Yesterday Kim and I arrived in Tel Aviv and descending towards the runway the cloud formations as seen from the plane were quite dramatic. I’m always a little on alert when I come here now as questions at passport control about the reasons for your visit can be quite searching, so I wondered if the cloudy sky was some kind of portent. We have come here on this visit to help harvest olives in Palestine. We’ll be joining an international group on Wednesday that I’ve volunteered with before and first wrote about in a piece called Being Present. We’re going to the West Bank for ten days where we’ll be working alongside Palestinian farmers. This kind of activity is not looked on favourably by the Israeli authorities so I try to be prepared on entering Israel about how I might be confronted.
The first time I came here I wasn’t well prepared. But even if I had been I don’t think I could have anticipated where the immigration official would take the conversation. She held my passport open and spent some time repeatedly looking down at the photo and back up at me. I began to wonder if my photo didn’t seem representative. Apparently it didn’t. She was looking at my date of birth rather than my passport photo and, for her, the date didn’t relate to the face she was seeing in the flesh. “You need a haircut” she finally pronounced. “A good haircut. It would take ten years off you. Look at me. We are the same age and I look a lot younger than you because I have a good haircut. And you should dye your hair too. Go to a good hairdresser while you are here. There are plenty in Tel Aviv”. Needless to say, this was not a line I was expecting. Could I be deported for having a bad haircut? Could this be more offensive than social action? Eventually, she smiled and waved me through.
I didn’t have my haircut on that trip but when I was in the West Bank on a subsequent visit, earlier this year, I did get my hair cut in Jenin. My hairdresser was a wonderful woman who worked in the same building as where the Creative Cultural Centre is based; I was staying there for a few days to do some voluntary work with my good friend Jane. I don’t speak Arabic and Rana didn’t speak English. We smiled at each other a lot – broad, warm smiles – and made gestures in order to ask and answer questions about how the cut should be. Afterwards, Rana brought me strong, black tea in a tiny glass. Some loud Arabic pop music was playing and we had a dance in the salon before I left.
Kim and I were just in Istanbul for a week and, mindful of my upcoming arrival in Tel Aviv, I realised my hair was due for a cut. I don’t really expect to be interrogated on my hairstyle every time I visit Israel but somehow the timing is such that my hair always needs a cut when I am en route there. I decided to look for a hair salon in Fener, the old Greek orthodox neighbourhood in Istanbul where we were staying, and Kim decided to get a haircut too.
He found a barber who didn’t speak English but, with some translation from a customer who was under the scissors when we got there, he learned that the cut would cost 20 turkish lira (£4). I was directed to a women’s salon round the corner. There was little mutual language spoken there either but, again with the help of a customer, I was told that a cut with no frills would cost 15 lira (£3). This sounded good to me. I’m not keen on getting my haircut. I’d rather be spending my time doing something else. So a quick haircut at a price cheaper than a man’s seemed like a bargain all round.
Just as in Jenin, there was loud pop music playing and the hairdresser kept pausing to sing along. Any time we needed to communicate, several women in the salon would get involved, helping me understand the question and translating my answer back. There was a woman sitting in the chair next to me who was having her hair styled and she began to look more and more ‘done’, as if for a special occasion. She was wearing a lovely flowing dress and at one point had a decorative silver band placed across her forehead and pinned in to her hair. I asked what she was getting ready for and, after some confusion, learned that she was getting married. I asked when the ceremony was; it was at 7pm, in 20 minutes time.
I left the rowdy, welcoming salon and went to find Kim. He was still having his hair cut. Once it was done his head was pushed forward towards the basin for lots of vigorous washing. Great attention was then paid to the styling, with brushes and hairdryer in much evidence. Apparently Kim had been asked earlier if he wanted his ears waxed which seems to be the norm in Turkey. He had declined and opted for clippers. While I was waiting a new customer came in, took off his shirt and was momentarily bare chested before putting on the gown. I wondered if I should be in there but no one batted an eyelid so I stayed where I was.
Finally Kim was done and we both left, sporting our new haircuts. He told me there had been plenty of interruptions while he was sitting in the chair: friends coming in to chat with the barber as he was mid-cut, so the scissors were suspended in the air while the conversation unfolded and Kim was left sitting for a few minutes with a lopsided cut; phone calls coming through on the barber’s mobile; people shouting in from the street as they walked past.
I like this approach which seems to characterise my experience of having my hair cut abroad. The atmosphere is one of not feeling rushed or having any sense of urgency: hair is being cut; music is playing; hairdressers are singing, dancing, chatting; people are passing by. Life is happening.
It turned out the dramatic clouds on arrival at Tel Aviv were not any kind of omen. My Turkish haircut must have been just the ticket. The only questions I got asked at passport control were why was I coming and had I been here before. No other conversation was needed or, if it was, my haircut did the talking.