Barbers of Muscat : Late Modernity’s Last Stand

Pic1: The Egyptian Salon
Pic2: Barber from Cairo
Pic3: My Childhood Barber Uncle

Pic4: The Malayali Barber Shop Rate Card

A lot of things are changing around us; technology, people, nature of work catalysing ‘progress’ the world over. Traditional professions are relegated to the margins of media discourses. These professions are ought to be outsourced or automated. One profession which will be probably the last to taken over by robots will the good old Barber, or the updated nomenclature of ‘hair stylist’. People like to look good, self image is vital. 

Barber shops in Muscat from the traditional commercial centre of Honda Road, Ruwi where my childhood barber uncle from Chittagong, Bangladesh still cuts hair as if time has stood still over the past twenty one years. He talks about the state of the Hindu community in his part of world which is deeply persecuted. The politics of South Asia trickles down in to everyday migrant experiences. He is very interested about life in India especially Calcutta, where many of his relatives have moved across the border. The operative language of the street is Bengali, and I hardly speak in any other language other than my mother tongue. Malayalam and Gujarati has been substituted with the lingo of India’s eastern neighbor. Barber Uncle is more a player coach now a days with his nephews running the show, as he takes extended trips to Bangladesh as he is growing older. The barber community in Bangladesh is a preserve of the Hindus, he had informed me once. A particular cultural nuance, which I would like to explore deeper. Uncle, charges me a pittance for a shave. 

The good old Malayali Barber however puts up a good fight. The decor in the saloon, is traditional with silos and a partition which makes the view from outside in opaque. The television is tuned to Asianet Movies where the Tamil version of Akshay Kumar’s Holiday with Superstar Vijay and Vidyut Jamwal is playing. The not so young man from Palakkad, does a neat job with a shave. In the 1990’s, the entire community of barbers were from Kerala. 

Another section of the barber community are from Al Misr/Egypt and Turkey. These places are more plush, and do not have the feel of economic decline which plagues these Indian/Bangladeshi run saloons. Saloons is a term, used in Indian English in contrast to the ‘Salon’ which has connotations of luxury rather than bare functionality. 

A team of four barbers from Cairo run this proud Egyptian Salon, with recitations from The Holy Book, running on loop, indicating the Holy Month of Ramadan, a time of celebration of faith. The time was after Iftar, the salon was opened when I came in. Islam, the hair stylist treated me with style with a facial, shave, haircut and ear wax. This metrosexual package cost me a grand total of 6 Rials, about 20 USD. It’s a fraction, of what I pay at Tony and Guy at South Delhi. 

Barbers are an erudite lot regarding the pulse of society, and make for very informative commentators.