by Abeer Elgamal (Egypt)
“Marvelous, Rasha, you are a real artist!”
The bride’s relatives begin another round ofzarghroutas. Joyful as the sound is, for me it is also torturous, mixing in my mind with the click of my scissors as they work their magic on the hair of yet another customer. Pain creeps up my spine like a spider. It marches up and down until I feel the ache at the back of my neck. I wake up to the thanks of one more satisfied customer, one more stylish haircut, more of the snipping sound that causes more aches and pains, that haunts my dreams and defines my daily existence. It is part of who I became some twenty years from that day: the hairdresser, the owner of one of the biggest salons in Cairo.
Crunch, crunch, crunch, followed by the thump of thick chunks of braid hitting the marble floor – those sounds still pierce my ears like poisoned spears.
Can I open my eyes now, Sister?” I pleaded.
“Not yet,” she replied in her scolding manner.
I wanted to know why she was angry with me all the time. Did she ever love me? My victory is hers, too; did she not want to be rich and famous and beautiful like Madame? She handed me down her clothes, her shoes, and here I am achieving her dreams.
My heart sank at the sound of the scissors devouring more chunks of my hair. My right hand itched badly; it still does when I am afraid; it does all the time. I had a sudden urge to touch the back of my head but I knew Sister would not let me; she might even slap me just for trying. The night before, as we curled up under Father’s bed, she hugged me and whispered into my ear like good friends do. That was the first and last time I felt I really had a sister who cared about me. She told me that every day she sneaked up to observe the hairdressers as they styled the customers’ hair. Since the owner of the salon did not allow her to go near her clients, she wanted to try her skill on my hair. My blond hair: long, shiny and soft, the pride of poor Mother.
But it was okay to cut it off. Mother suffered every month when I washed it. Braiding my hair must have strained her hands and neck after a long day of working in two or three houses. Mother never complained, but I could sense her aching bones and hear her yawning; mother yawned all the time. She said she loved my hair and that it reminded her of her own when she was young, before she gave birth to nine girls and lost some of it with each one. Mother was pregnant again because Father wanted to have a boy. She will lose more hair.
Sister said ladies paid a hundred pounds to get their hair cut and that I was lucky to get it for free. They are all stupid, she thought. Then she had to get the broom and collect the hair from the shiny floor that she had swept earlier in the morning. Sometimes she brought home some detergent in a little bottle and used it as a perfume. It smelled so clean; it made you feel like you had just had a long bath with Lux soap. You felt like Mona Zaki or Yosra, all glowing and perfumed. The smell made you feel like a wealthy lady from a big house with a huge balcony full of flowers.
We sneaked out right after Mother left at dawn, and took four minibuses to get to the salon in Nasr city. She said the woman who came to clean with her was sick and that it would just be her and me until the other girls came at noon. I hid under the building and Sister went to Madame’s apartment on the tenth floor to get the keys. She opened the big lock and heaved up the metal gate, which disappeared miraculously inside the wall. In front of us stood the gleaming glass doors. She used a smaller key to open them. We slid inside and she fastened the latch from the inside and turned on the lights. I was startled; hundreds of little lights buried in the ceiling began twinkling like tiny stars. I had never seen real stars because the sky above Manshyet Naser was always dusty because burning garbage caused a smog over the whole area, reaching Al Basateen [a huge graveyard where poor families built shacks for shelter] where I lived. I guess the smog never went away; I just don’t go there anymore, not after Mother died and I took my sisters to live with me. The big lights on the mirrors were more like suns, shining with warm yellow rays. I thought I was in heaven. The shiny black marble floor reflected the lights and the smell of cleanliness made me feel pure like a piece of cotton. Sister said there was magic in that place. Ugly women came in the door and when they left they were transformed. Sister said I was prettier than Madame herself, and her daughter. She pointed to a huge photo of the daughter’s wedding; she looked like a princess with short hair and a tiara, in a fantastic dress with a long train stretching behind.
“Choose any chair, ya bet,” Sister ordered.
The chairs were soft purple leather, rimmed with silver; they could move in all directions with a gentle touch. She said the seat in the middle was the one Madame used for her best customers, the ones who paid thousands and gave my sister five or ten pounds in tips. She swore one of them always had stacks of money lying in her open bag under the chair. Back then, one stack would have solved all our problems, could have moved us from the one room we were crammed into and given Mother a day or two of rest.
I thought Sister was lucky to be in this salon for most of the day, wearing that nice clean uniform, surrounded by beautiful things and watching ladies as they got prettier. But she never was; she was angry and resentful. She believed people treated us like insects; they wanted us out of their sight, buried in the cracks like cockroaches. She was banished all day to the inner rooms, to clean the bathrooms after each use and was only allowed to come into the salon after a haircut in order to sweep the floor. “The look of us bothers them; we are gross and dirty. But our dirt is on the outside while they are dirty inside, all of them are,” she said.
I still thought Sister was lucky to be in the salon all day, smelling that beautiful clean aroma and looking at those sparkling mirrors. She said that when the other girls came to work, they played beautiful music and laughed with the wealthy women as they did their hair or cleaned and painted their nails. She said some women even stripped naked and the girls would scrub their bodies with Moroccan soap and wax their private parts. Then Madame would order Sister to clean the bathrooms after the women showered. It was dirty work, she claimed. When I saw the bathrooms I knew she was exaggerating. They were gleaming and spotless. Sister wanted to remain in the salon and learn everything.
I did not believe everything Sister told me. I knew she hated those women and she hated Madame, too, although she gave her ten pounds a day. That was a lot of money, 300 per month. I said she should be happy and grateful but she believed it wasn’t fair; she worked hard all day and Father took the money in the end to smoke hashish. She said one day she would have her own salon and it would be bigger and cleaner that Madame’s. I still don’t know why she hated Madame so much. She hated the women Mother worked for, too. She went to help Mother before she got the salon job. Then there was an “accident” and mother swore she would never take her to any of the houses again. Mother heated a spoon and burned Sister’s thigh. I didn’t see it happen; I was with other kids watching a burial nearby, waiting for the traditional alms to be distributed by the dead man’s family, when I heard her scream. I ran to see what was wrong and missed the handouts. When I came in Mother was crying; she swore to burn Sister’s face next time if she took anything that did not belong to her. The next morning, Mother returned the ring to the woman she worked for and apologized. But she was kicked out for good. The woman said we were a family of thieves. When Mother came home without money that day, Father beat her. He said he would kill us all if she did not bring money for his smoke every day. Since I slept by Mother’s feet, I heard her cry most of the night. I stroked her feet and she stopped crying. She said Allah would help her because of me. She said I was as pure as cotton and that Allah would never forget us. Mother prayed five times a day, in the morning before she left and four other times when she returned in the evening. She said the women did not allow her to pray. They thought she just wanted to have a break from work. I prayed with her when there was enough water to cleanse ourselves before prayers. She said I couldn’t pray without being tahara(pure).
Snip, snip, snip.
Sister divided my hair into four parts and fastened each with a big pin that Madame used for her best customers. She saw the girls do this every day and had learned to do it, too. She said I had to close my eyes while she worked. I wanted to see myself in the mirror and learn how to cut hair as well, but she said she wanted to surprise me with the style that Madame’s daughter had. She said I was more beautiful than all the women who came here, and that I must find a wealthy man to marry me when my period started. She wished she was as beautiful as me. She looked just like our father: she had his dark coloring and his thick curly hair, so she used a headscarf to cover it.
“Open your eyes and look!” Sister said proudly.
I wanted to cry; my stomach churned as it did when I was hungry. I swallowed hard as if that would stop the tears or make me feel full. I was not hungry; Sister had bought me foul (fava beans) and falafel on our way. The sight of my hair scattered on the floor made me feel dizzy; the sight of customers’ hair lying on the floor still does, every day, whenever I give them haircuts; every single day I feel the same as I did on that day. I still have an urge to scratch my hand and I cannot help touching the back of my head, as I did that day on my badly shaven head.