I need a haircut. Badly. My hair hangs almost half-way down my back and is ragged at the ends. My once Betty Page-esque bangs are comically uneven, having been cut first by me, and then by Max –and then by me again. My boss asks JP, a young researcher from Ghazni, to take me to a local salon during our lunch break, before I can do more damage.
I feel bad for JP. She looks tired and I tell her I’m sorry for being a helpless screw-up. JP rolls her eyes and mumbles something about it not being a problem. Still, my cheeks burn as we get into the car.
Noor Agha drops us off in front of a beauty salon just a few blocks from my house. Without JP’s company, I never would have ventured inside. The salon’s sign features a heavily made-up bride and its front window and door are covered completely by a gold curtain.
Upon entering, I am greeted by the eyes of at least ten women, patrons and stylists. JP explains, briefly, that I am her colleague, a foreigner, and did a hack job on my hair that now must be fixed. Well-groomed eyebrows go up. A teenage stylist tells me her name is Ferozan. She asks me in English to take my scarf off so she can see my hair. I oblige and women in curlers struggle to suppress giggles.
A matronly older woman with a blond bob sits me down on a red stool and Ferozan wraps a plastic cover over my shoulders. She and Ferozan set to work. The blond woman begins aggressively untangling my mess of dark hair and remarks at how weird it is that a foreigner of means let her appearance go so far, and wonders aloud to her colleagues why I don’t at least brush my hair.
From my handbag I produce a sketch of what I want my hair to look like and hand it to Ferozan. She looks at it and says, “Ok, this is easy.”
With astonishing speed and skill, the two women even out my bangs and cut four inches off the bottom of my hair. Then, they angle it forward so it is longer in the front than the back. When they are done, Ferozan blows my hair straight using a dryer and a wide round brush.
“You have hair like us,” she sighs, “Hard hair, too much hair. You should make it soft and straight like this.”
I’m tempted to tell her there’s nothing wrong with my natural hair, or hers, but I just smile.
The girl at the station next to mine is no older than 18, and startlingly beautiful with the symmetrical face and large eyes of a high-fashion model. A stylist biting bobby pins is diligently fashioning the girl’s light brown hair into the elaborate updo of a bride.
This is the most I’ve ever seen of Afghan women in Afghanistan. Literally. The women in the salon are in short sleeves, low-cut blouses, and tight jeans. One stylist even bares a sliver of skin between her shirt and pants. All of this has a calming effect one me. I drink it in.
Since I left the United States, I have lived in men’s spaces, in houses of men and offices of mostly men. I have been told, gently and apologetically, to pull my scarf tighter and not make eye contact when I’m in the car or walking the streets. I have come to take comfort in my loose garments during daily stops ordered by a leering young police officer who works the checkpoint near my house. My coat has become a wearable security blanket. But here, in this crowded room that smells of sweat and peroxide, I can relax. My skin isn’t an insult, rebellion, or invitation. It’s just flesh.
The safe space of the Afghan women’s beauty salon is a worn-out cliche of Western journalism. It’s also true.
Ferozan measures the front of my hair once more to be sure it’s perfectly even and then pronounces me done. I look in the mirror and clasp my hands together. In a salon in Share Naw, Kabul, Afghanistan, I’ve been given the best haircut I can remember. JP nods approvingly.
When I pay, I tip Ferozan the equivalent of two American dollars. She hands this back, telling me I overpaid. No, I tell her, that’s your tip. She says it’s a lot of money. I tell her to accept it because she had to go to the extra trouble of interpreting for me and promise to come back when I need a touch-up.