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A staggered haircut

Have you ever had an haircut in two sessions? Nonsensical it may sound, but I have had one with a half-an-hour gap between them.

Old habits die hard. The other day, I stepped into a barber shop when the Maghrib prayer call at sunset was given, and I contemplated for a few seconds whether to go ahead with the haircut or jump out — years of life in Saudi Arabia had perhaps inculcated in me certain Saudi values and customs! I hesitated because years ago, I had had an interesting experience in a barber shop in Alkhobar in the desert kingdom.

I was returning home after work on a Thursday afternoon and saw my Indian barber from Kumbakonam in a relaxed mood. A haircut was overdue for me and I thought I would get it done. As I entered his shop, he warned me that it would be prayer time in another 10 to 15 minutes and there was hardly time for a proper haircut. As I was not very particular about the style and texture of my hair, I told him he could do a quick job within the available time; and the barber started his work in right earnest but could not finish his job within the allotted time. When the Asr prayer call went on air, he stopped work. As I was living in the adjacent building, he asked me if I could return after the prayer for the finishing touches.

Believe it or not, with a job half-done, I went home and returned after half-an-hour to get the job completed. If caught on the job during prayer time, he risked suspension of his trade licence in addition to penalties. Neither the barber nor I felt anything strange about this weird arrangement. We took it as a normal thing, finding strength in the old adage “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”!

During my long stay in Jeddah, I remember families clustered around a small park in the heart of Balad (a downtown area) during the Isha prayer, which easily took 30 minutes and fell in between prime shopping hours. We would have been in the midst of a shopping spree but once the prayer call was announced, the shopkeeper turned off the lights and turned out all customers, locked the shop and disappeared for at least 30 minutes. It was a question of his survival too as the all-powerful muttawas (Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) could have had his trade licence cancelled for being open during prayer hours!

Hanging around the streets or standing in front of closed shops during prayer time always invited the wrath of the muttawas who herded us all into the nearest mosque shouting “salah...salah” (prayer). Of course, non-Muslims were excluded but only after we had answered the questions to their satisfaction and, at times, they would even ask for our identity card (iqama) to prove our religion!

The Sharafia area in Jeddah, in the 1980s and 1990s, was a good hunting ground for the muttawas. It was a hub of Keralites, a meeting place for all Malayalis every Thursday evening. I have seen many of my countrymen running helter-skelter when muttawas patrolled the streets during prayer times. But incorrigible we were, we regrouped again next weekend and again ran away from chasing muttawas!

As I have been away from Saudi for the past few years, I wonder whether my ex-barber still closed his shop during prayer times!

narayananpvs@gmail.com


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Printable version | Aug 3, 2021 11:41:54 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/a-staggered-haircut/article34858445.ece

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