Reluctant Popstar

A visit to the barber in Turkey: flaming swabs, cut-throat razors and a little too much gel.

Turkish Popstars“Please sir, you sit down.”

My new best friend motions to something resembling a cabinet covered with a bed-sheet, and impersonating a couch.

“Yes, you sit there.”

I am in a Turkish laundromat, without a single washing appliance in sight, and a large curtain separating tiny front of shop from what sounds like an entire family washing clothes by hand. It may well be by hand, for Turkish Laundry Man tells me that my weighed and charged by the kilo clothing has a turn around time of thirty-six hours.

“My friend, your room number at hotel?”

“666” I reply, and not for the first time here in Antalya, Turkey, am wistfully disappointed that no-one gets the joke in this predominantly non-Christian country.

On the wall behind the counter is a poster for a concert by Sri Chinmoy. An auspicious sign? Turkish Laundry Man certainly thinks so, pointing to the face on one of my t-shirts and then same face on poster.

“You… him… same!” he smiles, genuine enthusiasm undaunted by only rudimentary knowledge of the Queen’s English.

I decline tea—served extra black with lemon in this part of the world—ever present foil to actually getting anything done. In Turkey, were you to actually accept every courteous offer of tea, made with every business transaction completed or just proffered, you would be not only over caffeinated but permanently delayed.

“Can you recommend a barber?” I inquire as I leave, mirror in corner revealing a haircut past fashionably messy and just messy.

“Oh yes,” grins laundry man, “come, my cousin is barber!” Taking me by the hand, a custom which would be extremely uncomfortable back home but absolutely kosher here, he leads me diagonally across the road to a barber shop I somehow hadn’t noticed, where a man with an intimidating stare is holding a cut-throat razor, giving a local the closest shave I have ever seen. There is absolutely no family resemblance.

They converse briefly in Turkish, Laundry Man enthusiastic, Intimidating Barber seemingly disinterested, and a price is confirmed of TKL8, a fare more than fair. His job not only done but exceeded far beyond call, Laundry Man clasps my hand firmly and then departs, imploring me to join him for tea at haircut’s close.

Unlike the laundromat, the barber shop is state of the art, if such a description can be applied to the timeless tradition of men’s hairdressing. European football plays on the satellite channel of a wall-mounted TV set, watched by the coiffed to be from ergonomic, custom built blue barber chairs. A million types of hair product of infinite textures, fragrances and purport line shelves inside sleek plastic tubes and containers, while beside me Turkish language magazines sit in piles for my non-reading, temporary distraction as I await my appointment with master of male grooming.

As with haircuts everywhere, the first order of business is communicating the type of cut desired. Except without use of language, as “short back and sides” produces not a glimmer of understanding. Yet to utter a single word, but thankfully his cut-throat now holstered, Intimidating Barber motions to the top of my head and then the sides with thumb and fore-finger held apart, distance presumably indicating length desired. Resisting the temptation to point to the cover of “Türkiye Man” and say “Same please,” I emulate the gesture, except with a measurement several millimetres less, successfully communicating a clippers cut by narrowing my fingers to just a pinch. Shoved from behind face into a water filled basin, I relax in the knowledge that I am probably going to get a haircut at the very least vaguely approximating what I am used to.

After a minute having my hair washed, Intimidating Barber places a towel covered hand tightly over mouth, nose and eyes, pulling me by face up out of the sink, an act intended to keep water off my face, but also temporarily suffocating me. I wonder at what point breathlessness would overcome polite surrender, should I be unable to draw air for much longer. Possibly not until after I pass out.

While his perpetual frown is a little off-putting, especially when wielding the cut-throat razor—a not so subtle encouragement for prompt payment I am sure—he does appear to be proficient at his trade, employing facets of this art which I was hitherto unaware. Flaming stick to the side of the head is a personal favourite, steel rod wrapped in cotton wool lit and applied in measured daubs around the ears, burning off fine hairs or evil spirits I am not completely sure.

Like me he is not a fan of the “side-burn”—also known as the “mutton-chop” or just plain personal grooming mistake—and, in another excuse to wave cut-throat alarmingly close to vital arteries, skillfully dispatches any hint of such with a few swift strokes.

A confirmation of desired shortness—“no, this short” I signal with my fingers—and we are just about done, a few final adjustments required with comb and scissors.

Did I say done? Maestro appears to have other ideas, and, inspired by a fist-full of styling gel and a look last seen in best forgotten 1980s music videos, twists and then teases my hair into points and spikes, bottle of jelly-like product fast disappearing. I have to desperately restrain myself from laughing at what is taking shape in the mirror, for he regards his craftsmanship most seriously, and expects an approval I would fear not giving.

Barbershop experience is completed with a TKL10 note exchanged, price raised above that quoted but I mind not—the sickly sweet all over perfume applied at close more than justifying this age-old version of “bait and switch.”

For the next ten minutes I am a reluctant Turkish pop star, now rock hard gelled haircut attracting nods of approval from schoolboys passed as I return to my hotel. Cringing, I take the out of sight back entrance up to my room, detachment from care for my personal appearance growing about as fast as recently cut hair.

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