Naai: Much More Than a Haircut

Posted on June 3, 2008
Filed Under >Bilal Zuberi, Society
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Karachi hair cut

Bilal Zuberi

I now live in Boston, USA and among the personal things I simply have to find time for (besides eating and doing my laundry) is getting a haircut every few weeks or so. I got a haircut today and despite paying many times more than what I would typically pay back home in Pakistan, I came back disappointed.

The whole experience was a disappointment – no personal connection, no conversation with anybody else at the shop, and a blank stare at a wide mirror is all I got for my 45 minutes worth.

And that reminded me so much of my local hajjam or naai (barber) from Karachi. Actually I remember two barbers from Karachi. One we called Khalifa (my dad once told me all hajjams in the Urdu speaking parts of India were called Khalifas) and he used to come to our house for a mass hair-trimming every month or so.

We would put a chair out in the garage, all the boys and men in the house would practically line up, and he would get to work with his scissors and a simple razor. He would leave a few hours later with a decent chunk of change in his pocket, and a warm feeling in the hearts of all those who interacted with him. He was also good at giving massages, but that required a special appointment. Not to forget, he was also the master called for special occasions, such as the first hair-shaving of a newborn.

And then I grew up and it somehow became embarrassing to be sitting in the house garage and getting a haircut. So I graduated to a local hair ‘salon’ (somehow that word is usually misspelled on entrances to hairdressers), and found a place I still love to go to when I can.

A small shop, no larger than 10 ft x 20 ft with one side plastered with mirrors, two black fake leather upholstered salon chairs (with the fancy hydraulic lift I so loved being on), and a bench on the other side for those not getting a haircut to wait. He also had a radio that was usually set to news or Islamic recordings. This was among the better of three choices in my neighborhood. The other two were dangerously close to street-side chicken meat stores (if you live in Karachi you would know exactly what I am talking about), and in the absence of air conditioning the smell was a bit too much to bear for an extended period of time.

Bashir, who worked at this particular place for decades it seems, always offered chai as though he had several servants running around the shop helping him. The reality was that if you did say yes, either he would have to leave himself in the middle of a haircut, or would have the young boys playing cricket outside do him a favor and place an order with the nearby canteen. Such was the quality of his service.

Karachi hair cut style naai barber

The inside of his little workplace was decorated with many caligraphed and framed verses from the Quran, and ofcourse posters of Asian men (probably from Singapore) wth awesome hair stylings. I tried fruitlessly for years to get him to make me look like one of the guys on the posters, but it never worked. I have some embarassing photographs of myself from those days.

The naai’s shop (hajjam, khalifa or the barber) was such a cool place to go to, especially on the weekends. People would sit there and chat about topics that were both stimulating and at the same time mundane (kind of what we do on this blog!).

The chai would arrive and the conversations only seemed to get louder despite the distraction caused by sipping of the tea. Politics was always a favorite topic, not just national and international geopolitics featured in newspaper headlines, but all the way down to the local feuds between the shop owners and mosque Imams. The barber’s job seemed to include listening to everyone and politely agreeing with the eldest person in his shop.

This may be a phenomena particular to Karachi but the barbershop was somehow also where local political movers and shakers, like the mohalla political activists, would meet regular folk and gather support for the next demonstration or rally. It was simply the place to be and to be known at.

I was in Karachi again a few weeks ago and was thrilled to go back to Bashir’s salon. He was not there but his son seemed to have taken over the shop. You see him in the first photo here. I miss Bashir, and his comments such as “you had better hair before you started using fancy western shampoos“.

But the experience at his shop remains a fulfilling one. I went there several times in the few weeks I was there, sometimes literally just to relax and have a moment to reflect, and at other times just to hear what others around me were talking about. If you are ever in Karachi, try and make a visit to a barbershop, even if you don’t need a haircut. In an otherwise super busy mega-city, the barber shop still remains a place of comfort and quaintness.

(This is a re-post; was originally posted at ATP on August 16, 2006).

50 responses to “Naai: Much More Than a Haircut”

  1. Kinza says:

    What an amazing and enjoyable informative read, your contribution in respect of information appreciable. Keep up the good work !

    Skin specialist in Karachi

  2. Hi any one can send me pictures of latest haircuts of boys in Pakistan. Plz

  3. ahsan says:

    Now we have hair stylits in big cities. A friend of mine went to Prince situated in mini market , Lahore. He was asked to seek an appointment. On the given day, while waiting for his turn, my friend asked Prince for an ” akhbaar”. ” OHH Sir, Yeah Nai Ki dukan nahi hai jo akhbar ho gaa… sirf magzine hain hamaray pass”..But some guys are slow learners ( and that too the hard way). ” Yaar yeah taail kee malish bhee kar dena”. requested my friend. ” Sir aap meri bar bar insult kar rahay hain.. aap ko kaha hai yeah naai ki dukan nahi hai..hamaray pass masks or creams haain”.. And it did not end here. The Prince insisted on a new hair style for which he listened to six new indian tracks to get into “creative artist mood”

  4. Ayaz K. says:

    My experience with the Barber Shops in the U.S. is a little different.

    At first, I also kept so quiet and gaped at the mirror like a statue because I was surrounded by foreigners and even a slight move of mine (that’s what I thought first) would make them alert and they will start looking at me. Their penetrating eyes would turn me into a perforated being and I would drop on the floor like a log but again it was just a stupid thought which I scratched off my mind and started trying to make this place more comfortable for both parties.

    Long story short, the next time I was there, I looked around..scanned and found out that most of those barbers were from other countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines and hardly a few from America.

    I started talking to the lady (I don’t have any preference as long as I get a good haircut), and when I heard her broken English I gained more confidence and had a long conversation about her job, her goals whole nine yard…she added her past experiences and gave me some valuable information and tips about what do you need to become a barber/hair-stylist — institute–duration– policies and I appreciated in retrun. Her name is Sonja (pronounced Sonia)
    and she is from Vietnam. Great person and no matter how many times to tell her to retouch the sideburns, back-hair, or the not leveled bangs would never frown or mumble– she says customers are our business and their satisfaction is our business.

    I have this innate habit of cracking jokes and always come up with creative humor which really eases up the tension, the alienated attitude and it elevates the comfort level also. It worked there as well.

    As a matter of fact, some of my wisecracks gave a good laugh to other customers waiting in the couches reading magazines or convincing their children to get a haircut which seemed very much reluctant to get one: and those jokes were meant for the lady who was giving me a haircut while giggling– but guess I was a bit loud.

    The problem with Pakistanis is that they want to hangout with their own kind and for which they look for a neighborhood where even the Barbers speak Urdu which is not ok. We leave our country to experience a new world but if you stick surrounded with other “Desis” don’t think you will learn anything — what I have noticed the moment you start speaking Urdu with other stranger Desis they would stop respecting and your value goes zero. Their attitude changes and they go with this “who cares” attitude. No matter where you go, speak English with other desis living abroad which will give both parties an opportunity to communicate in English and would be a great way to keep people at an arms length. Devon is the worst place to raise your children it is a Desi Ghetto in the heart of Chicago. As soon as you get a chance to move to a better place please do it — suburbs are better a bit expensive but the future of your children must come first.

  5. Aamer Javed says:

    Oh, I dont think I have ever been pleased after visiting a barber (I guess that is the nature of human beings) in the U.S.
    A couple of times that I have ‘tipped’ them, they screwed up next time, so I decided not to tip them because the service just sucks.
    There are two barber shops on Devon and Damen (in Chicago) -one paki lady and one greek lady – RIGHT next to each other. Employees on both sides try to call customers to their sore when they see that they are going to their competitive’s place. It is soo annoying. Specually from the Paki side, as soon as you get in the vicinity she smells your hair and tries to wave at you.
    There is also a popular barber on Devon named Ali. He is our family friend but he annoys the heck out of me more than anything. The three times I have been to his shop, he tried to ignore me so that someone else can cut my hair (as if i will not pay him if he cuts it). and by chance the 2 times he has cut my hair, he took 30 minutes because he spends time talking on phone while cutting and keeps talking to the waiting people and wave at people passing by.
    I have tried a couple of other places around Devon (non-Desi) and they have been decent.

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