The Barber of Qazvin


QAZVIN, IRAN — While loading up the Vespa for the ride to Tehran, I saw that the barber shop in the courtyard was open early. Regular readers of this blog might have detected that I’m a sucker for the old-timey shave-and-a-haircut, and that morning I was feeling especially deserving of the royal treatment. Plus, I looked like hell — there was four or five days’ growth going, and my neck was a scraggly mess. I decided to go for it, and strode into the shop.

It was already doing a brisk business, with both barbers steadily working on their first cuts of the day. I cheerfully said salaam to both of them, thinking that it’s always a good policy to be on the good side of somebody who’s about to take a straight razor to your neck. I then made my request clear by rubbing my hand on my chin and neck. They told me to take a seat, which I did, and I picked up the daily tabloid and pretended to read the Persian-language sports scores. One of the barbers then hollered something in the general direction of the back room.

A very old man waddled out of that back room. He was thin and frail and hunched with age, and by all appearances he was going to be shaving me that morning. He motioned towards a third, empty barber’s chair, and I walked over and strapped myself in. From my half-reclined position, I watched him in the mirror as he installed a new blade in his straight razor, which he eventually managed after a few minutes of struggle. He then stared at it in his hand for a disconcertingly long time, as though he’d never seen one before. More and more it looked to me like he’d performed his last shave sometime back when the Shah of Iran was still in charge.

He filled a bowl with water from a copper teakettle, after which he added some sort of granulated white substance from a saltshaker. In went the shaving brush and he lathered it up, and then he lathered me up in the most half-assed way possible. Much of my beard ended up with no kind of lubrication at all. That job half-done, he picked up his razor, put his five fingertips on my head and turned it, and examined my cheek through rheumy eyes. My eyes widened: the blade, mere inches from my face, was twitching. The barber exhibited all the signs of Parkinson’s disease.

He began with long, deliberate swipes, some of them connecting with whiskers, some not. His hands fluttered all over my face, pinching and squeezing to bunch up the skin and get a better angle, but there was no point to all the theatrics. He worked that razor like kids do when breaking into daddy’s medicine cabinet: he merely pretended to shave, simply wiping the lather off.

He tired of working on my cheeks, and went for the neck next. He went against the grain the whole way, this time angling the blade in such a way to actually shave the hairs. And then, I sharply drew in my breath with the first cut. It was a deep one. I groaned and stiffened, but eventually relaxed. It happens, I guess. But then, it happened again. And again, the last one being a long vertical swipe that traced the path of my jugular. I looked downwards towards the mirror and could see rivulets of blood working their way down. This was just too much, and when he went to clean off his razor, I announced “Whelp, that’s it for me!” and tried to stand up. He couldn’t understand what I said, of course, and presumed that I thought the shave was over. He pushed me back down in the chair, and graciously said something in Persian that I’m sure meant “I’m not done yet.” Oh God, I thought. Please make it stop.

He still had the tricky area around my mouth to do. The lather by now was a thin film of dried soap residue, and provided no lubrication at all. He started with fast little jabs around my lower lip, and I felt white bolts of pain as the nicks came. Next he pinched my nose, lifted it roughly, and gave the area between it and my upper lip the same treatment. As the razor whiffled its way around the very base of my nostrils, making endless little cuts there too, I clutched the arm rests, arched my back, and tried, unsuccessfully, to stifle my grunts and moans. A faraway observer would probably have guessed that my barber was a particularly sadistic dentist giving me a needlessly invasive root canal.

When his bladework came to a merciful end, there was no rinse of the face — just a quick wipe with a towel and then a liberal application of aftershave. It burned with the intensity of a thousand suns, and it was hard not to scream. After the pain subsided, I looked at my face in the mirror: every formerly bearded area was some shade of red, and at least a dozen cuts and scrapes and slices were visible at a glance. A few were still bleeding. Here and there among the carnage were patches of untouched five-day growth. I looked at the barber, then at the crime scene that was my face, and then back at him, and could see he was a kindly old man who was proud of the great job he’d done. Not wanting to hurt his feelings, I paid my two bucks, shook his hand, and got the hell out of there.

And that was my morning with the barber of Qazvin. Next stop: Tehran!


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