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There are two barbershops on Camp Fallujah, about a ten-minute walk apart. One — run by a Jordanian — is located inside the post exchange complex while the other — a shop owned by an older Turkish gentlemen — sits across from the main chow hall in a gravel-covered lot. Anyone who has been stationed here for more than a month goes to one or the other. Their preference is less of a Montague and Capulet division, however, and more of a comfortable habit. There doesn’t seem to be any bad blood between the two groups, and both are pretty busy most of the day.

Most Marines go to the Turkish barbers at the gravel pit, technically dubbed “Marines Express Barber Shop.” No one ever calls it that, though; you go to “the Turks” for a haircut. It’s a small rectangular building painted white with red trim and a small porch right in front of the door. For no apparent reason, there is also an ornately designed two-and-a-half-foot-tall metal fence on three sides. A string of olive green 550 cord (so named for its reputed strength) hangs from a hole where the doorknob used to be; it’s connected to the bolt and draws back with a firm tug.

Once inside, the atmosphere is eerily familiar. It could easily be a low-rent barbershop in the downtown of a large city. Four chairs run along the long side of the building, with two more on the far end, all with mirrors in front of them and a faux marble top strewn with Middle-Eastern brands of hair products. A few chairs are arranged against the wall by a magazine-covered coffee table, with a few more places to sit just inside the door to the right next to a television tuned to music videos.

None of the barbers speaks English. They understand three words, though: low, medium, and high. These roughly correspond to the basic haircuts you can get as a Marine — the height indicating where the fade begins and, according to some, how motivated you are. The higher the motivation, the higher the hair gets cut. But all the barber gets is a few words and a flat hand tapping the side of the head to indicate an approximate level. “Yes, sah” he says, and the clippers snap on.

What these guys lack in formal schooling (or experience), they make up for in enthusiasm and dedication. A normal military haircut takes 5 minutes in the States and costs you ten dollars before the tip; here the price is three or four dollars, and you can sit in that chair for up to 20 minutes. Many of the barbers use the clippers sparingly, switching quickly to scissors and comb and moving around the head methodically and constantly checking their work. Most of the customers — used to the prices and scalding speed back home — reward these Turkish artists by tipping them as much or more than the actual haircut.

Small talk is kept to a minimum by the language barrier, but repeat customers end up developing some kind of rapport with one of the six or seven available guys. It starts the second or third time when a particular barber looks familiar; he may try and catch your eye or just walk over to you and guide you by the shoulders to his chair. If the haircut is satisfactory, then every visit after that should be to the same barber, if possible; some Marines will leave if “their” barber isn’t working. For those who get kicked from chair to chair, they risk never being adopted by any of the Turks, and their hair will surely suffer. The only hope in a situation like that is to deliver a massive tip to whoever gives the best haircut and hope his greed will overcome the transient stigma.

Individuals and location aside, there is one aspect of the Turks’ shop really separating it from the Jordanians’ down the street: flaming Q-tips. Once the normal haircut is finished, the barber will always ask, “Fire, sah?” Everyone should say yes at least once, for the experience if nothing else. Most people learn quickly to enjoy the post-cut ritual and always get it done. A long metal stick with a cotton ball on the end is dunked in some flammable liquid (hopefully just alcohol) and lit on fire. The barber taps it a few times on the edge of the sink to get the stray flaming drops off and then turns toward the closest ear.

Tap-tap, grab. Tap-tap, grab.

It’s like watching someone play a xylophone, except with flames; the purpose is to quickly burn off the fuzzy hair on the outside of the ear. So, holding the stick in one hand, he’ll tap the ear twice on top then grab it with his unoccupied thumb and forefinger, smothering the flames. The process is repeated for the middle and lower sections of the first ear and then he moves over to the other one.

After that, it’s just pulling off the neck paper, the covering, brushing away loose hair, and finally closing with the patented Turkish Febreze spray over the entire head. Apparently, this perk was someone’s wise idea last year; no one spoke up to complain, so it was enshrined as the finishing move for each haircut. In any event, everyone leaves only a few dollars poorer with a good trim, clean ears, and that “clean linen” smell.

Sergeant William Treseder of Davis, California, trained at Camp Pendleton for four months before deploying to Iraq in January of 2008.

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errantcoyote June 9, 2008 @ 10:20 p.m.

I've shaved my own head for years now, and part of me misses the Sunday haircut routine, whether stateside, aboard ship, or at a place like Camp Fallujah. You really took me back with this essay. Nice work!


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