Haircut and a Shave in Damascus 9


I recently just finished reading Bill Bryson’s Walk in the Woods which is the story of him attempting to walk the Appalachian Trail. As is true for everything of his that I have read, it is a complete page turner.

Sometimes he finds himself just stopping on the trail, looking around in wonder and saying to himself, “I am doing this.”

I can’t tell you how often I have done that myself on this trip.

One of the points he makes in that book is a point I had been thinking about quite a lot, even before reading him: the appreciation of very small pleasures. He is basically on an extended camping trip in the book and so when he occasionally comes upon a town, he has a renewed appreciation for cooked food or freshly cleaned clothes or a non-leaky shelter for the evening.

Some of the biggest joys of travel aren’t the big things, but the small things that you experience every day in your normal life.

I have always enjoyed a cold drink on a hot summer day, but I have never appreciated a cold Sprite as much as I did on the third day of our truck trek across the Sudanese desert. Two and a half days with everything you touch, eat or drink being hotter than your body temperature will make you appreciate when you can find a cold drink.

Those Sprites (I bought two and chugged them both down in under five minutes) were some of the most memorable drinks of my entire life.

There have been a lot of moments like that for me on this journey. When I was in my taxi from Acaba to Petra, we were driving on the King’s Highway in Jordan. It was a completely modern, divided highway. I looked at my companions in the cab and said, “I think this is the first modern highway I have been on in more than four months.” I never thought I’d appreciate something like that in my life – or appreciate it that much.

A bus seat that reclines to somewhere around 45 degrees. A free plug to recharge my iPod. The view of water, with a cold beer in hand. Finding a good, or at least acceptable, book in a book exchange in a hostel. Air conditioning. An honest cabbie. A hot, or at least lukewarm, shower. An email in your inbox in the morning from someone that you look forward to hearing from. A good map.

I have absolutely loved some of the big things on this trip – Kilimanjaro, Manchu Picchu, animals, on safari, Lailbella, Petra – but I would have a hard time saying that I have loved them more than the small things. Just not sure on that question yet.

One of the small pleasures I have always appreciated is a good, straight-edge razor shave after a haircut. Hell, even without a haircut. There is something great about feeling a barber run a straight edge razor over your face and shave you so cleanly and crisply that it doesn’t even feel like you ever possessed facial hair in the first place.

And the sound. You can hear each and every hair of your beard being cut. It’s a rasping sound. But it actually sounds clean. If clean could be described by a sound – I think this would be the one.

On the day I was leaving Damascus, I shouldered my bag and walked over to one of the old parts of town for lunch. My train wasn’t due to leave for a few hours, so I had some time to eat and wander a bit. As I walked down one of the alleys, I saw an old guy – a really small old guy – in his tiny barbershop giving someone a shave.

Barber chair reclined. A fully lathered up face. And this tiny barber shaving away with the finesse of someone that had done it for decades – as no doubt he had. I was starving, so I have to delay my gratification until I could scarf down some kabobs and rice.

Well, I had to delay my shaving gratification – the food was pretty gratifying also.

As soon as I was finished, I went back down, dropped my backpack on his sofa and got mentally ready for a big smile that was certain to appear just minutes in the future.

barber damascus syria michael hodson

I feel like a giant

He spoke about ten words of English, but there isn’t much need for communication to make this effort a success. I made the pantomime motions for a haircut and a shave, he nodded vigorously, sat me down in the chair, and started wacking away. After the haircut, the shave. It was just as expected. Wonderful.

The only slightly disconcerting thing was that he was the friendliest barber of all time. Every single person that walked by his shop got a wave and a ‘hello, how are you?’ in Arabic, out of him. It was hard to tell how often he actually looked at my face, but even if he was doing it my pure muscle memory and touch, it was great in my book.

Sometimes it is the small pleasures.


About Michael Hodson

I’m an attorney that took off on my birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, I made it all the way back home. Right now, I am back on the road writing about it all.


9 thoughts on “Haircut and a Shave in Damascus

  • Michael

    On the subject of simple pleasures: My brother and I spent four and a half hours in Times Square on New Year's Eve 1991 waiting for the apple to drop. It was 34 degrees by the time 1991 arrived, and we found a cab (a Checker can, with all that leg room in the back) to head to a party uptown on Broadway. Never forgot how nice and warm that cab felt.

  • Reba

    Very neat post. I have very limited travel experiences compared to what you are doing. But as I read, pizza came to mind. Our first visit to our daughter in Guatemala, we had all kinds of issues getting there. Our plane was delayed due to an erupting volcano. We finally left out really early the next morning. We arrived around noon, but then had to drive over to Antigua where her hogar was. We went straight to the hogar and met her…it took a long time to convince a one year old that we were really nice people. Finally that evening we arrived at the hotel. And by that point, I had eaten very little. I was hungry. Not nearly as hungry as much of the population of the world, but for me, very hungry. We weren't supposed to walk around out of the hotel with our daughter since she was not technically ours yet. I know some Spanish but not enough to truly survive. I asked the front desk who would deliver. They said, "Dominoes Pizza". I asked them to order some for us. It was just a cheese pizza. It was wonderful. I still remember that pizza more than any other we have had…and with four kids, we eat plenty!

  • Lori S

    You don't look a day over 40. I guess it is the haircut and fresh face. 🙂 Miss you Hod. Just think, you only have 1/3 of your journey left ahead of you and then you get to come home and have some wine at Theo's and tell us all about it. Stay safe, Lori

  • Lisa E @chickybus

    This is wild…I know Adnan, the barber in the photo! I met him when I stayed at El Rabie in Damascus this past summer. What a sweet man! We had some very limited conversations (I know a tiny bit more Arabic than he knows English) and I saw him every day for a week. He IS the friendliest barber ever–LOL! I so wanted to tell him that my father is a hairdresser, but I didn’t know the word for it. Anyway, it’s awesome that you got a haircut and a shave with him!

      • Lisa E @chickybus

        Yup! He was so sweet. He asked me to sit down a few times and of course, I did. I just kept saying the same few things I knew in Arabic (How are you? I’m American…I’m tired…etc) and we both giggled. I also remember how he showed me postcards that various travelers had sent him. He was so proud of them, too! Here’s a post I wrote, which has his photo in it (under #4): http://t.co/JUBY3ED Enjoy!

  • Jaillan

    I really enjoyed this post! It really reminds me of the place I accompanied my dad to when he wanted a shave and a haircut in Egypt last week and what I thought was really cool was that they took care of the ear hair and any rogue eyebrow hairs, using threading as part of the service. So I asked if the guy would thread my eyebrows too as I hadn’t had time to get them done before I left London, and take it from me a good threader is hard to come by, but he said no; even though he would be willing to do it the salon owners were a little more religious and wouldn’t let him do threading on a woman – then he whispered to my dad that he thought they were ignorant for thinking that way!

    So I got my dad to explain in Arabic that I regularly went to a men’s barber shop in London for eyebrow threading.

    Still it was cool to just sit and watch the world go by in that barber shop, even if I did leave with the same unruly eyebrows I had been sporting when I came in!

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      I need to get back to one of these places again soon, if only for the straight edge razor shave. Damn, I love those.

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