Turkish Barber Shop


I had a haircut the other day. Well, not just any haircut, THE haircut. The best of my life. One that changed my day, and – to a certain extent – my life. One that I’m still telling people about 3 weeks later.

This was no ordinary haircut.

The circumstances were not auspicious: a tiny shop down the street from my hotel in Istanbul, an even tinier man – 75 if a day –  and a complete absence of what might be called modernity and hygiene. Still, I was called to go to this place. I’d seen it earlier in the day, and had turned down several other offers to have my locks cropped as we looked around the old town.

When I appeared at the door I was waved over to take a seat against the wall. Having only Turkish papers to read I was done with guessing at the captions on the photos quite quickly, and – given the size of the place –  then had time to observe him work on the head before mine.

He seemed to be taking his time to get everything just right. I liked that, but found myself getting irritated as well. Just how long was he going to take with this fellow? I have IMPORTANT THINGS TO DO.

My attempt at telekinetically changing his speed failed miserably, and he continued to work away at his own pace. I realised I would either have to bail out and go elsewhere, or change gears completely to have any hope of enjoying this experience.

Fortunately, I managed the gear change, and as he continued his work I got more and more interested. It seemed no detail was too small, and I saw him do things I’d never seen done before, except perhaps in very old movies. By the time he was finished with the fellow ahead of me I was keen to get started.

Once in the chair, my collar was folded neatly down inside my shirt.  My neck was wrapped with expandable tissue paper, a bib was tied on, and the tissue paper was folded down over the bib. There were many places that clipped hair might go in the next 30 minutes, but inside my shirt was not one of them. After a quick test-drive on one side of my head to see that the clipper setting was right for my taste, then he was off.

Twenty minutes later – after 2 electric clippers, 3 sets of clipper teeth, 2 scissors (with two ‘air-snips’ for every actual cut of my hair), a straight razor, a bowl for water, and a shaving brush – I lost track of how many implements had been used on my head.

I thought we were done, but he was only getting going. He produced a lighter, and commenced waving it in and around my ears, while carefully protecting the rest of my head (don’t try this one at home, but it was very effective) to clear away any remaining stray hairs.

I was then asked to lean over the sink and was given two washes before being leaned back and given a head massage as my hair was towelled dry, then blowed dry (you need to have seen a recent picture of me to know what degree of dedication this would require). That done, my ears were given a wipe, then filled with cotton balls that were given a twist to remove stray clippings. With a new towel over my shoulders I was given a neck and shoulder massage, then doused with a lime-scented shaving water which was patted over my face and neck. I detected a whiff of sadness as he sent me on my way with no pomade (not even the most dedicated soul could pretend I might need it), as he had amply displayed his technique in this domain with the previous customer.

All of the above for a man who for the past few years – due to lack of raw material – has contented himself with a weekly auto-snip with an electric clipper. But a lack of hair was not a problem for Mehsud (for this was his name). He was at work, and he was going to do his best work, come hell or high forehead.

From the fashion in the photographs on the walls I’d guess he has been doing this for 50 years. Based on a conservative estimate of 4 people per day and 250 working days per year, I’ll have been the 50,000th customer through his hands. And still, he took his time and made my head important for the 30 minutes I was in his hands. There was nothing flashy about it all, but I have rarely seen such focus. Nothing on his mind but doing the very best work he could on the head that he had in front of him. So very different than the perfunctory massage I’d been given earlier in the day (though in fairness to him, the masseur had probably only been at his craft for a mere 10 years or so….)

I left refreshed, and thinking about my own work in a new way: do what is in front of you to the best of your ability, treat each person as if they are the only person, which – in the moment – they are.

Getting things done is great, but how you get them done might just change the world.

When asked what I wanted to do the following day – and faced with the incredible diversity and richness that Istanbul offers the traveller – I said, ‘I think I’d like to get a shave’.

Ed barber shop

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