Dodging a Mullet in Cairo

For the near-sighted, getting a haircut is often an act of faith. Once the glasses come off, you are at the mercy of the guy with the scissors and clippers as you gaze hopefully into your own fuzzy visage in the mirror. Add language and cultural barriers, and you end up in your own Lasik surgery commercial: “This is what used to happen to me before I went 20/20.”

There have been probably a dozen times while traveling when I sat in the chair and hoped the combination of pantomime, a few simple words and fingers showing “about half an inch” was enough to avoid a catastrophic coif. After that, it’s a total act of submission. And I’ve been burned more than once.

I was totally scalped in Geneva, had a lopsided fright in Peru and a mullet in Kuwait.

And I’ve been dreading the idea of my first haircut in Cairo.

But I needed one. A quick look in the mirror put me somewhere between a monochrome Paulie Walnuts and a pre-rug Robin Gibb. As much as I dreaded going to the barber, I thought it might slough off the ennui I’ve been feeling – a combination of culture shock and fighting a bout of Cairo belly that’s had my intestinal flora overrun by intestinal fauna.
But, as I believe the Marquis de Sade once said, there’s nothing like letting a grown man touch your head for a while to shake you out of a funk.

So I went on a search in my neighborhood. The closest place is Salon Osama. Even though I’d like to tell people (particularly my family in Ohio and Texas) that a guy named Osama is my barber, the place didn’t feel right. A little too, er, rustic for my taste.

I remembered seeing a few different places on 26th of July Street, the main drag of Zamalek, my Nile island hood. I crossed the four lanes of traffic and saw the sign for “Coiffeur Lux — Coiffeurs Pour Hommes.” And I thought, hmmm, très chic. But before I could walk away to debate it, I made eye contact with Adel. He had an artsy kind of cut himself, though dangerously close to a curly mullet. But I thought he might work with me. Adel also has a little soul patch below his lip. A “thinker,” as my friend Deena – who used to cut my hair in Atlanta – dubbed the little sub-labial tuft she carved out of my beard one time. I kept that little thing for years. And a thinker is just what it was for me… I’d tug on it while I thought. Heck, I’d tug on it even when I wasn’t thinking at all.

So I sat in Adel’s chair and handed him my glasses. Here goes, I thought. And what I would witness, in a blur, was a 45-minute act of performance art. I lost count of the number of combs, brushes and razors the guy used. I was astounded at how many implements a guy can use on a balding head. He started off with a dry cut with scissors, and pulled out a straight razor to trim around my ears. Then he used threads in his mouth and hands to trim hair from my ears, brows and cheeks. After that, he wet my hair and used the straight razor with a comb to continue the haircut.

And all the while he never touched the few strands on the top of my head. It’s hilarious to me how careful and deferential some barbers are with the remnants of a guy’s pate. He handled every top hair like a holy relic, moving each individually to its place to make the few nearly invisible threads fit in with the cut.

Nearly finished, he got me a Pepsi and handed me my glasses. Mullet-free. Nicely done.

And then he tipped my head back for the straight razor shave. My first.

I laughed to myself as an old dirty joke that involves a straight razor flashed in my mind. I can’t retell it on a family-friendly blog, but the punchline is the old man saying to his wife, as he demonstrates, scrunching his mouth to one side: “honey, make like-a this.”

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