the pyromaniac barber, this time not as an in- terrogator, but in a slightly hurt tone of voice. There was nothing else to do but let him do the other side of my face, too. Clearly, I had offended him in some manner. I assumed as much because as soon as the burning swab had been doused, the barber grabbed me
Turkey is home to some unique and ancient forms of grooming and hygiene. Visitors to a spa named Bahkli Kaplica (balik means fish) un- dergo a very particular form of treatment: skin removal. Or maybe I should say repair. As bathers stand or sit in the water, fish calrnly swarm around them, attaching themselves to the bathers'limbs and torsos, nib- bling away at any body part af- fficted with a rash or skin condi- tion such as eczema or psoriasis.
by the nape of the neck and wrenched me forward. But rather than finding myself thrown down among the dead hair and sawdust on the floor, I was staring at the bottom of a shallow sink. Before I could protest, a torrent of water was pouring over my head while the barber dug his soapy fingers into my ears and even up my nose.
Then, with another lurch, I was thrown back into the chair, and the world suddenly grew dark, hot-and delicious. A heated towel had been wrapped around my head. It smelled of eucalyptus, but it was probably opium, because all I could think of doing was re- maining exactly where I was, allowing the lovely fumes to perme- ate every pore. Meanwhile, the barber was working his fingertips into my skull in a rough yet gentle massage whose rhythm went straight to my brain.
An age passed that was probably only two minutes, and I awoke to a melodious jingle, a tiny spoon stirring sugar in a tuhp-shaped glass of tea. I sipped and smoked a Turkish oval cigarette and dreamed, only marginally conscious of the fact that the barber was now working small drops of cream into my parched and flayed skin, and then delicately snipping away at the inner nose hairs with a scis- sors after having straightened out what remained of my mustache.
"Saaflar o1sun!" he said, removing the towels and bib with a final flourish before dousing me with lemon cologne.
The process appeared to be over. I rose, reached into my pocket, and stuck out a wad of money. The barber shyly plucked a few bills. The charge was less than a dollar, including a tip for the as- sistant who was busy brushing off my jeans with a whisk broom.
I have never looked back. Indeed, not only is the barber now my first stop whenever I ar- rive in Turkey, it is usually my last task before sallying forth to even more exotic places like Azerbaijan or Chechnya, where, I have dis- covered, it is next to impossible to get a decent shave.
And now, more than twenty years after that first experience, I make him work for his keep. Advocating the radical solution to a much-receded hairline, I demand the crown-to-chin treatment. Not a hair is left on my head when I leave-and it still only costs around four bucks.
Thomas Goltz is the author of Azerbaijan Diary: A Rogue Reporter's Adventures in an Oil-rich War-torn Post-Soviet Republic (M.E. Sharpe). He is currently working on a book on Chenchnya, when he is not organizing three-wheeled motorcycle tours through the Caucasus. He is also Tim Cahill's traveling companion, the inventor of Tommy- Talk, in the Part nree story "Anybody Seen a Tiger Around Here?"
"The Barefaced Pleasure" By Thomas Goltz
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