Travel Stories

Close Shave

          When I step out of the hotel the next morning I see the street barber at work.  I know he’s a Hausa by the type of scarification he has on his face.  The sanitary conditions at his workbench are meager - no, make that nonexistent - but he is deft and gentle with his razor, I can see that as he works, how he uses the backs of his hands to feel the scalps and faces of the men he is shaving - there are no haircuts given here – to feel if any stubble is left after his blade has scraped away what is unwanted - and in that moment of scraping away I know my Africa trip is over - there being no more symbolic a way to mark the end of my voyage than to shave off the beard I’ve grown since it started.
          I grew the beard for a few reasons.  One was that I simply didn’t want to need to shave while travelling.  Two was that I just wanted to.  I’d never had a beard in my life, I knew Joy wouldn’t like it, and this was therefore the perfect time for me to do so.  And third I had the weird notion that, since I would be travelling in some heavily Muslim countries, it would make me look less American, maybe even more Muslim.  Funny, because when I was in that restaurant/bar in Addis, feeding and being fed salad and injeera, someone asked me what my religion was, Ethiopia being the only country I was ever asked that question.  Maybe because religion matters in Ethiopia, or maybe because I went to so many churches there and never visited one church anywhere else.  I don’t know.  But I always have a hard time answering the question of what my religion is because although brought up Jewish, I am no more Jewish religiously than I am Catholic.  I just don’t believe any of it other than as allegory and cultural history, and I don’t practice any of it, although culturally and ethnically, of course, my roots are Jewish going back as far as I’m concerned to Moorish Spain, back to the Temples in Jerusalem, back to the brave Maccabees, to Joseph betrayed by his brothers, to the enslavement in Egypt, the Abrahamic origins in Canaan, the Eden on the veldt where we all ran with our bipedal forbearers, to the mark of Cain, and that blessed rib.  In India, in fact, I would tell people I was a “Bindu,” part Buddhist, part Hindu … and I think somewhere the word Jewbu has some purchase regarding the many people of Jewish origin who embrace Buddhism as a philosophy if not a faith. 
          But when in a bar in Addis Adaba, Ethiopia, with people whose command of English is limited and don’t want my personal discourse of the crisis of faith in western culture.  So I say, “Jewish,” it’s easy, and two of the guys high five one another and say to the third, “See, we told you he was Jewish.”  And I ask how they knew, and they say, “it was your beard.”  So much for passing as Muslim … at least in Ethiopia.
          This actually reminds me how on Passover one year, preparing for the annual Seder, a cultural celebration of liberation for me and not a religious meal, I went into a kosher butcher shop to buy a lamb leg bone to burn as part of the ritual symbolic offering on the Seder plate.  And the butcher says to me, “What do you want a lamb shank for?’  And I say, “For the Pesach plate,” using the Hebrew/Yiddish Word for Passover and providing one of those secret clues Jews use to signal they are members of the tribe.  (You know the joke about Bush and the Jews?  Maybe another time.)  Anyhow, I say, “Pesach,” and the guy says, “You are Jewish?!”  And I say, “Nu?”  And he says, “Oh, mine Got, if mine femily looked like you, maybe vun or two vould be alife now.”
          So here I am, in Muslim Senegal, where no one has a beard - I’m mean, no one - and most men shave their heads, just like I do.  And people who look at me in Ethiopia say, “Are you German?”  So the beard is going. 
          And thus the Hausa street barber, with the five scar lines running down at an angle from below his eyes on each side of his cheek toward his nose, who is truly beautiful, but doesn’t speak a word of English.  So I gesture with my hands how I want my beard all off.  “Tout,” I say, one of my few French words.  And he laughs because he is simply not sure, because he has never shaved a white guy before, and because he doesn’t quite believe I can possibly mean what I’m saying or suggesting.  “Tout?” he asks.  “Tout,” I say.
          So I sit down on the Hausa barber’s bench, a two foot long slab of one by eight. The barber’s name is Ousa.  “Ousa the Hausa,” I joke, and when he asks me my name, I say, “Bruce.” And he says, “Bush.”  And I say, “No, Bruce, like Bruce Lee.”  And he gets it, makes some sort of half karate gesture, and says, Brush.”  It’ll do.  The barber sits on one end of the bench facing the street.  I sit on the other end facing the wall behind the barber, next to the tailor shop and the building demolition site, where a small crowd of fascinated onlookers is gathered, next to the woman selling the fried I don’t know what they are, although people bring their own French bread and the woman’s daughter opens the loaves and sticks four or five pieces of the fried stuff inside them, and applies some sauce, and collects the money, and there’s actually a long line at the stand where the mother is folding the dough over something and frying it – kreploch, maybe – and I don’t try it, although I’m temped. 
          The barber and I are seated very close to one another, though my ass is dangling off the end of the bench, and when I put my knees outside of his knees, he takes control of the situation by putting my knees inside of his, and picks up a cake of soap, the same cake of soap he’s used on all his other customers, of course, and a shaving brush that once when it was young may have had two inches of bristle, but today is down to it’s last half inch, with which he suds up my scalp, tilts my head forward, and starts to shave me.  He is so gentle, so deft, I am really enjoying it, even when he looks off distractedly into the street and keeps shaving me, collecting the old lather and hair on a cloth on his right leg that he periodically scraps off and deposits in a small bowl under the bench.  When he is finished with my scalp he dips his hands in a bowl of water he has poured and delicately wipes down my scalp with them.  Then he asks once again whether I really want my beard off.  “Tout?” he asks, and when I say, “oui,” he shaves my face. 
          When he is finished I thank him as best I can and reach over to touch his face, as he has been touching mine, to feel his scars.  We are laughing and smiling together like old friends.  When I touch him I say in English that i think he is very beautiful and that I like his scars/markings, and he lifts the razor to show me he could easily scarify my face right now if I’d like.  And we are both still laughing, really hard, and it is a truly nice moment of warmth and brotherhood, a moment of opened hearted sharing and the occasional recognition that men sometimes manage. 
          And when I go into my favorite sandwich shop later that day the guys all notice my beard is missing and wipe their imaginary beards, and rub their cheeks and chins, and shrug their shoulders as if asking, “What happened to you?”  And I say.  “Tout finis.”   And I'm on a plane 24 hours later.