When I arrive in a new country, my most pressing need is to find safe and secure accommodation. As soon as that is out of the way and my bags are unpacked, there are three things I prioritise: 1) a massage parlour because of the stressful nature of my work, 2) a wine store for obvious reasons, and 3) a decent, recommended hairdressers.
Fine wispy hair requires as much if not more maintenance as long flowing locks and can cause heartache for a traveller. I can go four or possibly five weeks without a visit to the hairdressers and then it becomes more urgent than finding either accommodation, massage or wine. At the beginning of week five after a haircut, my hair begins to curl out at the sides, giving Bozo the Clown a run for his money. Once it descends over the upper earlobes, I get a Hilary Clinton aka ‘OMG somebody tell the woman she needs a haircut’ look, which just isn’t right.
I remember an Irish friend telling me years ago how she would travel through the horrendous Nairobi traffic from Karen where she lived, to the Hilton Hotel in the centre of the city, to get a haircut. The nature and texture of African hair is poles apart from the often straighter, softer hair found elsewhere in the world. Most African women use wigs and extensions, and can spend whole weekends having extensions woven through their hair. Some of the most beautiful females I have seen are African women with shaven heads – it is rarely I’ve seen an African woman looking better with a wig or hair extensions.
In 2012 I worked for the UN operation in Somalia, based in Nairobi. My Italian colleague Roberta arrived in the office one day with a stunning haircut, announcing that it was the work of the hairdressing salon on the third floor of the Sarit Centre, just around the corner from where I was living. I headed off the following Saturday and scouting around the Sarit, found the salon on the third floor. I should have suspected something was up when I realised I was the only white woman in the salon, but I kept going. “Is there is a stylist free, who is used to cutting straight hair,” I enquired of the woman behind the reception desk. She assured me that there was indeed a stylist experienced in cutting straight hair.
First aid for hairdressers
Ushered off to have my hair washed I was greeted by, I think a young woman, (it’s impossible to tell the age of Africans, they could be 15 or 50, their skin doesn’t wrinkle). I sat up in the swivel chair and she began cutting. Her cheeks were puffed out and she was biting her tongue in concentration. It was too late to stop. Searing pain set it when she kept pulling the hair out from my head as if she was in a tug-of-war and I stopped her to show her how to hold hair between her fingers and cut along the exposed hair jutting along the edge of her fingers. I was aware that if I did stop the process, not only would I be left with a botched haircut, but also my young stylist’s confidence would be greatly damaged and I really didn’t want to do that.
“Relax,” I kept telling her as I realised the poor woman was a bag of nerves. Ten minutes into the haircut and there’s blood pouring everywhere. The hairdresser was screaming. I was screaming. Everything in the salon stopped. All eyes were on the young stylist and me. My hands went up to my head searching for where I had been cut but it didn’t take long to realise that it was the hairdresser who had cut her hand. My instructions obviously didn’t carry a safety warning. The poor woman was so uptight about cutting a mzungu’s (white person) hair the scissors slipped and stabbed her.
The first aid kit came out and after her wound was attended to by some of the other staff, she came back over to me. I insisted she continue what she had started albeit with a very large bandage wrapped over the cut hand. When she had finished and I was leaving the salon, I tipped her and hopefully left some of her confidence intact to be able to deal with the next mzungu who came through the door. Despite my assurance at the cash desk that I would be back for another haircut, I had no intentions of returning.
On Monday when I got to the office, Roberta informed me I had visited the wrong hairdressers.
The hunt went on to find a suitable hairdresser in Nairobi and at the spa between the Sarit Centre and Westgate Mall I found Kelvin, bless him. There’s probably more work keeping short hair looking good, than styling long tresses. I would visit the salon every four/five weeks and would come out with a top class haircut, feeling great. Kelvin is a talented man who knows how to charge but he was worth every penny. I was paying the equivalent of €30 – first world prices and aware that it was the mzungus and wealthy Kenyans could afford such extravagances.
After a number of months visiting Kelvin I was told that the price had increased. Not by a few miserly Kenyan Shillings but by a whopping 30 per cent. The price of the haircut went from the extravagant €30 to an outrageous €40, breaking down to €10 a week for a haircut. Even for a mzungu it was just too much to swallow. It was also unusual for a mzungu to question the price of anything, but they hadn’t met me before. I refused to pay the woman at the cash desk, calling out for Kelvin to explain the inordinate increase in price. “The cost of the materials,” I was told. I like to think I am fair and I don’t mind that I pay more in a developing country because of the colour of my skin, but a thimble-full of shampoo and conditioner? I didn’t think it warranted that much of a price increase. We agreed that the frequency of my visits merited a lower pricing structure and I continued my monthly encounters with Kelvin until I left Nairobi.
Amin in Amman
It was a lot cheaper in the Middle East for a good haircut. Amin, a young male hairdresser in Toni and Guy in Abdoun gives a great haircut and his price varied between €10 and €17. I was genuinely pleased for him when he excitedly told me one day how he was be selected to do a course in Toni and Guy in London, and the idea of visiting the Oxford Street had him grinning from ear to ear. Every time I returned I would ask did he complete his course, but the British Embassy in Jordan didn’t trust that he would return and denied him a visa, which was a great shame considering his obvious talent.
Abdoun is the embassy area of Amman so many of the more wealthy Muslim women who lived in the area wouldn’t wear the hijab (the head scarf worn by Muslim women) or the niquabs (full facial and head covering). In many Muslim countries women as seen as the property of a man and cannot go outside unless she is in the company of a male relative. The wealthy women around Abdoun had no difficulty being in the company of males who were not related to them nor visiting the hair salon alone nor having a male outside the family tending their beauty needs. Occasionally a fully clad nijab wearer would be ushered in to have her hair coiffured by a female stylist in a separate private room, away from the gaze of men.
I always thought it was such a waste to have your hair done then for it all to be covered up by either a hijab or niquabs, especially during the summer months when the temperature rises and just standing still makes me sweat. I just can’t understand how women can look so cool under the polyester scarfs they use winter and summer. A Palestinian friend came to visit once clad in her niquabs and she disappeared into the bathroom to return 10 minutes later fully made up with the most gorgeous head of hair. She was able to remove the layers because she was in the company of women.
In December 2012 I returned Baggers (Baghdad) to work with the UN mission. Such was my hurry leaving Ireland I didn’t have time to have my ‘shorter than short, I’m going abroad’ haircut and left Ireland on the cusp of requiring an encounter with a pair of scissors.
UN staff has no choice in where they live in Baghdad. There are two accommodation compounds, Tamimi and D2 – both located in the Green Zone, (now known as the International Zone (IZ)). The IZ is relatively safe from the daily bombings in the Red Zone. The more privileged employees live in D2, a compound gifted by the American Government to the UN. The bungalows are brick-built and have real windows – they also boast a bedroom and separate living area with cooking facilities. The majority of the staff however, live in much poorer conditions in Camp Tamimi.
Tamimi is a village of container accommodation, with windows in the containers covered by sandbags allowing no natural light to enter. It’s akin to living in a rabbit warren as the containers are then enveloped in a structure also filled with sandbags, to protect its residents from the rockets that once plague the compound on a regular basis. (Since the American withdrew from Iraq they are more likely to throw rockets at each other and leave the IZ alone). Tamimi boasts of a dining facility called a defac (not quite sure why it’s not called a canteen), run by Bangladeshi migrant workers, serving food dripping in grease. These two compounds are about five kilometres apart in the relatively ‘safer’ IZ. D2 not only is a nicer place to live, it also boasts a unisex hair salon.
The Scissor Brothers
Two Iraqi men operate the salon at the weekends and the Fiji troops, who protect the two compounds, are entitled to free haircuts, while everybody else is changed the princely sum of $5. I was about week eight post-haircut, with no sign of a reprieve from Baggers and no entitlement to any rest and recuperation because I worked as a consultant. I was looking more like Hilary that I ever wanted. I decided I needed a haircut but was reluctant to admit to any of my colleagues that I planned to visit the D2 salon. It was considered okay for men to visit the salon, but not really for a woman.
Friday is the first day of the weekend in the Middle East and our working week was Sunday to Thursday. On Friday mornings it was common for employees to circle the compound, either running or walking for exercise. I was lucky enough to be staying in a friend’s accommodation in D2 while she was on out on leave, so slipping into the salon for a haircut was not so noticeable.
I ensured there was nobody else in the salon before entering and as I sat up in the chair I proceeded to give instructions in sign language. The two gentlemen knew no English and my Arabic is limited to giving taxi drivers instructions, so I proceeded to indicate how short I wanted my hair cut. The towel was put around my shoulders and the nylon shawl placed over the towel almost choked me when the stylist takes out a pair of kitchen scissors and begins to cut. I really need to write a note to self and just tell hairdressers when I am not comfortable. However, telling an Iraqi man with a pair of kitchen scissors in his hands that I wasn’t comfortable was probably not the best time to practice being assertive. I am sure I was the first non-army woman to enter the door of the salon.
Mostly I’d like to think I’m philosophical about haircuts. Hair grows back and whatever mess has been made, corrects itself. The Baggers cut though was a little different and retrospect is a fine teacher.
I would have been better off if I had requested the razor and gone for an army style short, back and sides. The man with the blunt kitchen scissors started combing my hair with a filthy-looking comb before he began hacking at it. I really don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t what I got. I would have got a better haircut if I had given a seven year-old child a pair of scissors and let them at it. I ended up with the hair on the crown of my head permanently sticking up and even when it was wet, it refused to sit down and behave itself! It was the topic of conversation long after I left the mission in Iraq and served as a warning for women not only to hold off and wait until they got to Amman but looking like Hilary Clinton wasn’t so bad as it first seemed – at least she has brains!
Working in Kabul was a little different to Baggers – there was no IZ to ‘protect’ us and we travelled (albeit in armoured plated vehicles) through the city to meetings. We could actually see people on the streets and how they lived, unlike the IZ where I never saw a child during all the time I was there.
The ring of steel, supposed to stop the Taliban from entering Kaboom wasn’t quite as effective as President Karzai would have wished. On 28 October 2009, the Baktar Guest House where several of my colleagues resided was attacked and the Taliban murdered five UN staff. At the time, we lived in guesthouses around the city with some staff living in rented houses. I opted to stay in the shabby but friendly UNICA compound, which boasted about 40 rooms spread over several buildings, each one was different and each had its own peculiarities.
UNICA first opened its doors as a UN guesthouse in 1958. The owners kept adding to it over the years and the compound even boasted a bar. During the time of the Tailban it was the only place in Kabul where a body could find alcohol and Hamid the bar man had worked there for more years than I think he even cared to remember.
While supermarket shopping was permitted, we were not allowed to visit any other establishment. There were beauty parlours for women everywhere and they had heavy net curtains, preventing people (mainly men) seeing inside. They reminded me of seedy sex shops around Europe. Like Abound in Amman, it was the wealthier women who would frequent the beauty parlours and they would emerge without burqas but often with niquabs looking stunning with make up, lipstick and nails polished.
We had a hairdressers in UNICA and a young lad, dressed in the trendiest Western gear would appear each weekend and we would queue up for haircuts. There were no heavy curtains on the windows and men and women sat together waiting on their turn. Haircuts were good value at US$10. It wasn’t the best haircut in the world, but you could at least appear in public and didn’t feel the need to wear your niquab around the office.
UNICA eventually closed down shortly after I left Afghanistan. The elderly owner lived in the States and her children had no interest in managing the property. It sold for over US$5 million and the last I heard, they had built an office block on its grounds. It was the end of an era for many foreigners who travelled through and found sanctuary and solace inside its walls.
Until next time.