Expat men rave about the haircuts they get in Turkey. Coming from the bare bones barbers back home, where they are quickly shorn like sheep and sent on their merry way, assembly-line style, the heightened level of attention and care donned on them by the Turkish barbers must seem like a dream. The abundance of these “berbers” and “kuafors” in Istanbul, along with the fact that they are rarely empty, shows what an important role these barbers play… and how much care Turkish men put into their grooming.
The thing that sets aside these barbers, is that they do not simply buzz and go. They provide a full array of services as the standard cut. They snip and buzz, they shave, they trim protruding nose hairs, singe off the tufts poking from gentlemen’s ears, and massage away the stress from their scalps. Men come out looking tidy and sharp. These parlors are as soaked in nostalgia as the Q-tips used to burn ear hair are soaked in alcohol, and are a place for men to be men in a country, where so many such spaces exist.
Getting a haircut as a woman is always a toss-up, even back home… especially if one’s hair isn’t straight. I got my haircut right before coming to Turkey, so that I wouldn’t have to think about it for a while, and went to the salon that my mom frequents back in Chicago. Sitting in the comfy chair, as the stylist carefully assessed my curls and the way they fell, as she trimmed away with a multitude of specialized instruments, we filled each other in on the changes in our lives. She seemed enthusiastic, when I told her I would be moving to Istanbul, and understanding, when I expressed concern about being able to find a good stylist there. “Oh, wow. You’ll have to let me know how that goes,” she said, a twinge of skepticism in her voice.
It was with this same type of skepticism topped with a large dollop of nerves, that I entered the Elif Hair Care Center, a few steps up the street from our school-provided housing. It was wet and grey outside and part of me wanted to sink into the comforts of a salon- to let myself be pampered. When I walked in, the smell of stale cigarettes and hair care products filled my nostrils.
I looked in the direction of the one customer sitting in the barber’s chair and recognized one of my colleagues. Her head was covered in aluminum foil, since she was getting highlights, and the stylist continued to paint on the hair dye and wrap each strand in foil.
“He speaks English!” she said in an excited squeal about the stylist. “He used to work in Bodrum, so he’s got to be good,” she added, alluding to wealthy tourists, who vacation in that town.
Hearing that I would be able to communicate with him did make me feel better and I started to ease into the large leather chair, gratefully accepting the çay, the young woman working there handed me.
I waited for the stylist to finish my colleague’s hair, while we caught up on our adventures since moving to Istanbul. An hour later, it was my turn on the chopping block. “I would like it a little bit shorter,” I said, “And, I want to keep it curly… I don’t like to blow dry it.”
“Ok, ok, no problem,” he said and went to work. He pulled out a solitary tool- a hair thinner- and grabbing chunks of my hair at a time, he began to hack away forcefully. I had an instant image of a man clearing the bush with a machete, and as I saw large chunks of my hair falling on my arm and to the floor, I was filled with panic.
“I don’t want it short,” I reminded the stylist.
“No, sweetie, this isn’t short,” he said, raising his voice to a scold.
We discussed the length a bit more, going around and around in circles. I pleaded with him not to cut it too short, and he countered that he what I thought was short, wasn’t. It was a pointless discussion, since half of my hair was strewn about the salon floor already.
“It’s cute!” my colleague chimed in encouragingly, when she saw the look of doubt on my face.
The stylist finished by squeezing out mounds of styling cream into his hands, making them disappear into my hair like egg whites into cake batter. “This is for volume, volume,” he said as if he were teaching me a new word. He leaned in closer and scrunched up my hair, until it began to look like it was ready to put on tap shoes and sing a lively rendition of “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” I patted down the cumulus cloud that my hair had become.
“You’ll see. In two weeks, you’ll love it,” sneered the stylist, dismissing my dubious stare in the mirror.
I paid the 30 TL, said my goodbyes, and was off with my new gelled up head of curls bouncing along behind me. My first haircut in Turkey. “Turkish stylists,” tsked a friend at work, “Always think they know what you want better than you…”
The stylist was a bit domineering, although, I have to admit… it’s been about 2 weeks since I got it cut, and he was right. It’s grown in a bit, and with a little less volume and a little less gel, I do like it. Next time, it would be nice to get a little more pampering, like the men do here.