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. Mus says:

    Actually there is no real connection between a barber(nayee) and a degchee(cook).I say this because the term nayee is actually reserved for a degchee(cook).It could be colloquial or slang but the term comes from India.Other than that I don’t see a single person first doing the hair cut then taking the time off to cook a deg.

    The vagaries of time and the mad race for money(and even more money)have rendered cooking degs in Pakistan a fading tradition.Gone are the days when you’d get to eat delicious dishes for free attending a wedding in your mohallah.
    Those of us who are in US,would know how much does one sacrifice coming here.While we gain something we also lose something.I for one deeply miss taking a walk down the street corner in the hope of bumping into a buddy and have a chat or something.

  2. Adil Najam says:

    I do not know of all the details, but I do know that historically a Naii was much more than just a barber. He used to be also the improvisational village surgeon (after all, he had the ustara!!!). He would be the person to perform the circumcision (am I right on this, folks???). There was also this thing about the being called to cook the shaadi ki deg… so the naii as cook (which I never really understood); rather as ceremonial chef! And, of course, the naii as the psychiatrist… the guy you could talk to, and who would list, maybe even give advice.

    Like the US TV show Cheers the naii ki dukaan was where “everyone knew your name!

    P.S. Mus, on Anwar Iqbal. I do not think there is an archive of the Muslim ‘City Diaries’. I also wish thee were. I used to write a fair number of those myself. Anwar has been doing some very powerful creative writing in addition to journalism over the last few years and that (including his poems) is widely available on the Internet. I also have a very powerful historical piece from him which I hope to post on the appropriate date. I did send him an email about your earlier comment and if I hear back about an archive I will let you know.

  3. Mus says:

    About Anwar Iqbal…..Adil…..I hope he is the same who used to post his articles on page3 of the The Muslim(maybe Capital Diary).Is there any way I can get to read his archives? I think The Muslim has no archives left.Does Anwar Iqbal keep his record of articles?I am sure if we can find “Where have all the barbers gone” a lot of us would love it.

  4. Mus says:

    ‘Nayees’in Pakistan have known be sticking to their trades for long longtimes as they seem to enjoy it as well as feel content with whatever income they make out of it.
    There is one who runs his shop inside old haathi gate in saddar,Rawalpindi who has been doing it for 68 years.My dad first saw him haircutting the British troops in pre-partioned India and he was still doing it last year.
    They are one of those of which one must not change too often like doctors and teachers.The moment you enter their territory they would know it for sure what you want and how much hair would you like them to take off.
    I used to enjoy going to the barbers but over the years I have seen a lot of my hair gone away from the top so every visit to the shop would remind of the sad and bitter fact about balding.I would rather like to see all of my hair turn grey rather than go bald.

  5. ayesha says:

    just an observation: this is one aspect of our society that only the men get to experience. a visit to the parlour can never be equated to this.

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