Slap and Tickle

A Canadian friend of mine, Rob, has been recently exiled to the Middle East for an indefinite period of time and has, of course, had to make the necessary adjustments in his life to deal with such a fate. Don’t feel that I am saying the Middle East is a bad place to be lengthy periods of time or even permanently, but when you are in his line of work (he is another tour guide like myself) and the head office continually adds more tours to your schedule at a moment’s notice, you tend to get the idea that your own home country may be more of a holiday destination than the exotic places you spend every day in (either that or someone in the government is barring him from returning to Canada until he relinquishes the damning photos he has of famous hockey players getting it on with rampant beavers whilst Celine Dion circles the scene riding naked on a moose … hey, those folks in the Great White North have to do something to stay warm, right?). Anyway, the point being is that he has had to adjust to doing things the Middle Eastern way for better or worse. Things you take for granted become a new experience when living abroad from hotel room to hotel room and city to city. Where can I find my favourite brand of toothpaste? Can colours and whites be washed at the same time in a bathtub full of lukewarm water using hotel shampoo? How will I be able to get someone to fully understand how I want my hair cut? Will the conservative Muslim girl at reception forgive my drunkenness and the perverse comments I was making about the shapely contents contained beneath her attire (supposedly under my breath to my friend, though everyone in the lobby and even a few floors up seems to know exactly what I was saying … eavesdroppers!) or will I now get the broom closet instead of the junior suite for every subsequent visit to this hotel? After spending some time around Syria and Jordan with my aforementioned partner in crime, I can tell you that we now have pretty good answers to some of these quandaries, though further investigation is still pending before we release our knowledge to the general public at large. Our findings so far are thus:

1) With a little bit of hunting, in most medium to large cities, the major brands of toothpaste seem to be readily available for your minty-fresh pleasure. These brands seem to be imported mostly from Europe, though I have come across a brand or two I remember from the US but have no recollection of seeing in Poland at all (that may say something about Poland, though). There are plenty of regional brands, but due to their being labelled in Arabic, a beautiful written language, but one that will elude my grasp until the end of time, I have been a bit wary of giving them my time. Imagine the surprise you would have if you began brushing away and discovered it was, say, hummus flavoured dental gel. I love hummus, (as a matter of fact, I have it for nearly every breakfast and dinner when in Syria), but I am not sure I would like to scrub my choppers with it!

2) Whilst travelling, especially as hotel laundry fees can be exorbitant, bathtub laundry is a form of religion. For some the Sabbath day can fall twice a week, for others only once. And for the select chosen ones, the sock and undergarment sacrifice to the porcelain basin could even be a daily sacrament not to be missed out on less you incur the wrath of Putridius, the ancient Roman deity of repugnant odours. As to the colour problem, you can always tell an unseasoned traveller, because they are the ones that do every piece of laundry separately: black socks in one soaking; green t-shirt in the other; white clothing gets washed on a different day as the red sweater so that there is at least 24 hours for every trace of dye that may have run from the sweater to disappear so as to not contaminate the virgin purity of the pristine cloth. After a few weeks of this, you just say “fuck it” and chuck everything in the tub together. Life is too short! Go see the sights, read a book, take a nap! Who cares if everyone starts thinking that pastel pink and communist grey are your favourite colours. Believe me, as a foreigner abroad, people are staring at you for more than just your choice of faded attire.

3) Hairstyle: a defining aspect of our appearance. Aside from facial hair (both for men and women), one of the main elements of our individual self. I can already here you ask: “But what about those ultra-conservative Islamic women covered head to toe in black? You can’t even see their hair, so what does it matter to them?” Well, be sure that appearance is just as high on their agenda as anyone else, and if you think that those Muslim ladies aren’t concerned about what they look like and are just a bastion of prudish devotion to Allah when they are at home with hubby, you have another thing coming. For a culture that prides themselves on having many children (even more so than the Catholics, if you can believe that), I am quite positive the vaguely discernible female form concealed beneath those dark garbs is not Mrs Lumpy the Wonder Spud; otherwise, do you think Mr Spud would be ploughing that fertile field as oft as he does? If you do not follow this theory, then take a gander through the Damascus souqs (the shopping bazaars) filled with risqué lingerie shops selling goods that could make a porn star snicker. Think about it for a moment, if the undergarments are all bells and whistles (I think I even saw one outfit with bells and whistles … really!), do you honestly believe they would let their bodies be akin to potato purée and permit their hair to resemble a nest that a rat would be ashamed to use as an outhouse? I think not!

Just the other day, against the advice of my Canadian colleague, I decided to throw caution to the wind and give the Syrian barber a chop at my shaggy locks of gold (OK, scruffy strands of thinning straw). Since Rob has had to deal with life in the area for much longer than I, his comment of “Middle Eastern Barbers: 2 / Rob: 0” interjected serious concern into my need for a trim and the fear of having my head resemble a road kill Scottish terrier with mange. Two haircuts for Rob had both ended in sorrow and the need for a close shave to rectify the damage done. But as I was just about to start leading a new group around Damascus, first impressions were important (elderly clients tend to be a bit more critical, and I couldn’t have “knowledgeable, but appeared to not have realised big hair on men went out in the late 1980s” written on my performance review). For myself, I usually try to have a glance into barber shops and suss out the workers there before trusting their scissor-bearing hands near my scalp. If their hairstyles are vile, laughable or resembles any heads of the members of A Flock of Seagulls, skip over to the next and keep hunting until something doesn’t make you want to launch a recently eaten meal all over the pavement.

Just behind the hotel where I had been shacking up, just such a place appeared. “Well, here we go,” I told myself as I walked in pointing to my head and making hand gestures resembling the shrinking of hair (you never know the level of verbal understanding in countries where you are not fluent, so body language must be quite showy and expressive). The man stared back at me and said in perfect English “Good day, sir! Do you wish to have your quaff readjusted and your follicles stimulated so as to strengthen their girth and improve their powers of regeneration?” (Actually, he just said, “you want cut? Me give. Sit.”) I parked my hindquarters in the obligatory barber’s chair and prepared myself for whatever may come. Well, the whatever that came was in no way what I was expecting. I’ll go ahead and say that the haircut itself was fine and above my expectations (take that, Rob!), but the mangling I received was something that just may be one of the reasons why Guantanamo Bay is being closed! After a few snips, cuts and skilful manoeuvres with an electric shaver, I was instructed to lean back, thinking that maybe the gentleman may have just wished for a more comfortable angle to attack some uneven strands, when all of a sudden there was this boiling hot honey colour wax smacked onto my cheeks and nose! The extreme heat subsided quickly enough, though I swear I could almost feel my delicate alabaster skin begin to blister, but then, almost as soon as the goo had hardened into a golden mask, the barber nudged his fingers underneath a rough edge and ripped the left side of my cheek off in one sudden twitch of his wrist! The pain was so intense that my eyes watered and a pathetic, girlish whimper escaped my vocal chords. All I could think of was “what had I done to deserve this?” As I was about to start giving in to any demands he may have, the “gentle”-man tore the right-side cheek from my skull. Through my tear-filled eyes, I swear I could see a smile upon his lips as he showed me the underside of these waxen devices of evil. His voice said, “See? Face dirty. Clean now”, but his eyes seemed to exclaim, “Here’s for the crusades, infidel!!!” At this point, I was ready to go back in time and beat the ever-loving crap out of Pope Urban II for starting the crusades and then make my way forward through history up to bitch-slapping Bush Jr. for imposing sanctions on this poor man’s country, but since I was not technically inclined to do so at that moment, I just whimpered a bit more instead. As the tears overflowed and began distorting my vision before continuing their way down my raw cheeks, I suddenly found that I could no longer breathe! That damned waxy goo was now being stuffed up my nostrils! Forget waterboarding or sleep deprivation … this was the be-all end-all of torture tactics! I began to panic, for I knew what was to come … he would yank this stuff once it hardened out of my nose, ripping out whatever bacteria-blocking fine hairs I had up there. Almost immediately, my fears were confirmed. I am certain at that moment I shouted out my bank account information and offered up my wife, daughter, house and neighbours as a bonus if he would only make the pain go away. My pleading must have worked, because he then patted my face and began to lather up some foamy white cream that looked to me might be rather soothing. As a wonderfully soft brush began spreading the cool, glorious foam all over my face, I thought that my endurance had held out and maybe I would walk out of this den of pain alive after all. My burning cheeks and nose were grateful for the relief, but the man seemed to have other ideas in his mind, because the foam swept up into my eyes and then up to my forehead. I began to tremble inside as the white froth blinded me from whatever was to come next.

I was left this way for approximately five minutes before another voice came out of nowhere to my right. A younger male voice … the evil man’s son? An apprentice here to learn his terrible art? “Massage?” it questioned me. “Do I have a choice?” I tried to reply through the cream, though I am not sure he could hear me. At this point, ten digits began manipulating the elasticity of my face into forms I never imagined possible whist the “teacher” blurted out instructions from time to time. My first thought was that he had mistaken my head for pizza dough, but then I began to think he had reached the age of interest in sex and was being taught how to caress a woman’s breast. If this was the case, he would definitely need more training. Any woman receiving this amount of mangling to her upper torso from a suitor would never let hands with this lack of experience anywhere near areas of more delicacy! I hoped I was wrong in my assumption, because why would they use my head to practice this anyway? Now that would just be adding insult to injury!

Eventually, the kid concluded his “massage” and slapped a slightly wet cloth across my face to tidy up. My skin was beyond red at this point, and I guess that is why they thought it was prime time to dash on some alcohol based tonic upon me. I am sure many of you Indiana Jones fans remember the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where the Nazi goon opens the ark and his face melts … that’s how it felt. As my cries reverberated through the ancient streets of Damascus, my tormentor removed the protective cloth from round my neck (probably put there not to prevent those newly separated hairs from invading the inner areas of my collar and shirt, but to save my clothing, which he would later take for his own needs from my post-traumatised corpse, from becoming pock-marked with blood). He patted my face with a firm hand, smiled broadly and then hit me with the worst shock of the entire ordeal: “That will be 25 US dollars, please.”

I stumbled back to the hotel a broken man. I was sore, I felt violated and I was ashamed, and my wallet definitely weighed a bit less for all the trouble as well. It took all my nerve to walk past the porters at the entrance to the hotel, whom I had become fairly decent friends with at that point. I wished for a hidden entrance to sneak through so that I may retire to my room and wait for the healing to begin. But as I came closer, they smiled their usual warm smiles and said, “Welcome back. Hey, nice haircut!”

4) As for cute Muslim girls working reception at hotels who have to endure the crude comments of smelly, uncultured foreigners who come from a drinking culture, well, my lodgings did not get downgraded, but I guess they have a chat with the local barbers to assist them with their retribution.