I relished this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of getting a haircut along the real Barbary Coast.
As we walked into the shop, in unison, the two barbers, in their white smocks, and the room full of clients, stopped talking and turned their attention toward me. The middle-class customers were dressed modestly and openly socialized with one another. The novelty of seeing an American signified their middle-class status—they would not be rubbing elbows with members of the diplomatic corps. I cautiously took the only empty chair in the waiting area.
In his concern for the American diplomat’s well-being, Knuckle- Dragger walked up to a barber chair, began poking the customer on his shoulder, and in Arabic, instructed the man to get out of the chair to make room for the American.
I stopped my well-intentioned escort and reminded him that we Americans wanted to portray a good image to Libyan citizens, so I would not mind waiting my turn. I motioned to the surprised barber to continue his trade with his now confused client.
I studied the Tunisian barber sporting a contagious smile and joking manner. Just as in barber shops around the world, this is a universal refuge where men go to share their ideas, opinions, gossip, and to bond with “everyman.”
When it was my turn, the barber spun his chair around and motioned for me to have a seat. My interpreter stood close by.
I relaxed at the sound of the scissors’ snips and clippers’ buzz. When the barber finished my haircut, he motioned for me to lean my head forward into a sink to wash my hair. Used to laying my head backward when receiving a salon shampoo in America, this position of head washing was a bit awkward. I felt like King Louis XVI descending my throne to face the guillotine.
Tunisian barber in Tripoli holding his straight razor and photo of Robert W. Starnes.
On completing the shampoo, the barber patted my head with a towel and leaned me back into the chair. My interpreter explained to me that the barber was going to shave the hair on the back of my neck. I agreed, but instructed the interpreter to ask the barber to put in a new blade—I did not want to risk disease or infection from a pre-used razor. The barber smiled and nodded his head in agreement.
Sitting upright in the blue upholstered chair, I noticed in the mirror’s reflection a small black-and-white television mounted on a wall bracket. On the battlefield of the Iraq war, the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtadā al-Sadr was giving a television interview to Al Jazeera. The cleric, dressed in a black tunic and black turban, seemed serious as he spoke into the microphone.
I asked my interpreter what al-Sadr was saying. Choosing his words carefully, my Libyan interpreter composed himself and said the cleric had just issued a holy fatwa (ruling) for all Muslims to kill Americans.
I was sensitive to the recently revealed atrocities against the Iraqi prisoners of war at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, perpetrated by a U.S. military unit, and how these despicable acts deflated, for a time, any diplomatic high ground and governmental integrity we had hoped to achieve in Libya. America was known for ethical treatment of prisoners of war. Now, a handful of rogue military police and officers had eroded the professionalism America stood for.
Then my barber lowered his straight razor to the back of my neck. No longer relaxed, beads of sweat formed on my forehead. I thought of the gruesome acts of the monster Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, as I grew more wary of the razor scraping the nape of my neck.
After minutes that felt like a lifetime, the barber removed the lap drape and eagerly awaited payment.
Physically and mentally exhausted, the 20 minutes I spent in the barber’s chair had taken its toll. I smiled, paid, and thanked the barber. I sat quietly during the ride back to the hotel and thought how my barber and I must have been the two happiest people in Tripoli that day—he was delighted with my generous tip and I was grateful to have survived al-Sadr’s fatwa.
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