Wael's Barber Shop
© Copyright 2021 by Alan Herman
Photo by Carlos Magno on Unsplash
Wael's barber shop is in the Muristan District of the Christian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. Wael is a Moslem yet he chose to place his barber shop outside the Moslem Quarter, a good business decision.
You see his shop is close to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and he gets heads to reformat among the many visitors to this site, as well as among other visitors, and residents of all the quarters.
Muristan is a hospitality district, with cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops; and easy access to everywhere else in the Old City. In the fourth century the district had an early version of a hospital built by Persian rulers; then in the eleventh century a later version built by Crusaders. Now it also hosts open air performances atop a makeshift stage set on an ancient large, round and smooth stone.
Wael has a partner and together they take heads only of males and of all ages. They can emplace the latest styles, respond to special requests, and shape the stodgiest customers.
There are photos of the Old City past and present in the shop, a flag of Turkey on the walls, photos of Yasser Arafat and Elvis Presley, comfortable couches for waiting, televisions with programming from Al-Jazeera, and friends, family and clients entering and leaving all the time. There is also a rest room a ladder climb away.
The programming from Al-Jazeera varies including talk, music and dance shows and soccer games from all over the Arab world, and movies from Egypt. I listen and watch and temporarily lose my connection with the world outside the Old City.
And there is a small kitchen, and hospitality second to none. When you come in and you have to wait, you are offered a Turkish coffee or mint tea (with fresh mint) with or without sugar (Wael tells you he prefers no sugar); and when you are shorn, you are offered the drink you did not yet choose. You are also offered (depending on availability) nuts, cookies, and/or a roll. I usually come in the morning, so all these options quench any hunger through to lunch.
His shop is open everyday including holidays, and when I visit him on Friday, his Sabbath, he cheerfully greets me. Where have you been he says, don't be a stranger, come in whenever you visit the Old City, just because….
You see I live in Jerusalem outside the walls and prefer Wael to cut my hair because he is quite a guy, his price is better than outside the walls and his haircut is the best. And I don't have a lot of hair, yet he knows exactly what makes me look tip top. I give a big tip because the overall experience is grand.
Sometimes Wael brings his grandson in to broom out accumulated hair between customers, and generally help out. He's a nice kid who adores Wael.
Accessing the shop is easy. I usually enter the Old City through the New Gate to the Christian Quarter. Then I meander my way through the lanes and bazaars past schools and shops and basilicas to Christian Quarter Road, one of the major and wider lanes constituting a bazaar of an endless variety of vendors. I walk over smoothed down stones from the Roman Period; and make a turn to a narrow short lane and descend past still more vendors to Wael's shop, directly in front of me.
When I leave it's usually with a smile that lasts for a while. I'm sure people notice the smile, and on purpose I leave through the plaza inside Jaffa Gate, always bubbling with activity and the advertisement for Wael's barber shop on my face. I stay to the right passing the Tower of David museum and then out to the right side through the gate to an outside plaza toward the center of the city, or to the Mamilla indoor/outdoor shopping mall.
Wael arrives and leaves by different travel each way. He lives in Ras Al-Mud, a nearby neighborhood outside the walls, and travels to arrive at his shop by 9:30 in the morning on a bus to a stop near Damascus Gate. He enters the Old City though this gate, a zig zag of an entrance, staying to the left and entering a descending always busy plaza/bazaar that lands at a fork.
Wael goes to the right and walks down the largest Old City bazaar until he reaches the Christian Quarter near the giant Church of the Redeemer. There he makes a right and left down Muristan Road, then a left and a sweep around to his shop. In the evening he walks home leaving by walking along the Via Dolorosa to the Lion's Gate and a ramp road and walkway to Jericho Road to his neighborhood, situated on the edge of the Mount of Olives ancient cemetery.
I happened upon Wael by accident one Friday when I visited the Old City to get a haircut. My usual barber Ahmed on Shalshelet Road, dividing the Moslem Quarter from the Jewish Quarter, had gone to the Al Aksa Mosque to pray and closed his shop. I didn't want to wait so I searched for an alternative.
There is a barber in the nearby Jewish quarter, but he is more expensive and the quality is mixed. Another Moslem-owned barber shop was also closed for the prayer period, so I continued feeling that serendipity was in the air and it was. I found Wael's shop.
The banter at the shop is fun to listen to, and engage with. I am an English and Hebrew speaker and Wael is an Arabic, Hebrew and English speaker. We converse in the languages we have in common.
We talk about where we each live, about the Corona problem and the Old City without visitors. Most of his customers are residents of the Old City or live nearby so the shop still brings in money.
I tell him I go to America for Thanksgiving with family and he says he goes with his family to Dubai for the holidays. But this year neither of us are going anywhere because of the Corona restrictions.
I also listen to him and his partner talking with customers. The Arabic sounds nice to my ear; all the sounds of acknowledgement or agreement are interesting and make for a nice cultural experience. Like in any barber shop anywhere people come in just to chat.
Sometimes a woman comes in to watch her man or child. Wael offers a beverage and she giggles.
The teenagers are the most fun to watch. They're both like teenagers anywhere and sometimes bring in magazines showing the haircut they want. It's amazing how Wael and his partner can perfectly recreate exactly what each teen wants judging from the satisfied reactions on their faces.
At the same time they are not like teenagers anywhere. They are most respectful to Wael and respect his good nature, despite getting an intergenerational hair lift. There is one barber shop close by that has mostly teenage customers but Wael brings in this crowd nevertheless.
If a visitor from another country comes in, it's curious how the guy relates to Wael and his shop. There's some tentativeness amid the need for a clip, despite Wael's welcome. Wael is reassuring and the guy is happy at the end. Overall Wael and his partner innocently leave a good multicultural impression.
Thus, the ambience is always lighthearted. Though the Old City is not yet as crowded as before Corona hit, you can still feel that left without interference of politicians, everyone in Jerusalem gets along just fine.
I am a writer of history, place and people; and serendipitous travel.