A Lebanese-Palestinian barber shop story

Finals week finished and as part of my tradition to return to normalcy, I went for a refreshing haircut at Mike’s in northwest Chicago, as far from campus as I could get. The owner was out and an elderly man filled his place. Having been a regular at Mike’s for years now, I wondered who this man was and how he fit into the medley of young barbers representing all shades of brown. His seat was empty so he called me over.

I quickly learned that he’s the owner’s father, a veteran barber from Beirut who, in just thirty minutes, managed to share so many memories and even more wisdom that I found it only appropriate to jot this experience down.

Wielding sharp shears in one hand and a thick comb in the other, he told me of his early days in Jaffa. He would spend hours overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in all its calm glory, watching children not much younger than him wade out into the dense water and ride the miniature incoming waves.

He traveled to Gaza regularly to visit his aunts and uncles and has fond memories of the days he spent in Mokhayyam al-Shaati’, a refugee camp in the heart of Gaza City right along the coast. The ports were open at that time and he would watch boats unload their cargo freely. Although small and rocky, the mina saw its fair share of action. Even smugglers found the port to be a useful leg in their journeys moving cars and furniture through the Middle East.

After the Six Day War, he and his family moved to Beirut as refugees. In no way was the camp in better shape than the one on the coast of Gaza. The work was scarce and the conditions were as poor as one could imagine. But the man persisted and his family grew.

He raised ‘Mike’ and managed to fund his way through college. The man had opened a barber shop in the city he now calls home. His son graduated from college with a degree in computer science but being Palestinian, he was restricted from finding a job in Beirut. His father trained him in the art of hair styling and sent him abroad to work. In a matter of years, Mike’s became one of the most popular barber shops in Chicago. (To get an idea, Joakim Noah from the Chicago Bulls gets his hair trimmed by one of Mike’s barbers.)

The old man peppered in a few words of wisdom whenever he could. He stressed the importance of resilience. Although I hate to admit it, school sometimes isn’t enough. A degree isn’t going to guarantee an easy life. ‘Mike’ and his degree in the computer sciences never served him or his family well and he was forced to leave his family in Beirut to make the most of the opportunities available here.

He stressed the importance of work ethic. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in being something like a barber, a cab driver, or a shopkeeper. Especially in times like these when its difficult to find a job after earning a degree as prestigious as a J.D., being able to wake up in the morning and to earn money for the family is a blessing.

The sacrifices could have been avoided. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are treated like second class citizens and that is something that needs to change. But this elderly man and his son are evidence that persistence and dignity are key. They’re doing the best with what they’re faced with and they’re doing a good job.

To Palestine we shall return, hair clippers and all.

Sami Kishawi

There is one comment

  1. beirutmabitmoot

    I really enjoyed this story! I have been living in Beirut for months and will soon be heading back to the states where I will coincidentally end my long journey in Chicago! Maybe I should try to find this barbershop…

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