Marie-Jeanne Berger: The tragicomedy of a seriously bad haircut

Posted on August 22, 2012 by

Frustration required that I cut my hair. Short. On a sunny and optimistic Friday a few months ago I wandered the streets of Zamalek looking for the perfect venue for my transformation. Have you ever been into Luna? The salon is a bit in from the street that Alfa market sits on. Old iron tongs (medieval hair curlers?) on workbenches set on either side of worn caramel-coloured leather benches; plants—vaguely real or plastic—crawl up the walls. A space age circa 1969 hair dryer helmet sits neglected next to a tabletop crammed with beauty products with the distinct packaging of soap operas like Dynasty and all the rest. Bright, sunny and pleasantly crowded with the requisite memorabilia of a successful family business: an altogether mysterious and appropriate place for a makeover.

As I watched an older woman with the rattle of a smoker talk about her marriage at the age of 17, smoking, hacking, elegant, the middle-aged man with the large bruise on his forehead washing her hair in an unnatural purple liquid stared at me. Open-mouthed. I told him I wanted a hair cut. I realized he would be washing my hair.

The man set to transform me was a corpulent figure. He pressed his gut into me, dramatically hacking at my hair with scissors that seemed to be dull with the work of generations of hairdressers, cradling my head in the crook of his arm, deep into his effusive tummy. He swivelled my head in all directions to reach beyond my ear, across my neck. He didn’t move from this position until it was finished. Because of our intimate proximity, most of my hair lay as a sacrifice across the mound of his depressing belly, defacing himself as I defaced myself. He stood still and my head obliged. All the while, the hair washer stood gape-mouthed at his side, witness to the massacre.

They styled it like the Golden Girls. Tight little curls on the head of a woman in her early twenties.  They were confused. Baffled.  Baffling. But I didn’t mind. Always a serial hair-cutter, I’ve never gone this short. They seemed confused: “Why, why do you do this to yourself? Why shorter? Did someone grab the back of your hair and pull you?” No, no one pulled me by these tresses, but the heat, the harassment caused me to forsake them.

I thought the haircut would make me a more ambiguous individual. It would be like armour. While I am certainly odder looking (short hair has become purple short hair), I wouldn’t say that the harassment has decreased. In fact, the scope seems wider and more misguided. Yes, the gas station attendant thought I was a man, or at least felt that he should ask my boyfriend if I was:
Is that a man or what?” But I also had the experience of a ten-year-old boy in Dokki rubbing his nipples at the window of my taxi and tapping on the glass while cooing at me perversely, “Aywa ba’a, aywa ba’a” (Oh, yeah, oh yeah), while the cab driver sat in stunned silence, saying, “Even the little boys today, even the little boys.”

But this haircut is nothing if not dreadfully confusing. My students stare at me with a mixture of approval and concern. Why would I do this to myself? Who was the barber and how much did it cost? Certainly it was too much. I look older, younger, uglier surely. Why would I choose to look like these boys, these boys who can’t let their hair grow longer without the disciplinarian telling them to go to the barber if they don’t want to get suspended. They come to school shorn, heads bowed, humbled after these idiotic warnings. The girls that admire what I’ve done know that their mothers would disapprove. The few who come back from the weekend with bobs had their Blackberries taken away, were grounded for a month. Everyone bears witness to some kind of image control, the reasons for which are so bewildering and perplexing that they evade us all. Uniformity? Morality? Military culture?

My colleagues screamed when they saw it. What kind of subversion does this haircut manifest? Gender, I think, standards of beauty. Is this a refutation, refusal of the feminine? Is the feminine oppressed in my haircut? How does my boyfriend feel about it? Do you hate him? Is he dealing with it? They ask in awed silence.

“No,” I told them, “we’re still together. He’s confused, he’s waiting for it to grow back.”