Saturday, September 02, 2006
More words and pics on the felucca ride very soon. But first, this.
Yesterday brought about the early death of my beloved Vidal Sassoon hair clippers, through which I estimate I have saved hundreds of dollars in haircut costs since my initial experimentations with tres-short hair eight years ago. I plugged the clippers into the plug adapter and the adapter into the wall outlet, switched them on, and began to cut my hair. Very quickly the entire machine became hot, too hot, and a distinct odor of burning metal caught my nose. So, only a few swipes into my haircut, I switched off the clippers to allow their overloaded innards a chance to cool.
Some context: electrical outlets in America emit a standard, steady voltage of 110. Here in Egypt, the voltage can vary from 110 up to 220. For a piece of machinery configured for American voltage, the varying and surging voltage here can wreak havoc. And so it did when I, foolishly, once more plugged in my Vidal Sassoon clippers and thought, “I’ll do this very quickly.” Seconds later there was a hollow explosion inside the clippers. This noise was followed by a weak vibration against my hand, something akin to a death throe. I expected something painful to happen to me—perhaps the bright, supernova implosion of my clippers into a blackened lump of plastic and gnarled metal, seared into my palm. But all that had happened was that my clippers had died. Kaput. Did I mention that I had only partially mowed my hair?
I resolved to sojourn out into the city for a pair of new hair clippers. In order to make this feasible, I tied around my deformed head M’s blue bandana, which she so thoughtfully packed before our departure. I will say that bandanas are not common here in North Africa, and that the armed young men who guard the nearby embassies found my headgear stare-worthy. In fact, most people found the bandana a worthy focus for their undivided attention as I walked the streets of Zamalek.
Off I went to Alfa Mart, which contains not only groceries, but many appliances foreigners might like to have. Here you can find the American-style coffee maker, blender, coffee bean grinder, hair curler, food processor, lady shaver (very expensive). But no hair clipper. I kept thinking, surely, this item must be available for purchase, and that I am in a foreign country and these wily Egyptians are probably displaying this item in a place that would not naturally occur to my American sensibilities. I searched all three floors, looking everywhere from computer equipment to housewares, until I finally had to admit, with some discomfort, that I would not find clippers on that day.
This is how I came to meet Adel. He is a barber who keeps his shop on 26th July St., a small shop with two large, windowed doors that allow the casual passer-by to look inside and observe Adel at his work. So it was for me, as I walked down one of Cairo’s busiest streets, still sporting conspicuous blue bandana. Adel caught me looking at him, and he smiled quickly before returning his attention to the hair of the man sitting before him. When I stepped down to reach the recessed entrance to his shop, I was able to ascertain through my usual repertoire of idiotic pantomiming and poor language skills that I could be next on the chair if I so wished.
After the man left, I assumed my position on Adel’s chair and removed the bandana. He laughed. It was a funny sight, my poor head, and I laughed too. This would not be the last time I laughed while under Adel’s care. The sight of my head explained, in a way I was not capable through language, exactly what kind of cut I wished for. To be sure, I pointed at his hair clippers. Then I stroked my beard to indicate that I’d like that trimmed, as well.
What matters here is not that Adel cut my hair and trimmed my beard. He did that, and well enough for the 30LE charge. It’s what happened next. Apparently, barbers here in Arabia are skilled in a vast array of grooming services and techniques. While I waited, perhaps nervously, Adel first produced a straight razor and proceeded to shave the little hairs on the back of my neck and just below my shirt line. He shaved the tiny trail of hairs that connect my beard to my neck hair. I remember during this time a sense of duration, of wondering when I could get up and pay and leave. I felt this way even though I felt no particular sense of discomfort, and Adel seemed like a very nice man who could be trusted with a straight razor at my neck. It’s just that I wasn’t exactly sure what would happen next.
And then Adel put away the straight razor and produced a long, white string from plastic packaging. Headline: AMERICAN GARROTTED IN MIDDLE EAST. Adel bent over a bit and managed somehow to wrap this long string around his hand and arm in a bizarre Cat’s Cradle-like configuration. He tilted back my seat and then he was there, looming over me, holding this string in his fingers like a puppet master. Who was the puppet?
I watched this happen in the mirror. Adel had arranged this string into a series of small loops, which he could pull taut with a quick movement of some part of his hand. He proceeded to do this as he moved the string across my face, first at my eyebrows, then at my forehead and ears, everywhere where unsightly man-hair might be present. He would catch a strand or two of protruding hair in a loop, then he would tighten this loop with surprising alacrity and strength, and catch the hair, and then pull. This was happening dozens of times per minute; in the mirror, I saw him move over me with impresario skill, his trained hands moving quickly but with great measure and strength across the surface of my face.
I laughed in my utter surprise, despite the constant prickling pains emerging all over my face. I laughed like I was being tickled which, in a way, I was. What you see in the picture is my new and improved visage. Look how handsome. Thank you, Adel.