Living by the sea, Beirutis look up towards the stars. The triviality of life, though, is inevitable in such a big city. Here, the days are filled up with walking the same streets, while everyday chores are linked to the Levantine enjoyment in speaking and rituals such as drinking coffee and shaving. Soaps smelling like musk and amber, brushes made of badger hair, razors with mother-of-pearl handles, and steamed towels are all part of that ritual. Movements repeated thousands of times are followed by stories that are unique even when repeated. And as the proper use of the razor is a skill acquired over years, in Beirut the gift of storytelling is inherited, conveyed from one generation to another, brushed up and nourished. Perhaps, more than anywhere else, this happens in the barbershops of Beirut.
Barbershops are an indispensable part of life here; a beard is obligatory and it has various shapes. Once a man enters one, a Beiruti from the neighbourhood or a traveller who has not shaved for days will discover a miniscule, magical world of fragrances. Through the clicking of scissors and the sandpaper sound of the razor, interesting stories will come to you: stories about the present and about daily events, stories of those still to come, and of those from the distant past.
Farouk’s barbershop on the Koraytem hill, right above the main street, Hamra, is one of hundreds that are similar. It is nonetheless particular, for it is a true museum of music, film, and artwork. On a wooden balcony shaped like a captain’s bridge, Arabian lutes, a violin, a Spanish guitar, and a qanun from Iran are hung. On the wall there are many album covers, posters of Egyptian comedies, and movies with Omar Sharif in the leading role. And the old barber himself reminds one of the famous actor, whose family originates from the Lebanese city of Zahle, under the high mountains in Beqaa valley.
“Come in for a shave. With a smooth face, your day will go easier,” said Farouk, after noticing my curious look from the other side of the glass. He stepped out from the shop, foggy from essential oils, as a good genie emerges from a magic lamp.
It has been a year since then. In August, sultry days begin in Beirut; the shirt glues to the body and one is short of breath. Farouk poured us water from a copper ibrik, and then, from porcelain cups, coffee with ground cardamom in it.
“I know that foreigners often do not like this spice; it may taste too pungent, too bitter. But it is only a matter of habit: once you start drinking coffee made this way, you will feel the real taste. That is an old spice, originating from the gardens of Babylon, it gives a special aroma to the coffee you drink and to the story that is told.”
Farouk never rushes when he talks. He leaves some time before the story begins, as a musician tuning his instrument and preparing his hands and voice.
“Each of us does what he is not meant for,” said Farouk, while he was shaping my beard in the Arabic style, “I shave and cut hair, but I am a singer, better than the Egyptian, Abdul Halim Hafez. They call him ‘Prince of the Arabic song,’ ‘Nightingale of the Orient.’ He started singing in Cairo sometime in the sixties with his velvet voice and by that time I was already singing in restaurants by the sea in Beirut. I looked better than Halim, sang better than him, but the world does not need two voices that sound the same. Besides, even now at the age of seventy, I look the same, even better than Omar Sharif, but the film industry does not need the same appearance, with such a moustache, strong eyebrows, and a gap-toothed smile . . . ” Farouk is showing me his wristwatch with the silver strap and white lug. In the middle of it there is an inscription: “Omar Sharif – Paris.”
Farouk is shaving and speaking, and the customers know well that in his barbershop time stems from the rhythm of his hands. Some of them have already heard his stories about the musicians of Beirut, lute and guitar virtuosos. Others are listening to them for the first time, waiting for the moment when Farouk will start singing. In the warm midday, he slowly closes his eyes and leans his head backwards, trying to find the right first tone and waiting for the inspiration to come; meanwhile, the musicians around him are playing introductory lines on the lute and the guitar. Arpeggios on one instrument gradually melt into chord progressions on another, as they play songs by the first lady of Lebanese music—Fayrouz, and those of the Egyptian composer Abdul Wahab.
“He is the greatest composer of the Arabic world,” says Farouk. Not leaving me any time for a question, he puts a cloth around my neck, takes the brush and puts some soap on my face. The old tape recorder is playing the instrumental composition “Hayati”—“Life,” performed by the Milan Symphony Orchestra. The rhythm depicts the desert sun as the slow movements of the caravan accelerate to a canter through an African wasteland. Some of the melodies remind me of Balkan ones.
The barber and I are talking about the documentary Whose song is this? The documentary describes the song of a dark-haired girl that travelled through the countries of the Balkans and the Orient, and everywhere they claim the song to be theirs. Farouk is listening and while his moustache is spreading in a smile, he says that every song originates in Lebanon.
In his youth, Farouk travelled around the world. On the Ivory Coast he worked at his uncle’s shoe factory, fell ill with malaria and recovered, and made some French expressions forever his own.
“Lebanese are like birds,” he says, and I am trying to remember where I have already heard that line, about the Lebanese who leave their homeland forever and settle somewhere far away.
In America, during the several years he spent in Brooklyn, he learned English and how to play a guitar with metal strings, but decided not to stay in the country, where people drink coffee without sitting down. In Lebanon’s golden years he earned enough money to open his own barbershop. On a table in his shop there is a photograph. Farouk stands in front of the newly opened shop, under the shop sign in Arabic and in English, in a double-breasted suit. (In Beirut there are still many tailors; suits are bespoke rather than bought ready-made.) In the picture, leaning with one hand on his hip, the young Farouk is smiling contentedly looking straight at the photographer. Over the years, the black and white picture has become sepia, while the city of Beirut, as the decades went by, changed its physiognomy: rebuilt in times of peace, and destroyed in times of war.
The barbershop kept on working all the time, although the conversation and the music would be interrupted by the news of bad events, evictions, and unresolved disputes from the past. And as in the stories that Ivo Andrić wrote about happenings in a Bosnian casbah, in Farouk’s barbershop stories arrive always before the events, through various interpretations of things still about to happen.
“Just as each lute is always tuned differently, so in our city everybody has his own tuning,” says Farouk, “but I think that Beirutis and all Lebanese are tired of war; they desire, like before, music and joy. And with a proper shave, all is easier. Naiman!”
This term, used after someone gets a clean shave, Beirutis says is untranslatable. Knowing them already, as well as the barbershops, it seems to me that its meaning embraces all that shaving stands for here: the ritual of the act, the joy of talking, and the pleasure of stories listened to and told.
That August day, my son and I started to discover Beirut together. The boy was peaceful as I held him on my lap, while Farouk sang Wahab’s songs. This part of town, with its narrow streets, reminds me of the images of the neighbourhood of Dorćol in Belgrade, years ago. At other moments, however, this area reminded me of Manhattan, because of the modern banks and employees who work on Apple computers.
“Thank you for recognising that I look like Omar. We are the same, only I do not play bridge as he did,” said Farouk. After having discovered a new, magical world, I went on my way, from street to street, quarter to quarter, through Beirut and its barbershops.
Across the street from the Saudi Embassy, I met a barber whose real name nobody knows, only known as Mike. He stopped shaving the shop’s customers a long time ago; the young apprentices he employs do the work. He only walks in front of the shop, waiting for new customers, looking for an ear ready to hear his stories. He knows every detail from the history of the Manara neighbourhood, so named because of the lighthouse that still stands amongst all the high buildings built in recent years, and where in the past stood small houses with walls covered in ivy.
Mike is different from Farouk. He does not wait for the story to take off, for coffee to be finished, or for the foam to be put on the face. Like a singer ready to go on the stage, he starts telling his stories as soon as one enters his barbershop:
“I shaved all those who passed through Beirut, actors and film makers, ambassadors and presidents, even the Saudi king Faisal,” the barber spoke slowly, almost whispering, as if he was telling me a confidential piece of news and looking for an answer on my face. He continued:
“Let me tell you how it happened. Sometime in the seventies, he arrived incognito in Beirut. I was working, like every day, and the barbershop was full of customers. Suddenly, two men in dark suits entered and told me: ‘You are needed to shave someone very important. You can name your price, the only thing that matters is that you shave him well; he knows how to tip. Do not ask who he is, he is residing at the Riviera Hotel. He has heard that you are the best barber in Beirut.’”
Mike put on his best suit and tie, and sat in the black limousine with a flag next to the window.
The king, already in the seventh decade of his life, was staying in the penthouse suite. When he entered, Mike smelled the aroma of dates and other exotic fruit and heard the sound of the oud, the Arabic lute. The king was lying on a sofa, tired after a long day, but he started talking to Mike right away, as if to an old friend. He was watching a western film with Yul Brynner and, line by line, he was saying the lines aloud with the actor as they occurred. Mike was silently listening to the king, preparing himself to answer swiftly, once asked.
In the end, the king asked: “Tell me, do you like westerns?”
The young barber swallowed hard and started thinking as quickly as he could, trying to find in his mind which western films he had seen. Beirut cinemas screened mostly love films, romances with beautiful blonde women, big dance balls, and tropical trips.
“I like horses,” he briefly replied to the king.
Faisal heard the reply and asked for a hookah. He started talking about the deserts of Arabia and the farms of thoroughbred horses. He also said that everyone could own a donkey, but not a horse. The king mentioned the intrigues at the royal court; he said that he knew that there are a lot of enemies around him and others who wish him evil.
Mike paused. “But not everything should be said, here, at the barbershop.” He continued.
“Do you know to shave well?” the king eventually asked Mike, and gave a quick glance to his assistants who immediately helped him get up.
As troubadours who travel from place to place know where to stop a story that they would continue in a different square, in front of another audience, so Mike the barber knows when to pause.
“What happened in the end?” I asked, and he, solemnly as an actor on the stage, says that he did not say anything to the king. He simply took the shaving soap, softened it a bit with some warm water, and swirled the brush into it. When the king sat down, Mike put the cloth around him and started shaving. “A face is a face, even if it belongs to a king. And a razor is a razor. The most important thing is to make a good foam and let it rest for a while on the face before moving the razor . . . ”
In subsequent years, Mike shaved ambassadors and journalists who came to Beirut during the long-lasting war. He claims to have shaven Samir Kassir, the writer of a long history of Beirut, who was assassinated by a car bomb. This was the same year in which a bomb killed the then Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose photo Mike still keeps in his shop.
“As for Faisal’s horses,” Mike tells me later as he continues his story, “they ran well the following day and won several trophies.” From the king, the barber got a generous tip and a videotape of a Yul Brynner movie. He was also offered a well-paid job to work as a barber at the royal court in Riyadh; however, he politely refused. He thanked the king for his offer saying that he could not leave Beirut. In 1975, the king’s fears became true: he was assassinated in Riyadh. And soon after, in Lebanon, a long and exhausting war began, and its happenings would be reflected in the life of the barbershop, as stains on a litmus paper.
Mike is telling me about the Holiday Inn hotel. Its grey building full of holes of bullets and shrapnel still stands, and its owner, the Kuwaiti emir, refuses to sell it or renovate it. Until recently, even the hotel logo was there, before this negative advertisement was finally removed. On the top floor there used to be a bar, a prestigious meeting place of the Beirut elite and the business aristocracy from the Gulf. There, where a long time ago cocktails were drunk, thin branches and weed grow. Mike is showing me a spoon from the hotel, given to him by a British journalist.
“In peace and in wartime, beards continue to grow and a barbershop works; this is why I wanted my sons to continue this job, but they do other work.” Mike is concluding his story while I am going out of the shop to Bliss Street, where a tram used to run. I smell the Mediterranean morning.
In Farouk’s barbershop I heard that the Lebanese believe everyone’s destiny is already written in God’s calendar.
“In the book of my destiny it is written that I should become a barber, and the best singer among barbers and the best barber among singers. Still, I could have been the one to hug Barbra Streisand, Nastassja Kinski, Julie Christie.” Farouk told me that several days ago he saw an interview of Omar Sharif: they are showing him the love scenes from his films and he says that he does not want to see them as melancholy and nostalgia for his youth will overwhelm him.
From stories about films and music, Farouk switches to telling me about his sons. One is a lawyer, the second one is an army officer, and the third one is an informatics engineer. He hopes he will become a grandfather soon; he likes to take my four-month-old daughter, born in Beirut, in his arms and sing her a lullaby—a Fayrouz song in which he has inserted her name. She is watching the world around her and the barbershop with her dark blue eyes—it is a little boutique of secrets.
Somewhere in the north of the country, Farouk bought a long snakeskin from a Syrian merchant, although he has no idea what he will use this colourful ornament for. Its brown nuances are glittering and appear oily. If you pass over it with a forger nail, it gets crispy, and needs to be covered by a special balm or polish. Such are the stories from the Beirut barbershops. They are told en passant, but they are full of nuances, and they remain in the memory rolled in the cape of friendship, like inserts from films and dialogues.
This summer I am relaxing on the slopes of mount Feraya, where Beirutis escape from the heat of the city. One day, when my son’s first beard grows, I will show him how to use a razor, just as my father taught me. One day, all of this will be memory. There will be no Farouk or any of the other barbers of Beirut that I have met and with whom I have spoken. Perhaps one day my son will come back to Beirut and go to be shaved by another maestro barber. These will be new times and new barbers. But will they have inherited from the old ones, in addition to the admirable skill of shaving, the noble art of storytelling?
Beirut, July 2015