The mystic-barber of Selguk

How a tonsorial teen in Turkey helped me understand the revelations of Rumi.

Published March 4, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Like many men of a certain age, I am becoming concerned with my place in the world and what to do with excess ear hair. It was toward the end of my first Turkish haircut that I became aware it might hold the answers to both these questions.

My wife and I were in the small town of Selguk on the west coast of Turkey. We had just toured the impressively restored ruins of Ephesus, just outside of town, and now we were ready to relax.

As we passed a barber shop, I saw that one of the chairs was empty. Impulsively feeling in need of a little Turkish trim, I stuck my head in the doorway and a teenager motioned me to sit down. I was surprised to find that he was the barber, and that the 7-year-old with him was his assistant.

For a while everything went according to plan, even with the language difficulties. When called upon, I would make the appropriate motion for "short" or the buzzing sound of the razor clippers. I thought we were close to being done when suddenly the haircut took off like the first drop of a roller-coaster after its long climb. My stomach flew into my throat, and in an instant I was out of my seat yelping, my arms flailing. The assistant had stuck a ball of flame into my ear.

I had seen it out of the corner of my eye. The 7-year-old had a ball of cotton on a stick, a giant Q-tip. He dipped it in a liquid, then with the flick of a lighter, it burst into flame. It briefly dawned on me that this action was part of the Turkish haircut ritual, a big change from the hunting-fishing-sports talk that defines the American male clip-bonding experience. Then he plunged in the tiki-torch and I smelled the stink of burning hair, my hair.

That's when I leapt out of the chair. But after many assurances that innumerable customers before me had undergone this same treatment without suffering noticeable scars or sears, I reluctantly returned to the seat.

Two torchings passed with just the barest of burning sensations, then the barber took two thin strings and began flossing my face, eliminating any fuzz from my cheeks. Next he filled his hands with a lemon-scented oil and clamped down on my nose until I gasped for breath.

As I started to hyperventilate, I realized that this would be a great technique for the "Panting Dervish" -- a lesser-known sect similar to the poet Rumi's "Whirling Dervish," who go into a trance to get closer to God, not by spinning but by heavy breathing. We had seen the whirling dervishes perform their ritual in Istanbul a few days before; now the men and women in their brightly colored robes turned and turned in my mind.

Then I had an image of Rumi. The story goes that he started his whirling dervish dance while walking and hearing the musical hammering of a goldsmith. As he listened to the pounding of the hammer on metal, he began to rotate. As the pounding quickened, he went into a spin, growing dizzy and entering a trance, feeling God.

I had never quite understood the reason he had started to spin, but now I knew the missing part of the story. He had spun because he was having a haircut and his ears were blazing! Rushing out of the barber shop, Rumi knew if he didn't do something drastic he would fry to a crisp. So around in circles the master went until the fire was out.

This also explains much of Rumi's poetry and the wonderful leaps of consciousness that he makes in lines like this:

One person sees a minaret, but not the bird perched there.
A second person sees the bird but not the hair it carries.
A third sees minaret, bird, and hair.
Until you can see the thread of the hair,
the knot of awareness will not be loosened.
The body is the minaret. Obedience,
the bird. Or three hundred birds,
or two,
however you want it.
The second person
sees the bird, and only the bird.
The hair is the secret
that belongs to the bird.

Now it all makes sense:

1. The barber is the minaret.

2. The flame is the obedience.

3. The ear hair is the secret.

When your ear is being flambied, you are closer to God, going into a trance, leaping and spinning like a dervish to extinguish the flame. You see things. You know what Rumi means when he says, "The light you give off did not come from a pelvis." No, it came from an ear!

I panted and jerked, providing great entertainment for the gang in the barber shop. Then the tonsorial teen pushed my head down into the sink, soaking me with ice cold water. He began to massage my neck, pulled me up in my seat and nuzzled me. I can't remember the last time a barber nuzzled me. Jerking my head back and forth, he attempted to pop the bones in my neck. When that didn't work, he switched to karate chops, ending with a very traditional blow dry and the spraying of a manly cologne.

As my time in the mystic barber's chair came to an end, I knew the most efficient technique for the removal of unwanted hair follicles: Use fire. As for my place in the world, I keep thinking about those large chunks of turning meat you see all over Turkey.

By Gary Mex Glazner

Gary Mex Glazner won the first Poetry Olympics, which was held in Stockholm last October.

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