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. bongdongs says:

    Interestingly “Nai’s” all over Maharashtra (where in grew up) are still mainly Muslims from UP. I think they mostly come from the area near Azamgarh. I have seen this all over in Bombay, Pune, Aurangabad and Nagpur. All with the same framed Kuranic calligraphy in gold on green on the wall!

    All my childhood I got my haircuts from Salim-mian of “Naushad Hair Cutting Salon” and we listened to old-time movie music on the radio and ogled bollywood women in “Stardust” while waiting our turn.

  2. Adnan Ahmad says:

    it’s funny that you mention those walking massage specialists. In that same visit I had a hair massage on the clifton beach past midnight with cilantro oil! It was amazing to see thouands of people at the beach at that hour on a weekday! This was quite unlike the past. Surreal experience.

  3. Mike_F says:

    interesting. barber shops world over are places of shop talk. even here in the US. anyone seen the movies Barbershop and Barbershop-2

  4. Farrukh says:

    Barber coming to one’s home was a common practice, still there but less, in most citities, especially smaller ones. I remember when I was in school there was a bully who used to make fun of me and another kid because we said we had barbers come to our house and the bully thought he was superior becasue he went to a fancy saloon. Anyhow, the whole country was making fun of this bully when laughing at Omar Sharif and the whole ‘burger kid’ crowd. I wonder where the bully is now?

  5. Bilal Zuberi says:

    Sattar: you might be surprised how many places inside Karachi still have barbers coming around to do the haircuts. Maybe its a tradition that disappears fast once you cross the famous clifton bridge.

    I assume you are familar with the massage guys who walk the streets at night and announce their arrival by shaking their oil-filled bottles in the metal carrier. Some of them also tend to do haircuts at people’s homes, esp for kids.

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