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
A good cheap and comfortable option is Meretto Hotel LALELİ.
For something a bit special, I would suggest either the heritage Celine Hotel, or the more modern Hammamhane.
And if you're looking for 5-star luxury, I think the best value is Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet, and my ultimate favourite is Raffles Istanbul.