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).

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

  1. MQ says:

    My experience with barbers in New York City (I have used 3 in the neighborhood) is that they are as chatty as their counterparts in Pakistan or elsewhere. Intriguingly, all three happen to be Russian-speaking emigrants from Uzbekistan. During a

  2. really enjoyed it Bilal, but wud only accept ur criticim of american barbers if you do post a pic of your current hair…:-)

    as for pakistani barbers, we have the more pro types too but there u wud need a pawwa to choose your fav. barber.

    i remember once in some bedford bus in khi, there was a mobile barber who was giving haircut in the bus! the customer had to hold the mirror himself while the barber times his strokes on bumpy rides….

  3. Aqil Sajjad says:

    A nice post which reminds me of the naai’s back home.

    On a tangent, does anyone know the background behind the saying “tu banda hai keh nai hai?” I think it’s really funny, though it doesn’t make much sense. I mean naai banda nahin hota kia?

  4. shahid says:

    Kiya yaad kra diya zalim
    America main bal katwana, yaar kia experience ha. I am in Houston and I go to a barber TONY every week. The problem with Tony is that he employees a couple of Vietnamese lady barbers. All I can do is to tell the lady “just shape up my hair” or “don’t cut too small” and there she goes. Probably she forgets don’t and everytime I land at 5 cm hair cut which I terribly distaste. This is going on for a couple of months.
    It reminds me of my barber in Pakistan “Pervaiz” I used to give him 100 Rs. he would give me a hair cut, champi, offering me tea and a cigarette. woh kiya din the. Here it takes 5 minutes for an hair cut and there you go paying 12 $ plus 5 $ tip. ALLAH TERA MEHARBAN.

  5. Tina says:

    Bilal–there are plenty of one-person little hair salons in the States. Maybe you just need to devote some time to finding one that suits you. People go to the big places with multiple workers for convenience and low cost.

    One thing to remember about hairdressers in the States is that they have all been to the appropriate trade school and are unlikely to engage in the unprofessional behavior people have mentioned on this thread, like being “rough on your head” if they disagree with your views–good grief…..

    It seems like people can wax nostalgic about anything.

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