There is something strangely intimate about getting a haircut. It is a kind of ritual grooming that can spark unlikely conversations between strangers: perhaps similar to the social ease created between apes picking each other’s fleas.
There is also a certain amount of trust involved in lying back under a plastic sheet and exposing your neck to an unknown person with a selection of sharp implements. Whatever the reason, you are often acutely aware of who is standing behind you, and barbers – like taxi drivers, or bartenders – seem to be particularly open to confessional dialogue and accepting of questions that in other situations might be considered too personal, even rude:
‘Where are you from?’
Every street in south London seems to have at least one cheap barbershop and they are run by people from across the world. There are West African barbers, who watch football while they sculpt hair with clippers, yelling with their friends who spend all day lounging on the waiting room chairs. There are Turkish barbers, who burn the hair from the back of your neck with a flaming wick, sealing the exposed skin with alcohol and talc. There are Romanians who play loud music and experiment with outrageous facial hair designs on each other.
The man in the mirror today is slight, with dark skin and a delicate, feline face. His hair springs up from his head in solid, floating spirals. As he looks up, I see that one of his eyes is lazy and there is the shadow of a bruise across the top of his cheek.
‘I’m from Eritrea.’
He’s only been here four weeks. I don’t expect the conversation to go much further than this. The only thing I know about Eritrea is that everyone seems to want to get out. Apart from Syrians the highest percentage of refugees at the moment are coming from this tiny East African country.
‘Is it something to do with the military service there?’
He looks down and sprays his clippers with oil.
‘The government in my country is very bad. They know everything you do. You cannot leave the army for many years. Sometimes never. This is not a life.’
I nod slowly as if I understand. He looks at me in the mirror and smiles quickly.
‘I never cut hair before I come here.’
I assure him he’s doing a good job, making a show of non-concern for the future of my own hair and thinking maybe I should stop the conversation so he can concentrate. But he continues, in short precise sentences, snipping the hair around my ears and breathing on my neck.
He came with his wife and daughter. Yes, they crossed the Sahara in the back of a truck. They paid a lot of money, thousands of Euros, to some criminals and were kept in a warehouse on the Libyan coast for months. Yes, they crossed the Mediterranean in an overloaded boat. He thought they were going to die many times, it was terrible. Yes, they were in the Jungle in Calais.
‘And do you like the U.K?’
He pauses and looks over as the boss – also Eritrean – who has been seated in the other chair at the end of the shop the whole time, speaking on the phone in Tigrinya and watching us. He is a round man with a short beard and almond eyes like an Egyptian Pharaoh.
‘I am happy to be here.’
But he’s not sure if he likes it. He had hoped to study but it is very hard to survive on what he earns. He has to travel a very long way to work every day and he’s been having trouble with the locals. There are good people and bad people everywhere, he says, but he has been unlucky. The bruise on his face was given to him by a group of drunken teenagers when he was leaving the barbershop at night.
‘They were shouting at me, but I did not understand with my English. I don’t know what made them attack me. They just kept shouting.’
He seems less concerned with this random violence than with the general disappointment of everyday life in England. It is a very strange place, he says. He finds it hard to tell what they are thinking. Of course he is grateful: he knows he will probably never go back home and he has to make it work. He glances out the window then turns to me, his face twisted with a curious mix of humour and wounded pride.
‘But, I thought there would be more.’
After everything he’s been through to get here – months of hope and false promises and terrible, very real danger – I can suddenly see that where he is now might be a little disappointing.
Photograph by Sandra Teles