The Barber of Aleppo

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Arab man who held a sharp razor to my throat. I hope he’s okay.

My first trip to Syria was in 1998. I had somehow managed to convince the new director of excavations at Tell Brak that I could do all the illustrations, photography and database management he would need. We (that it so say, I) made some mistakes but we cobbled together a successful season that spring.

Tell Brak is in the far northeastern part of Syria, near the Turkish and Iraqi borders, almost diametrically opposite from the capital city of Damascus. The Syrians were warm and friendly, although, in this rural area, very segregated by sex.

I roamed the mound with a camera and spent time learning some basic Arabic vocabulary. Working in the dig house, I got to know the Aswad family, a group of brothers who helped run our camp. Their broken English was not much better than my few words of Arabic, yet somehow we managed, through charades and funny faces, to make each other laugh. Turns out, when you’re just guys together, a certain mix of lechery and fart jokes can be hilarious, whether or not you speak the same language.

When the dig was over, a group of us archaeologists treated ourselves to a few days in Aleppo, before heading south to Damascus and the international airport. After the rural dustiness of a dig, Aleppo, Syria’s oldest city was stunning. Beautifully crafted wooden Ottoman houses in the old city had been converted into piano bars and boutique hotels. The ancient citadel—now a museum—stood protected by well-tested battlements. We were treated like sultans for the price of a Turkish bath in a magnificent, high-ceilinged, 15th century stone hamam.

And the cosmopolitan finery! Men wore business suits and some of the younger women sported stylish European fashions—I realized I hadn’t actually stood within ten feet of a Syrian woman since I had arrived in the country.

After the hamam, I was clean but still felt like a slob.

I didn’t know where to get a haircut in the city, but since it seemed nearly everything could be found in the souk, that’s where I wandered and that’s where I found my barber.

I had learned a few words of Arabic from the dig, but most of my vocabulary was about dirt (“move the dirt,” “sweep the dirt,” “bring me the dirt”). When others spoke to me, the majority of my responses consisted of the single phrase “Inshallah!” (God willing!) which simultaneously indicates both a positive outlook and a resigned skepticism to any question that could be posed (“See you tomorrow?” “Will there be work next week?” “Can I have your camera?”—“Inshallah!”). I didn’t know how to discuss hair styles in Arabic, but I wasn’t looking for anything out of the ordinary.

I pointed at the man’s sign and then at my own head. He nodded. I sat down, he draped a cloth over me and got to work.

Getting a haircut is basically the same everywhere in the world: as long as your ears feel safe, it’s a comfort to put yourself in another person’s hands. As the Syrian barber clipped efficiently around my head, I could tell he was a professional. I relaxed.

The shave was where I first started to worry. Before he began, the barber sharpened his straight razor against a leather strop. I realized that I had only seen this movement in Bugs Bunny cartoons, R-rated movies and Sweeney Todd. In those cases, things didn’t always work out for the guy in the barber’s chair.

But, as I said, the man was a professional. He scraped the razor against my face with deft movements, slicing through foamed soap to remove all the stubble.

My anxiety rose again when he brought out a spool of thread, pulled a length out and wound it around his fingers. Trying to be open to the experience, I opened my jaw prepared to have my teeth flossed.

No such luck. The barber rolled two strands of thread together and then rolled the combined threads against my forehead in the space between my eyebrows. When he pulled the thread away, he took some hair off with it.

If we had had a common language, I probably would have stopped him at that point, but as it was, I was so stunned that I just sat there while he threaded my cheeks as well. Apparently I had a fair amount of hair on my cheeks because it hurt like hell.

Then he pulled out what looked like a large Q-tip, a foot long stick with a wad of cotton at the end. I had absolutely no idea what he was going to do with it.

He dipped the cotton wad in some alcohol, which was some relief—at least it was sterilized—and then he lit it on fire.

The next part happened quickly. Holding the wooden end of the stick with one hand, he pulled back and flicked the flaming cotton towards my ear with the other hand. I recognized the smell of burnt human hair. He moved to the other side of my chair and burned out the hair from my other ear.

I feared for my nostrils, but he took care of that area with a small pair of scissors.

The barber dusted me off, slapped some alcohol-based cologne on my stinging face and laughed at my shocked expression. Then we smiled at each other. I don’t remember the exact price of his services, but it was somewhere around two or three American dollars. I distinctly remember giving him a 50% tip and feeling good about the exchange.

Before I had gone to Syria, everything I knew about the people seemed to revolve around Bedouin customs and standards of hygiene. “Don’t eat with your left hand, don’t show the soles of your feet,” I was told. I didn’t have any information about the modern, urban Syria that put my own standards of grooming and “civilization” to shame. A shave and a haircut taught me more about Syria than all the guidebooks could.



Since 2011, the news from Syria has been horrible. Political demonstrations turned into protests, government crackdowns ended with fatalities, and a civil war was ignited. The president in Damascus ordered a military assault on anti-government forces in Aleppo. The Aleppo citadel, which stood for four millennia, was not designed to withstand modern ordnance and was hit hard.

The war probably seems pretty abstract to most non-Syrians. For myself, there are days when I read the news and I can picture the neighborhoods they are describing. Meanwhile, abstract concepts like “Arab Spring,” “Democratic Revolution” and “Freedom” all sound great, but I have to admit that these phrases remain, for me, abstract. I feel for those Syrians who want to have a voice in their future, but I also sympathize with those who wish things had just stayed the way they were, authoritarian or not, and safe.

This year, the war has come to Hasake province and Tell Brak. I have heard no news of the Aswad brothers, or the other villagers I had known in four excavation seasons at the site. Friends with better linguistic skills have tried to find their names among lists of refugees in Turkish camps, with no luck.

I have hope for them, however. There is space in Hasake province, and wide borders that could potentially be crossed to escape the war. And frankly, because I got to know them and befriend them, I have to believe my friends from Tell Brak are all right. It may be delusional, but I need to believe it to maintain my peace of mind.

What happened to the barber?

Maybe he moved to the countryside. Maybe he’s living with a nephew in Detroit. Maybe —most likely—he was stuck in the urban battleground of Aleppo.

The barber and I had exchanged no words, but we passed between us an understanding of culture and civilization, a message perverted by the current war. I never learned his name and I will never know what happened to him.

I worry about him.


About Jack Cheng

Jack Cheng (@jakcheng) is an archaeologist, directs the Clemente Course in the Humanities in Boston, and plays guitar in the band Waiting For Neil. His writing has been published in academic journals and by the Boston Globe Magazine, Brain, Child Magazine, The Public Humanist and Huffington Post.
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