“Good morning! Happy Christmas!”
Our hostel hosts are giving all of the white, Western faces emerging from their rooms the compliments of the season with the more internationally known “happy” rather than the American favorite “merry.” Here in Istanbul, with deep cultural and religious roots in both Christianity and Islam, everyone knows and respects each other’s practices and holidays as a matter of course; having tried the all-out holy war thing for a few centuries, the two groups in Istanbul seem to prefer a friendly cooexistance.
Over breakfast on the warm, sunny rooftop, we watch the city wake up on December 25, 2015, just a normal day for the Islamic majority here in Old Town. We had been roused early by the first pre-dawn call to prayer soaring from the loudspeakers atop the city’s mosques, particularly the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, both within sight of one another and our room’s small, open window. Now, the ferries and cruise boats are running back and forth across the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn of the city, construction crews are firing up their jackhammers, and souvenir hawkers are arriving in the squares near the big Old Town attractions.
Just across the cobbled street from our little inn is a one-chair barber shop that I’ve been eyeing since our arrival. In Dublin, many barbers offer a Turkish experience, but I’ve been waiting to come here for the real thing. I see the elderly barber unlocking the door to this shop just as we’re getting ready to go out for the day.
I poke my head into the shop and try some English, accentuated with some hand motions.
“Hello! Shave?” I slide a finger up and down my face and neck.
He nods and replies enthusiastically, “Aha! OK!” and motions for me to sit. His countertop is cluttered with strange barber kit: blocks of soap lie in bowls between combs, scissors, and razors. A small TV displays a fuzzy, silent view of the morning news. They are announcing that it’s Christmas and covering the celebrations going on at the city’s Christian Orthodox churches.
The barber, without another word, fills up an electric kettle on the countertop and switches it on to boil. Humming and mumbling to himself — whether or not it’s about the two Westerners busting into his shop with big smiles and loud voices first thing in the morning, I can’t tell — he moves down the line to his single-edge razor. He deftly ejects the disposable blade and wipes down the handle before spraying it with a clear liquid, which I guess is some kind of disinfectant. He confirms my suspicion with a swift flick of his wrist, flambeing the alcohol and creating a fiery show with a cigarette lighter that he’s pulled seemingly from nowhere. This is gonna be interesting, I think.
By the time he sets a fresh blade into the razor, the water has boiled. He pours it into a bowl, soaks a fresh towel with it, and gives me a vigorous rubdown with the steamy cloth. This is the kind of thing you pay extra for at Sport Clips, I think, although I can’t really negotiate a price with this guy if he doesn’t speak English, so I’m probably paying extra for this, too. Oh, well.
Sara has been watching the whole experience from the far corner of the shop — about four feet away from my chair. She holds up a camera and asks, “Photo OK?”
He nods, “OK. OK.”
Some of the hot water goes into another bowl with some scrapings from one of the soap bars. The barber works it into a thick lather with an expert’s touch in mere seconds, and on it goes to my warm skin. The soap is lightly scented of menthol and spices. I make a note to try to find some to bring home with me.
Then comes the razor, Sara documenting the stroke as he brings the steel to my skin with alarming quickness. I barely have time to blink as he slices a few square inches of my cheek into soapy smoothness. After a quick wipe on the hot towel around my neck, he comes back for more.
I feel the odd cut as he works, each slight sting enhanced by a little extra pinch from the scented soap. Sara stays out of his way as he works through the first pass, re-lathers, and completes another round against the grain of my three-day stubble.
Another towel goes into the bowl with the steamy water and back onto my face, and another vigorous rubbing ensues. When he removes the towel and I can see again, I notice him taking up a white block from the counter and rubbing it into his hands. I know from my experience with old-style shaving that this must be a block of alum, a pickling salt long used to disinfect and stem the bleeding of minor shaving cuts. It fell out of favor when less painful products were developed to soothe shaving irritation.
“Whoo!” I involuntarily exhale as he very literally rubs salt into my wounds. It’s not quite the aftershave scene from Home Alone, but I’m not too proud to admit that it was a bit more brisk than I was expecting.
He smiles and turns to Sara to crack some joke about my manhood in Turkish. It must have been a real zinger, because he laughs hard enough for all of us while Sara and I shrug and chuckle noncommittally.
Up comes the lighter again, and he turns my head as it flicks to life. Uh oh. He pulls my ear and I hear a whoosh as the flame swipes over my earlobe. After the whoosh, I can hear the snap-crackle-pop of my ear hair burning and shriveling. Before I know it’s even happened, he takes another pass just for good measure. Less sizzling this time. He walks around me to torch my other ear, and as he does so, my brain finally registers and processes the fact that I don’t feel pain from having my hair literally burned off of my living flesh. Instead of scalding agony, I only feel a refreshed, almost cool and breezy, feel in my now fuzz-free left ear. It’s easier to focus my senses as he does my right ear. There it is again. The sound and smell of crackling human hair followed by the feel of a raw, drafty nakedness.
Off comes the towel from around my neck, and I’m back in the real world. He invites me to stand up and we begin our thanks and goodbyes. I hand him a Turkish lira note without the expectation of anything in the way of change, and we make our best attempts at “thank you” in each other’s languages. As we step back out onto the cobbled Istanbul street, he follows us out the door and waves. He shouts in response to our farewell wave, “Happy Christmas!”
You’ve certainly made it a memorable one! I think as we return the salutation. He huddles back inside his warm shop and we wander off to our next Istanbul adventure.