Islamabad, April 9, 9:52 pm

Mal got a morning shave and a haircut in the hotel. I saw something more promising on the way to interview a general — a man cutting hair under a tree.


We looked for him the next day. He was not hard to find. In fact, there were several men cutting hair underneath trees in Islamabad. Our man's cousin was just across the street, also cutting hair.


Our man's name was Shah-ram. He charged about fifty cents for a haircut. He was unmarried and took a bus about one hour each day to get to this tree in a park in Islamabad. He commuted to his tree. It was a blackberry tree.

Shah-ram had put several nails in the tree to hang various implements, including a cracked shard of an old mirror which he could hold up behind your head. In the center of the tree about head high there was some kind of a drawing in plastic wrap, perhaps a religious figure of some kind, but the plastic was so old and weathered I could not make it out.

"Maybe it's the patron saint of barbers," Mal said.

The first thing I noticed was the hair on the ground. Shah-ram was evidently not in the habit of sweeping up regularly. And all the hair was black. There was a mix of old clumps of black hair, cigarette butts and blackberries from the tree, all mashed together in the dirt.

The chair was elevated on four bricks. I was not sure why. It looked unstable but didn't rock. Like so many things in Pakistan, it was cobbled together out of so many other things. Even the seat of the chair was strips of wood from somewhere else, as was a long ruler that led to a taped-up headrest in back. Only after the haircut I figured that the bricks were there so Shah-ram did not have to bend down.

There was no electric power so Shah-ram was limited in his choice of implements: scissors, squeeze clippers like a tiny hedge-cutter, and three combs — one green, one blue and one pink. They were large plastic combs, ancient and jammed not only with black hair, but with black gunk. I could only see the green one and the pink one, as Shah-ram was using the blue one on my head. I could only hope that it was cleaner than the other two, but I had no grounds for such an assumption.

Before combing, Shah-ram had sprayed my hair with water from a plastic container that once held window cleaner. He filled a tiny cup of water from a plastic container that once held motor oil. He dabbed the water with his fingers on the skin below my sideburns and picked up an ancient blue straight-edge. I stopped him and made him put in a new blade. He removed a blade from a paper wrapper, snapped it in half, and put it in the straight-edge before my eyes.

There was a semicircle of rocks around the tree. Something about getting your haircut is not only relaxing it is also sociable – maybe in every culture – even here when there was no barbershop, just a tree where men gathered.

Two or three sat down on the stones as Shah-ram began his work, talking with Happy, Shah-ram, and each other, or else just sitting quietly.

Five or 6 p.m. around here is a beautiful time of day; cool, when the leaves on the trees take on a dark green and everyone comes outside to walk, to go somewhere, or to watch a haircut. I looked at one of the old men sitting on a stone behind the barber. He was in a loose, light green shalwar kameez and had slipped off his black rubber shoes. The top half of his right big toe was bright red, a sore. Pakistanis are extraordinarily quick at taking off their shoes. It certainly seemed the right thing to do. The old man rubbed one foot absently with his hand and looked out on the street, watching people go by. Another man had brought a wicker mat, also, it seemed, just to come out and sit and watch life go by in the twilight.

Shah-ram worked his ancient clippers around my head and ears. He poked my left ear with one finger then darted the scissors inside, coming out quickly and raising both hands briefly as if to say he hadn't done anything, then thought about going for the nose but I stopped him. After the cut, there was a rolling thumping of the fingers of each of his hands on my skull, hard, pinky to thumb with both hands at the same time, then a vigorous palm massage that mussed up my hair and made me smile.

Mal went for a shave and could not stop Shah-ram from evening up his sideburns. After the shave he rubbed Mal's skin with a white stone that someone said was quartz, which was a mystery to me.

Shah-ram was in no rush, there were no more clients, and he gave Mal his full attention and full effort. He cleaned up the neck, and in the end Mal had to stop him from giving him a haircut. He had nothing, he was under a tree, but he was a professional. We paid him and left the park.


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