Ali was a 14-year-old boy who worked as a helper in a local barber shop. He was a Muslim from the suburbs. Rami, the shop owner, was a 30-something man who was much wiser than his years. He was also Christian.
The barber shop was a small quiet place where locals would come and serve themselves hot cups of chocolate and talk about their daily grinds while they waited their turn. On one of the shop walls was a picture of Mary the mother of Jesus.
‘Who’s that in the picture?’ Ali used to ask Rami.
‘That’s Mary, the mother of our Lord.’
‘Why is there a picture of her hanging in the shop?’
‘So that she could give us her blessing to start off the day’, Rami would say with a smile on his face.
Ali was an intriguing young boy. Forced to leave school because of his parents’ financial problems, he was quickly taken in by Rami who offered him a job as his helper at the barber shop. Ali’s duties involved refilling the cups, drying out wet towels and cleaning the floor from all the hair droppings. These job requirements were harsh on a 14-year-old but the boy never opened his mouth once to complain. ‘I want to learn,’ he used to tell Rami at the end of each day after they closed shop. ‘I want to learn from you and become a great barber just like you.’
It was this same desire and passion in the boy’s worn out eyes that persuaded Rami to recruit him in the first place. Ali appeared far more willing than the other boys his age; life had taken much from him and given him few rewards, yet he stayed in the fight. The hustle in him reminded Rami of a boxer who refused to go down after taking several critical blows. Ali was also curious and asked a lot of questions. Rami never failed to provide him with answers – even when the questions revolved around sensitive topics like religion and faith – as he considered this part of the boy’s learning experience.
The customers all liked the boy and were endeared to him. They always left him a couple of liras’ worth of tips after he washed their hair and cleaned up after them.
One time after they’d closed shop and Ali was rearranging the hair products on the shelf, Rami asked: ‘What are you going to do with the money you’re saving?’
‘I want to buy a soccer ball,’ Ali answered. ‘All my friends in the suburbs played soccer after school and I never got to play with them. Someday I’ll own my own soccer ball and play next to the barber shop after hours.’
These were the simple answers that made Rami believe there was still some good in the world. They made him believe that everything pure wasn’t dead, that some people still carried something golden in them. He remembered being Ali’s age once and wanting to grow up to become a famous businessman who lived in Paris and owned a Ferrari. If he’d known Ali back then, he’d have felt foolish and ashamed of himself.
After finishing his work Ali approached Rami with hesitation. ‘When will I learn to cut people’s hair like you?’ he asked the man.
‘Patience,’ Rami told him. ‘Your time will come soon enough.’
And it finally did. One night after hours Rami called Ali, who was busy putting out the wet towels to dry. The boy rushed into the shop and found the barber sitting in a chair with a blue sheet covering his body.
What’s going on?’ the boy asked.
‘Grab that pair of scissors over there and come here.’
The boy did as he was told. He took small steps toward the barber sitting in his chair. Once he got close enough his hands started to tremble.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ Rami said in a reassuring voice.
‘Tell me what’s going on.’
‘I’m going to teach you how to become a barber. You’re going to cut my hair.’
There was no fear or hesitation in the man’s voice. There was only belief and conviction, and it was the confidence in his tone that scared the boy so much. He tried to fight off the proposition and plead his case about lacking experience and being too young for the task.
‘You’re never too young to do anything,’ Rami said. ‘Besides, how many times have you stood by and watched me cut other people’s hair? Every day. You already know more than you think about this business.’
‘But I’m not ready…What if I mess up…’
‘You’re ready. And besides, it’s much easier to botch my hair now when we’re all alone than to make a mistake in front of a customer. Internal errors are easy, but messing up in front of a customer is fatal.’
It took some convincing but finally Ali was on board. He grabbed the pair of scissors and ran his hands through Rami’s hair to take a good feel.
‘Now imagine my hair is an open field,’ Rami said. ‘And imagine the lines you’re going to cut along; try to follow them to see how the field will look like after you’re done. Give it a nice shape and follow through with the pattern you choose.’
The boy got down to it. He cut the first piece of hair and took a few steps back. It was only when the piece of hair landed on the floor that he felt the reality of the matter. Everything before it seemed like a never-ending dream. He grabbed the pair of scissors firmly and went back to working on the barber’s hair. He cut and cut through the bushy black hair, trying to be as meticulous as possible. After he was finished he’d worked up a sweat from the stress he’d put himself through.
‘Is it bad? Did I mess up?’ he asked.
‘It’s not bad,’ Rami told him. ‘Actually, for a first time, it’s quite good. I just have a couple of remarks: the right side’s a bit underdone compared to the left side and the front’s not exactly straight. Also, you have to make sure the sides are straight when you’re cutting. There’s a beautiful symmetry in cutting hair that you should never transgress.’
Ali smiled. Rami got up from his chair and placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
‘Apart from that, kid, you did great. Remember those pointers next time you cut someone’s hair and you’ll be good to go.’
‘So I can start cutting customers’ hair now?’
‘Slowly but steadily, yes. I think you’re ready to start working at it. And someday, you’ll own this business and make it your own.’
The boy smiled. It was a beautiful night, filled with emotion and grace and serenity. Ali couldn’t remember the last time he felt this ecstatic or overjoyed. The pride that filled him that night was enough to make him forget the tough times he’d spent back home, watching kids his age ditch school to carry rifles and go to war or resign themselves to living in extreme poverty in small tents with no water installation, electricity or furniture. He was convinced he’d made the right move and looked at the picture of Mary hanging on the wall.
Thank you for your blessing, he said to himself. Thank you for the wisdom that got me here and for helping me make it through tonight.
The boy closed shop and strutted all the way back home. He started seeing images in his mind of cutting other people’s hair and feeling good about it. Maybe there was an end to all the madness in this world – maybe the young and the willing could dig themselves out of the hole they were resigned to in small war-driven countries like the one he lived in. Maybe dreams weren’t just a fancy name for the rich and opportunistic – there were plenty enough to go around for everybody, and he’d finally gotten his wish to come true.
The stars were brighter than usual, illuminating the kid’s path all the way back to his parents’ small house. Tomorrow was going to be a good day for the young suburban boy.
Mentorship is important. Sometimes when I feel down and out and struggle to find the right words, I wonder how easier it would’ve been if I had a writer guiding my hand. If I could raise one of the greats from their graves for a single night, or even an hour, just to try my hand in front of them.
It’s much easier to mess up on your own than in front of the crowd eagerly anticipating your work and preparing to slay every one of your sentences and burn the whole piece down.
But that’s the problem with writing: once it’s out on paper it’s out in the public. It’s out in the cold mad unforgiving world. It falls in the hands of the hostile critics. And the writer is the first one to take their side. When he sees his work laid out in front of him, he judges it brutally and wishes he hadn’t written it in the first place. His career is plagued with unforgivable and unforgettable mistakes that he can’t erase. Every one of them is a cross he is forced to bear until the next one takes its place.
But then again, if the writer doesn’t go through the pain and humiliation of the work, how can he expect to make it? How can a writer whose writing was left unstained by the world hope to survive?
It is only the shame-ridden that make it. They are the gutsy and feisty writers that put themselves out there. They can handle the whipping and take their beatings like real men; their only rewards are bruises covering their works and a renewed hope of a better tomorrow. A better tomorrow and better writing. Better writing and a better life. A better life and maybe – just maybe – a bright starry night to illuminate their path on the way back home.