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Letters from the Desert (2) I visit the Turkey Barber

Dear Barry:

Today I went to the Turkey Barber. It's not what you're thinking. I don't actually have a turkey. In fact, turkeys are quite rare in the Kingdom. There are chickens and roosters, many of them on the street right outside the school I teach in. But no turkeys, unless you count the frozen kind.

What there are in the Kingdom, along with chickens, are many western ex-patriots, and that means many a lonely person yearning for home. Thanksgiving and Christmas especially are holidays when missing home really hits hard. To the average Saudi businessman, however, these lonesome ex-pats represent a money-making opportunity. Large, frozen, grossly overpriced turkeys appear like magic in the Kingdom's supermarkets in the fall.

A medium sized frozen turkey costs about $50 Canadian. I bought one anyway, but having paid that much for my Christmas turkey, I wasn't about to add to the cost by giving the deceased bird a haircut. Which it didn't need anyway, having been thoroughly plucked before being frozen.

I was the one who needed the haircut. Hair normally is worn quite short in the Kingdom, at least on men. I doubt the same applies to women, but I am only guessing, since women generally are blanketed head to foot in the basic black abbaya. The exceptions are Western women who are thoroughly black only from neck to foot, their bare heads and long hair being a sort of ex-pat symbol of feminist defiance.

I wasn't trying to defy anyone. I just needed a haircut, but in the Kingdom that meant I had a choice - visit a Saloon or visit a Turkey Barber.

I had already been to a Saloon. In my first few days as an ex-pat, perhaps still suffering from jet-lag, I was astounded to find in Jeddah a huge number of businesses calling themselves Saloons. I had begun to think that the Kingdom didn't really deserve its reputation as perhaps the most conservative Islamic country in the world, where possession of a single glass of beer will get you a prison term.

On one particularly hot evening, then, I confidently walked through the doors of a Saloon - wondering if all the beers would be American brands - only to be hustled into a barber's chair by a gentleman who wielded scissors and a straight razor about my head with great abandon, all the while talking non-stop Arabic to another gentleman sitting nearby. I got an excellent haircut, and for only 10 Saudi Riyals, too, which works out to about $3.90 Canadian. I did not get a beer.

Despite my good haircut, I had been rather surprised by my Saloon adventure and had decided to try a new barber. After Saloon, Turkey Barber seems to be the most commonly found English phrase on those signs which have any English at all below the Arabic script. I had asked around, too, and had been assured that turkey didn't mean either a large, stupid bird or a medium-sized gullible ex-pat. I chose my Turkey at random, took a breath, and pushed through the doors.

Not a gobbler was in sight, and in the end I received yet another fine haircut. About the only difference between the Saloon and the Turkey Barber was the price. This one cost me 20 Riyals, or about $7.80 Canadian. But it was worth it. The slight tugging on your hair in time to the clicking of the scissors and the first shiver you feel as the straight razor whispers against your neck ... it is a sensory experience we have lost in the West where hair salons assault your head with designer gels and angrily buzzing electric razors. Give me a Turkey Barber any day.

The bell for class is ringing. Just one more thing -- it turns out that Turkey, as in Turkey Barber, really means the country. My barber is a Turkish ex-pat with a mostly Turkish clientele, now increased by one well-groomed but still thirsty Canadian ex-pat.

From the Kingdom,

The Major


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