Iraq's Barbers Suffer Cuts in War And Peace

By Sean Williams
13 November 2018
Iraq, Barbers
447 ECS
Famous for their dexterity and artistry, many barbers were shut down by religious extremists. Now they're back.

In 2005, after the US-led invasion of Iraq, Baghdad descended into violent chaos. Political unrest spilled onto the streets, and bands of Islamist brigands stalked working-class neighbourhoods, searching for perceived violations of Shariah.

Before then, the humble barbershop was a staple of any major city street. But the gangs demanded men keep their beards long. Suddenly being a barber could land somebody a death sentence. In January that year, five barbers were murdered in a single day.

Slowly, peace returned to Baghdad. But violence would return to the barbershop in 2014, in Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city, when ISIS militants overran government forces and swallowed the city into its barbaric caliphate.

Under ISIS, whippings and beatings for “un-Islamic” hairstyles, and beardless faces, became a daily part of life. In Mosul, dozens of Hisbah, the group’s religious police, posted flyers and warnings on which looks they would, and would not, allow.

Some planted spies inside barbershops and kidnapped owners for punishment. One barber told the Voice of America he was forced to eat rotten potatoes and goat excrement for six days, and dig graves all night, having been convicted of “bringing shame to all Muslims.” Hair threading, an ancient style of hair removal using cotton thread that emerged in India over 6,000 years ago known in Arabic as Khite, was punishable by 80 lashes.

In October 2016 an Iraqi-led coalition forced its way towards Mosul, and recaptured the city the following July. Suddenly, a haircut was back on offer. “When ISIS left, large numbers of people gathered outside our shops,” Mohammed al Halaq, a local practitioner, told the Global Coalition Against Daesh, which uses a popular and derisory term for the group. “They all wanted to shave their beards and have haircuts.

“Our faces also changed, as well as our outlook,” he added. Citizens of Mosul called the liberation a “new year”, and greeted each other as if it was the first day of the year. Some Iraqi barbers have left their scissors and razors to join the army, and clear ISIS out of the Middle East for good. Some of those who’ve stayed have become Internet stars.

Type “Iraqi barber” into Google and you’ll find dozens of videos and memes documenting staggering dexterity with razors, cut-throat blades - blow-torched extra-sharp - and facial waxing that is as mesmerising to watch as it looks painful. Hair threading is back on the menu, too.

It’s fitting the barbershop should have a renaissance today, not far from where it began. The earliest evidence of barbers was discovered in the Middle East - Ancient Egypt, more specifically - where early practitioners used sharpened flint or oyster shells to cut the hair of nobility. The first razor blade was found among 3,500-year-old relics.

Greco-Roman tonsures, a boy’s first shave, were considered an essential part of his coming-of-age. In the Middle Ages barbers often doubled as surgeons, bloodletting, cutting off limbs and administering leeches. It is thought that this is where the traditional barber’s pole comes from, with its white representing bandages, and the red signifying blood.

Nowadays barbers are even providing Iraq’s displacement camps with haircuts as a way to build bridges between shattered communities. The “Barbers of Baghdad” are a group of 14 Muslim barbers working at the Virgin Mary Refugee Camp, in Iraq’s capital, home to hundreds of Christians who fled ISIS.

It is a triumph for Iraqi peace, and for its barbers, who can, finally, operate without fear of reprisals. “No religion is like this,” said al Halaq. “Religion is about tolerance and forgiveness. After the liberation I started to practice my profession again. I had the freedom to practice and other people had the freedom to visit me in my salon.”