A haircut in Istanbul
There’s something quite scary about a man lunging at you with a blade. Even if you’ve willingly sat down in his chair and he means you no harm, it’s an unnerving experience.
The man’s name is Senol and he’s one of the hundreds of barbers in Istanbul. Young, good-looking and friendly, he smiles and tries to make me feel comfortable.
This is more than just a simple haircut and a shave. In Turkey, this is a cultural adventure.
Senol had been recommended to me by the owner of my hotel. When I arrive at the shop it is locked, but Senol’s father is sitting outside on a stool smoking a cigarette.
He gestures that he will just make a quick phone call and I should wait. Senol arrives a few minutes later.
I sit down and using a mixture of broken English and broken sign language explain that I’d like my hair to be clippered and my face to be shaved. It seems simple enough in my mind.
The haircut doesn’t take long – just a simple buzz around and things are neat enough for me. It’s the shave which takes much longer.
Now I have to admit that these days I tend to end up with more hair on the lower half of my head than the upper. (Let’s just blame genetics and move on.)
But that’s not the reason for the shave taking up so much time. You see, it’s an intricate ritual that must be done properly.
The Turkish shave
Senol turns on the kettle on the bench in front of us. It’s an old green plastic kettle that looks like it’s out of a 1970s design magazine. It takes a long time to boil.
When the water is hot, the barber pours some into a small metal bowl. Using a shaving brush he uses the water and some cream to work up a lather on my face.
Round and round he goes with the brush, drawing dozens of small circles on my skin as the lather thickens and spreads. It takes about two minutes until he’s satisfied.
Then the blade comes out. Senol drags it across a small section of my cheek and it slices off the hair and picks up the cream, which has hardened slightly.
He wipes the combination directly on to his other hand and goes back to cut more.
He deftly works his way across my face, manoeuvring my head into place as needed.
At one point, when he wants to reach the fine hairs around my lips, Senol sticks his finger in my mouth to get the right angle. I don’t argue.
The thing is, you can’t argue with him. Not only do I not speak any Turkish, not only does he have a blade in his hand, but this is his domain and he knows what he is doing.
To question any part of this would just be rude.
So I don’t question Senol when he gets a strawberry-scented cream and starts massaging it into my face for a few minutes.
I don’t argue with him when he pushes my head down into a bowl and throws water all over me, reaching around and splashing water up into my eyes.
I don’t even argue when he again boils water in the kettle, dips a rag into it and then covers my face with it. The sudden heat is a shock and I’m scared at first I’m not going to be able to breath until I realise he has left space beneath my nostrils.
I’m not sure if he can see the alarm in my eyes by Senol laughs softly. I think maybe he can.
The barber tradition
This is the second haircut and shave I’ve had since I arrived in Turkey. During the first one – that time by a boy who couldn’t have been older than 18 years old – he trimmed my eyebrows, plucked my nose hair and used a flaming stick to burn away the light hairs on my ears.
This time things aren’t quite as dangerous (in the sense there are no naked flames) but there is the same attention to detail. Every single space on my face has been tended to and it feels so smooth that it’s almost sticky.
There were some moments which left me feeling a bit nervous and my shirt certainly has a bit more sweat on it than when I walked in. For me, this wasn’t relaxing. For the Turkish though, this is normal.
As I get up and start getting ready to leave, a young boy jumps into my chair for his turn.
I hadn’t noticed him earlier but he’d obviously been watching me because he smiles cheekily, as if he knows how foreign the ordeal had been for me.
He’s being friendly but I feel like he’d been laughing at me the whole time.
“Just wait until you’re older and you need to shave,” I think to myself. And I smile back.
You can find Senol in Sultanahmet at Kucuk Ayasofya Mah. Yusuf Askin Sok No 1/A
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN ISTANBUL
Istanbul has some wonderful accommodation and you’ll be able to find whatever style you’re looking for.
For a backpacker option, I think Stay Inn Taksim is the perfect mix of comfort and atmosphere.
A good cheap and comfortable option is Meretto Hotel LALELİ.
For something a bit special, I would suggest the modern Hammamhane.
And if you’re looking for 5-star luxury, my ultimate favourite is Raffles Istanbul.
27 thoughts on “A close shave”
Brave Michael! I always wanted a tiny goatee. At one point I took one of my friend’s black dreadlocks and superglued a piece to my chin. Looked pretty cool. Could of course only get it off again by ripping my skin off. Not quite as cool. So my facial hair is not worth a visit to a turkish barber, but if I was a guy, I would so go! I think it’s supercool that all these traditional methods are still a very part of the culture -like going to the barber for a shave, or the art of threading, or the fire-thing… And they always give you tea! By now it has been proven through research of course that you have a much more positive mind-set towards someone who hands you a hot beverage. Personally, I like sparkling wine, too. Anyway: thumbs up for daring to face the blade (though Senol looks quite nice and cuddly;))!!
Senol was a nice guy – not too scary in the end. But you’re right about the drinks. I didn’t have any tea because I was too focused on what was happening to my face. Perhaps I would’ve given a different answer if I’d been offered some wine 🙂
And I love your story about the goatee! Ha ha – I can’t imagine any situation where that would look good, though! 🙂
I’ve only had one true barber shave before, and the next day I awoke to a giant rash covering my entire face. I must have been allergic to something they used, and obviously I’m a bit skittish about having it done again…
Oh no – what a pity. It’s actually quite a good way to get a shave and I think it’s good for your skin (if you’re not allergic to something). Perhaps you need to give it another go somewhere to see if it was just that one time that was the problem.
Ah, yes. Hair maintenance and the long-term traveler. Eric’s hair is currently so shaggy he’s veering dangerously close to “dirty hippy” territory and we fear he may not be allowed across the border into Panama. The problem is that most barbers in Central America have a penchant for using clippers to quickly buzz hair down to the nub. The best solution is for Eric to visit a beauty parlor where the female hairdressers actually know how to use scissors. He’s not quite that desperate.
Ha – I can’t just imagine a hippy-looking shaggy guy walking into a female beauty parlour – hilarious!!
Thankfully genetics has made life easy for me and there isn’t much option except to get everything clippered. It does make hair care on the road pretty simple.
The best article I have read on a Turkish shave, you describe it so well. I love it when hubby comes back from the Turkish barber as his face is so smooth and he looks so handsome!
I felt so handsome after my Turkish shave! I kept touching my cheek and my chin and imagined I was giving off some special sexy glow! 🙂
You should visit my local barber in Edinburgh. Been going to them for the last 2 years. They always want to trim my eyebrows but so far I have refused. At least they know exactly how to cut my hair each time. Haven’t had a shave yet. Don’t really want anyone sticking their fingers in my mouth to be honest. No matter how good looking he is.
Why do you refuse to let them trim your eyebrows? All the coolest guys have neat facial hair!
Yes hair care on the road can be dodgy. I am still growing out my latest disaster. Great article!
Oh dear… ‘disaster’ does not sound like the word that should be used to describe a haircut! 🙂
This is an awesome article, so well-written and just about the closest I think either of us will come to getting a shave! I am always jealous of guys when they travel, as they get to go in to barber shops around the world and experience this really local custom. Girls, our hair grows out for ages before we finally go, so it’s only a couple times a year and a very different experience as the shops are rarely these local experiences. So thanks for this!
Thanks. Maybe you should come up with an excuse to go the barbers, just to see what it is like. You know, ask someone to go through the motions, even though there’s no hair there to actually cut off. It could be an interesting experience for you to write about – expanding your horizons and all of that!! 🙂
Never had a shave with a straight razor, but it sounds like a fun experience! I totally remember my grandfather using the old stiff bristle brush to apply shaving cream, shaving with a straight razor, then applying Old Spice aftershave. Every time I see that old school approach to shaving, it reminds me of him…
I don’t think I could do it myself – I’d be too scared of cutting myself and bleeding to death. But it was nice to let an expert have a go!
I love how the simple act of getting a haircut and a shave can be a cultural experience in a foreign country. I think it’s the little things like this that create found memories. It’s also nice to have a barber so easy on the eyes 🙂
Ha ha – I’m not surprised you liked the look of the barber. But, that aside, you’re right – it was nice to get a haircut and feel like you’d experienced a bit of the local culture.
I got a straight razor shave twice a week when I was living in Thailand. My barber was a guy I called the Godfather he was super friendly but had a problem with his voice and he spoke all low and gravelly. He was super old but really nice and man alive did he ever give me great shaves for cheap!
Ha ha – ‘The Godfather’ sounds like an interesting guy. I reckon that would be really nice to have a local barber who you can go to a couple of times a week and have the same thing done. He knows what you want and how you like it and you get to know him a bit better.
I can recommend salon kadir men and women hairdressering salon if you want a hairdresser well near Sultanahmet. many professionals and family for a long time in this profession since 1935 http://www.salonkadir.com
Thanks for the tip. If I’m ever back there, I’ll check them out. This guy I went to was very good, though.
you must definitely try it. You will not regret it 🙂
I had a Turkish shave before I like with the fire thing they do.
Ha ha – yeah, me too. I think I’m going to have to find somewhere soon that does it. Those ear hairs are getting a little long 🙂
The pictures look amazing and Michael looks adorable. What a brave kid! Great article.
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