Lina hellowarned me not to go to Abu Husam's that morning. I, of course, didn't listen. My hair had just begun to grow back in patches, like shoots of grass with fine little fuzz growing between, and she didn’t trust him anywhere near it.
Why don’t you just wait a few weeks, she kept telling me. It’s not like it’s going anywhere.
How could she understand? The truth was I wanted a haircut more than the hair itself. Finally, I had some strength to go out that morning, to return to life as usual. If I got a cut, I thought, then maybe I’d find a job at a gas station, sell off the old building, maybe even stop by Mueen’s for coffee and a game of tarneeb. In life, few things are more satisfying than that last look you give yourself when exiting a barbershop. My father always used to say that the barber is the closest person to the corpse washer, who gives men their last rites on earth. The only difference is that one sends the dead to the grave, and the other brings the living back to life.
It just so happened that Abu Husam was both: barber at Prestige Cuts and corpse washer at Masjid Saad. I never attended that mosque. It was too religious for me. Mine, which I went to only on occasions, was mocked as masjid al-kuffar, the mosque of the non-believers, because its members, like me, owned bars, liquor stores, and strip clubs. The corpse washer there, it was said, drank every day except on funerals. Over the years, as my health faded, I thought a lot about that man, Abu Subhi, how he’d be the last to see me on this earth, how, perhaps still tipsy from the night before, he’d recite one last drunk prayer in my face before covering it with the cafan. I thought a lot about Abu Husam too, how many men he’d have groomed for work and groomed for death, what a fortune of good deeds he’d amass. A man like him, they say, needed every bit of it.
He was a longtime crook, ran a chop shop nearby my liquor store on Alexis for years. He even did the better part of a decade in prison. It’s where they say he picked up a pair of clippers and the Quran for the first time. I found him here in the barbershop, a new man. He opened sometime in the past couple years, when I’d had no need for a cut. I thought I’d do him a favor, pay him a visit, and that maybe he too could do me a favor and leave me feeling new again.
When I entered the shop, I found him standing on a ladder, fixing a silver plate to the wall. He was so focused on his task that, despite the light jingle of the door, my heavy breathing, and my hand on the ladder’s step, he didn’t notice my presence until he adjusted the plate once and for all and turned to find his footing.
It had been nearly two years since I’d seen him. By then, I’d heard the news of his conversion—if you can call it that. And it seemed he’d heard nothing of my recovery—if you can call it that as well. He was somehow nervous, distracted, hiding behind that new beard of his, twisting together the black and white hairs and letting them unroll. We embraced each other by the elbows and kissed each cheek like the old friends that we were. He and I were from neighboring villages, the only real source of our bond. But far away from our own country, as we were, in another country not ours, you come to call this sort of thing friendship. Otherwise, what was there to bring a pair of men as different as the two of us together?
He forced me into a chair with both hands, towering over me, smiling a smile I hardly recognized between that thick beard and trimmed mustache. I couldn’t help but think that maybe I liked him better as a crook; that maybe, after all, the world needed its scoundrels as much as its saints. Somewhere, I thought, was that same man, somewhere buried beneath that beard, beneath that close-trimmed mustache, that stench of oud oil on sweaty pits. Certainly, his voice, fried in the darkest of oils, still had not one grain of sugar in it. And those hands, too, those pointy hands that cheated so many, could belong to no one but him. Now my hair was at their mercy, and I was beginning to think that maybe Lina was right, as rare as that might be.
“Ahhhh,” he moaned softly, taking a strand of my hair between his fingers. He stepped back, gave it a long look, and carefully set it back into place like a costly gem at the jeweler.
“You seem to be doing better yourself,” I said.
“You see,” he said, pointing with his clippers at the empty shop. “It was good until somebody told their kid about the garage. Some clever kid came up with a new name for my salon. You know what he called it? He called it the Chop Shop. Funny, no? I paid $3,000 for these signs to say Prestige Cuts. Now I have all these people whispering again. It’s not just the Arabs. I don’t care about the Arabs so much. We’re all a little crooked in this town. But I had a few loyal customers, some Americans from here and there. They must have heard, no?”
“I doubt it. How could they?”
“I don’t know. My son said he heard it on the internet or something, that it’s all over the computers now.”
In a silent fury, he began combing my hair all to one side. He stopped himself, and still angry, he asked: “Would you like to pray?”
“When have you ever seen me pray?” I said, smiling at his question, knowing it was really just Abu Husam’s modest way to excuse himself for prayer.
“Once,” he said. “And I wasn’t even sure it was you.”
While he prayed, there wasn’t a corner of Prestige Cuts I didn’t inspect. The place seemed more like a mosque than a parlor. Instead of shampoos and creams in the glass display, there were Qurans, masbaha beads, and Zam-Zam water. In an ashtray sitting on top of the T.V., Abu Husam burnt little chunks of bakhour to ward off the evil spirits. A small black hijab sleeve with a handwritten prayer sticking out was nailed clumsily to a window frame. And high up, visible only through the mirror, was the silver plate with some faded verse from the Quran. I tried to read it but it was backward and faded and my eyesight failed me. Still, I could tell it was the kind of silver plate you might find in the salon of an old aristocratic family back home, a family whose grandfathers and great grandfathers might have been advisors or ministers of some sort for the Ottomans.
“It doesn’t look right, does it?” Abu Husam said, fresh from prayer and standing behind me, holding a strange smile.
“The plate. It’s a little crooked, no?”
“It looks fine,” I said. “I’m trying to read it but can’t make out one word.”
“Surat al-Ma’un,” he said.
“Al-Ma’un? I haven’t heard of that one. How’s it go?”
Embarrassment shown on his face as he tried thinking of the words without looking at the faded plate.
I interrupted his efforts and asked: “An inheritance?”
All his tension gave and he choked back a bite of laughter. When he swallowed, he looked at me in the mirror and, in the fashion of our people, raised his eyebrows and lifted his head to say no.
“Something like that,” he said.
“Something like that?”
“I can tell you, but you have to promise not to tell anyone. I don’t want it all over the computers like everything else these days.”
“My word,” I said. “Where?”
“I’m surprised it wasn’t your first guess,” he said.
“What wasn’t my first guess?”
“Forget it. If you don’t get it, forget it.”
Finally I understood what he meant and the two of us grew silent. His smile, the liveliness in his step, it all vanished and he appeared as he did in those days when he first stepped out of prison. He didn’t have the barbershop back then, and he’d spend his days hopping from carryout to carryout, sometimes stopping by mine for coffee. He rarely spoke, his face always fixed on some unpleasant thought. The most I ever heard from him was when he’d argue with Salma over the phone, threatening to go back to prison, where they “know how to cook.”
“Shu?” What?” he asked, in a tone that could have applied to either the conversation or the haircut.
I instructed him to blend it using scissors. He shook his head, which was what I had feared. “You don’t come here for scissors,” he said, then returned to our conversation as though it had never ended.
“It’s from one of the villages back home,” he began. “I can’t tell you which one. I was still stealing carpets at the time. You were in America by then. It was at least a couple years into the war, maybe even three…”
“Well,” I said, not knowing what else to say. “It’s beautiful.”
“The word of God is always beautiful, even when it fades. The only problem is I feel I haven’t found a place where it belongs. And Salma doesn’t want sight of it. Even she doesn’t know. She thinks I got it from one of my uncles on a visit back home. One time she even thanked him for it! You should’ve seen the confusion on his face. The poor man. He even graciously accepted her thanks. Men will take anything from women, won’t they?”
“Wherever you got it from, it looks like it belongs,” I said.
“Maybe. Who knows? I’ll probably end up changing it by tomorrow. It’s always like that. I hang it here, hang it there, and then I always get to thinking maybe it’s better off at the bottom of the Maumee or something. Guilt is like that, you know, stronger than the bars on any prison. Lets you out for a day, only to shut you back in for a century.”
“It’s okay, keep it,” I said.
“It’s just talk. Really, it gives my eyes some comfort to see it. Especially now that I’m—”
Abu Husam suddenly dropped the subject as a man dressed in all-gray tweed and a dark polka dot papillon entered the shop. It was Dr. Aziz Al-Seyed, one of the biggest urologists in town and president of Masjid Saad. From the moment he entered, the doctor was in a rush, standing for a while before taking his seat and constantly checking his watch and pager between heavy breaths.
“Is there anyone ahead of me?” Dr. Aziz asked.
“No, I shouldn’t be long,” Abu Husam said, beginning to rush through the motions of my cut.
Dr. Aziz sat directly behind me and avoided meeting my gaze in the mirror. Whenever he looked up from his pager, he stared blankly the way one does when trying to evade a friend in public. Years ago, when business first started to slow at the store, he and his cousin, Emad, made an offer to buy. It was mostly Emad’s idea, who wanted to open a sub shop, but nearly all the money was coming from the doctor. Their price was so low it was more of an insult than an offer.
“Doctor, you know Ziad Idilbi, no?” Abu Husam asked.
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
“He owned the store on Alexis.”
“Yes, yes, of course, the liquor store,” Dr. Aziz said, not afraid to call it by its real name. “By the Hydramatic, no?”
“Shame on me for forgetting,” he said. “But subhanAllah, brother, how Allah brings men together. Just the other week I drove by and saw it’s still for sale. Forgive me, if you will, but I’m glad we never bought that place. The area’s become quite the dump, hasn’t it. You’re probably better off without it, too. And better off getting out of that line of business altogether.”
“Yes, Alhamdullilah,” Abu Husam said. “More and more, our people, we’re moving away from this.”
Dr. Aziz paid him no attention.
“I might still know a buyer,” Dr. Aziz said. “Might make a good clinic.”
Sensing it was really Dr. Aziz who was still interested in buying, I lied and said: “It already has a buyer.”
Dr. Aziz said nothing. He returned to busying himself with his watch and pager, and after a while began staring at me through the mirror.
“AstaghfarAllah,” he reprimanded himself. “A man should forget many things in his life but never the name of another man.”
I wasn’t convinced. A man as shrewd as him doesn’t forget a thing. Still, I assured him: “It’s OK, sometimes even I forget who’s staring at me in the mirror.”
“I don’t mean faces, brother,” Dr. Aziz said. “What’s a face anyway? Alhamdulilah, God gives us many faces during our lifetime, hundreds of faces. My mother, when I was a boy, used to take me to market and say, ‘Look, son, look at these old men and their faces. They’re like the candles you study under. Always dripping, drooping. Today a bag under this eye, tomorrow a bag under that. You can never trust a man’s face. It’s always one melting into another. Know a name, and the right face will always turn when you call.’ Subhanallah, she’s right, how strong a name is! You know the Jews don’t even like spelling the name of God—Yahweh, they call him—because it implies a kind of ownership. Subhanallah!”
“Subhanallah!” Abu Husam said, clearly moved by Dr. Aziz’s sermon.
On some level, I appreciated the doctor’s words, but he could tell that I wasn’t there for his khutbah. And so he assumed a role he was more comfortable with: doctor.
“If I remember correctly, you had been ill?” he asked.
“Yes, hamdillah,” I said. “But as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing partial about it.”
He nodded along without looking at me. “Yes, brother. That’s very true. I see many men like you. When a man’s healthy, feels healthy, rides his body dumb like a mule, and suddenly a doctor informs him on a random visit that he’s sick with some disease, from the very word itself, he feels all the sleeping years of sickness awake in him at once, doesn’t he? I’m sure you’ve felt this. And they never return to bed, do they? I see it all. But you should know, it matters not what words I use or you use. All that matters are the words of the Almighty. Only His words heal, my brother.”
Abu Husam was smiling, nodding, lost in the wisdom of Dr. Aziz’s words. And in his rush to both contribute to the conversation and get to the doctor’s hair, he held a word between his lips and my bangs between his fingers and without thinking drove the clippers straight across my hairline, mowing down everything in one big sweep. What took me years to grow back was erased in seconds. The hairs stood in little patches, some thick, some thin, and I was now left with no other option than to shave it all right down to the scalp.
I might as well have been naked. A second was too long a look for me to bear. I stared through the glass at the doctor instead. Somehow, he didn’t notice a thing. He was again checking his pager, holding it close to his eyes to read the messages beeping across it. He asked Abu Husam if he could use the shop phone to make a business call. Abu Husam tossed him the cordless and turned off the clippers, waiting for an angry outburst from me.
“Continue,” I said, and Abu Husam proceeded to buzz away the rest of my hair, as though preparing a body for burial.
I drove aimlessly. Past the empty storefronts, past the dead motels with their old signs twitching with life, past the junkyards and skinny prostitutes unzipped and waving in the cold, until I finally found myself at the store. The doctor was right. A window was broken and there was a leak in the ceiling. Even if I wanted to sell it, how could I when there was always some new surprise and no way for me to keep up. When I was younger, I fixed everything by hand. Now I could barely lift my head and needed to follow a patch of sun on the ground to spot the hole. I did nothing that day. I left. Left the place broken and leaking like I found it, and without an ounce of courage, with only weakness in my knees, I returned home.
It was on days like these I wished most that Lina and I had had just a couple more children. All three were older now and living just across the border in Detroit. It would be nice to come home to a young face, fresh eyes that still knew nothing of the world, and hands that hadn’t yet felt disappointment. I was lucky enough, I suppose, to still have Lina there to greet me, without a smile, in the kitchen, warm with the aroma of cinnamon and lamb. She came near to me, smelling more like food than the food itself, and I couldn’t bring myself to take one bite of her. She tried to remove my bright green Newport beanie—something I found on an old shelf in the shop—but I batted her hand away and fixed the hat tighter behind my ears.
“What was it this time?” she asked.
“Why don’t you just sell it already? Take any price.”
“I’ve decided I don’t want to,” I said. “When I start feeling better, maybe I’ll open it again.”
“No one has time for your schemes right now. Just show me the cut.”
I ignored her and began eating from a pot of burnt grape leaves she left by the sink, unrolling the charred leaves and shooting the sticky rice into my mouth like marrow. They were sour but still had the taste of fire, like some meat cooked over coals. Lina looked me over with concern, as she prepared me a bowl of stuffed zucchini and sealed the rest of the pot to drop off at her mother’s.
“Anyway, I’ve seen how Hind’s son looks after a haircut there and it’s not pretty,” she said. “I’m sure it’s just as bad. But even worse is that ugly hat. It reminds me too much of that cigarette salesman. Do you remember? Ricky.”
“Yes, I remember Ricky,” I said. He was a young man with an old crush on Lina. If he saw her now, in her pajamas, a few pounds heavier, a few wrinkles older, would he still have that same crush, I wondered. How I felt sorry for her. For some reason, in the rush of her daughterly duties, in that fog of food that left our windows wet with streams of steam, I felt sorry for her. I removed my hat and stopped her before she could open the door. She jumped back. Forgetting she had a warm pot in her hands, she reached for my hair as though she were saving it from a fall, letting the zucchini crash to the ground and scatter.
“That bastard!” Lina cried at the sight of me. “How’d they ever let him out? You only went there because you felt bad for the poor man. Everyone either pities or praises him now. But if he feared God, he wouldn’t bring those hands of his anywhere near your hair!”
I had tried to stop her but it was too late. Abu Husam was standing at the door. He must have heard the whole thing. He rushed back to his car, and I followed him. My mind went numb under the bright winter sun, and the stinging winds plunged right into my chest. I couldn’t think of anything to say. The only sound I could produce was a violent cough from my weak lungs. Abu Husam gazed at me sadly from under his cap, a few tears blown across his cheeks in the wind.
“I came only to see how you were doing,” he said, his jaw clattering like a little boy in the cold. “I don’t know how to make it up to you, but please come over for dinner tonight. I beg you.”
I invited him to come inside from the cold instead. He refused. For some reason, I could tell he had been weeping long before he arrived at my door. His face was red and raw, and tears and snot had frozen around his mustache.
“It’s only hair,” I said. “Had you taken an ear, it would be a different story.”
“I suppose,” he said.
The entire time, Lina was standing there watching us from the screen door. Abu Husam placed his hand to his chest and apologized without saying one word. Lina returned the apology with her own hand against her chest, and left us alone in silence. I could sense his spirit settle, and he interrupted the quiet with new life in his voice.
“Dr. Aziz left without cutting his hair…” he said, holding back a smile.
I gave him a curious look but he said no more. I wouldn’t know what he meant until months later, when I returned to the shop, with a new head of hair for him to cut. All that remained where the silver plate once hung was a lonely, rusty nail. For a while, I stared at that absence in the wall. What is it that makes a man feel for another? Does it matter? Somehow, in that moment, I felt cured of all my illness. Whatever was the opposite of chemo, the opposite of cells shrinking, skin rotting, eyes blurring, I felt it. Like a dry sponge tasting water, I felt it. This time I asked him to do away with my hair, to leave me naked, a man free to start again.
Ali Akkawi is an Arab-American writer living in Dearborn, Michigan.