Dagh, My Turkish “Babar”

Andrew Madigan’s first rhino-tonsure leaves him wanting to fight a bear, or buy a purse.

Andrew Madigan

Dagh, My Turkish "Babar"
Andrew Madigan’s first rhino-tonsure leaves him wanting to fight a bear, or buy a purse.

Let me tell you a secret.

I’ve always wanted to pop into a barbershop and have a professional shave with a straight razor. There’s something quintessentially masculine about this. It might be the stack of car magazines, Dino & Frank on the hi-fi, the disembodied sketches of classic haircuts, the black combs swimming in blue barbicide. Or maybe it’s the threat of death by jugular slicing. Whatever it is, a man’s not truly a man until he gets shaved by a grizzled old guy with jailhouse tattoos and a pompadour, a guy named Duff, Mac or Sam.

Several months ago, while still living in the Emirates, I had a working holiday in Istanbul. I’d heard tantalizing stories about Turkish barbers. Maybe they were just urban legends, but maybe not. Maybe it was time for that shave.

I quickly stumbled on a faded red drying rack, covered in old rags, with a flimsy hand-written sign: BABAR. An arrow pointed into a cramped shop below a travel agency. I had to bow in order to make my way across the threshold; the doorway couldn’t have been more than 5’ tall.

Let me tell you another secret.

I’m scared to death of going to a barbershop and being professionally shaved with a straight razor.

In Turkey, a haircut is serious business. To start with, foreigners are not allowed to become barbers. The profession—the art—is a matter of national pride. It’s as if the haircut were a sacred religious act, and perhaps in a sense it is. A would-be tonsorial artist must apprentice himself for years to a master barber before he’s even allowed to think about snipping a lock of hair. When Dagh, my barber, explained this to me, I thought he was taking the job a bit too seriously, but at this point I didn’t know any better.

A typical men’s haircut takes two hours. Personally, I like my barber to cross the finish line before the 15-minute mark. “Are you going to perm my arm hair?” I joked. Dagh smiled thinly, like someone who thought the Mona Lisa was too emotive. “You will see,” he said.

The first hour, I was told, is generally spent lounging around while the others have their hair done. You know, a lot of gossip and whatnot. All very manly. I should have used this time to observe the goings-on, but I was too busy enjoying the complementary çay (Turkish tea) and fielding questions about where I was from, why I was in Turkey, and where I bought my shoes.

The haircut itself was short and sweet. The shave, I’m happy to say, took a bit longer.  Dagh was expert with what seemed like a machete-sized blade, leaving no cuts or bruises, and I barely shrieked. I may have winced a bit. Afterward, one of Dagh’s minions jumped in to give me a back, shoulder and neck massage. When Dagh returned, he had some sort of alcohol-based solvent on his hands, which he then used to “massage” my face. His fisty massage was slightly violent and quite unpleasant.

But the massage was more pleasant than when he began to pluck, with an ancient pair of tweezers, whatever incorrigible hairs remained on my freshly-shaved face. Still, I survived. Alhamdulillah.

Little did I know, the really scary stuff was yet to come. Dagh put on his biggest smile. What’s that? I said. Sorry, didn’t quite catch that? You want to…? You want to stick a burning cotton rag up my nose and lightly singe the hairs? Right. That’s a good one. A clean shave and a stand-up comedy routine. All for the equivalent of $5.

But Dagh didn’t appear to be joking. No, no, I’m good. Really. You’re going to do it anyway? It’s all part of the package? No, no need for that. Look, I’m fine up there, see? Hardly any hairs at all. No, seriously. You don’t mind? Not the point, actually. I mind. Immensely. This…may be…some sort of cultural misunderstanding, but I didn’t sign up for facial immolation. Where I come from, we don’t stick fire up our noses. Not most of us, anyway.

The last thing I remember was the smell of methylated spirits. Well, Dagh, you’ve gone and done it anyway, haven’t you? Oh my. Could you please remove?

Hm. That’s quite nice, actually. Who would’ve thought that shoving a fiery ball of (old t-shirt?) into my schnozz would’ve been so…exhilarating? And safe. Now I understood why you needed to train under a master to become a Turkish barber. The thought of a cotton torch being plunged noseward by an untrained barber is terrifying.

I felt strangely liberated. My first rhino-tonsure. I was invigorated, but pretty. Clean, but tough. I wanted to fight a bear, or buy a purse.

The session ended with a shampoo, blow dry, mousse and a rugged scalp massage. Various unguents and powders were applied to my face, neck and head. For once in my life I was completely masculine, and somehow totally emasculated.