Shave and a Haircut - No Tour

In which our reporter looks inside Morocco from a barber chair

WHILE in Marrakesh recently I had a little free time, so I decided to get a haircut.

The connection between an hour or so to spare in one of North Africa's most fabled cities and a trip to the barber may not seem obvious. Most visitors might have used the time to see the Koutoubia, the city's signature minaret, to explore the souks of the walled medina, or to contemplate the serene Menara gardens, whose majestic waterside pavilion, on clear days, is framed by the eternally snow-capped Atlas Mountains.

All of those sites are certainly worth a visit. But I was aware that Moroccans deserve their reputation for wielding scissors and razor with efficient talent. More important, I have found the barber's chair to be a good spot from which to get a different perspective on a country. Entering a barber shop is like visiting someone's home: It tells you about the proprietors and offers hints about the culture in which they live.

With that in mind, I walked from my hotel to the city's old commercial center. I decided to skirt Djemaa el Fna, the huge central square and open-air market where snake charmers, white-robed musicians, and herb-mixing medicine men jostle for space and attention with food merchants offering everything from bowls of steaming snails and plates of char-broiled sheep's heads to fish and fries and honeyed yogurt. The pageant would be too distracting.

So I turned off a main boulevard toward a quiet arched entrance to the walled ``old town.'' There I met Muhammed, who would become my guide.

``How are you doing?'' a voice from behind me asked in English. Instantly a young man whose grin revealed a few gaps was at my side, pushing a dusty motor-scooter.

I suspected, based on past experience in other Moroccan cities, that I was up against one of the city's ``false guides'' - young men who typically offer to show tourists through the tangled historic center, but who actually want to orient their prey to particular rug or silver shops whose owners will pay them a small cut of what the tourist spends.

The government had rounded up thousands of such ``guides,'' pickpockets, and panhandlers for the week that I and a few thousand other foreigners were in Marrakesh for the signing of the global General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. But clearly a few had escaped the net.

After a string of questions, Muhammed got to his point: Wouldn't I like a tour of the souks? An hour would cost only 10 dirhams - about a dollar.

The tour didn't interest me, but I figured Muhammed could get me to a barber faster than I could on my own. So I told him what I was looking for.

My destination caught Muhammed off guard, but only momentarily. ``I can take you to very good hair cut,'' he offered, ``nice walk, near shop with beautiful things.''

We struck a deal: No tour, no shops, just the closest barber, but for the same price. Off we went, Muhammed leading me into the humming, narrow streets of the old town, past motor-scooter repair shops, grimy iron works, and furnituremakers.

``It's there ahead,'' Muhammed said, and it was. We entered a narrow, three-chair barber shop, its stark white walls broken up by mirrors and a few ``pinups'' of flowers and other nature scenes - no girlie photos here. Everything was spotless. After a brief explanation in Arabic by Muhammed and a handshake from the man I assumed was the owner, I was assigned to the shop's youngest cutter. With extreme seriousness he guided me into a smock, seated me, wetted my hair, and set to working a pair of small scissors with dizzying speed.

In Paris, where I live, I have a nice coiffeur, a big talker who always offers an interesting perspective on French events, but whose 108-franc (about $18) fee strikes me as robbery - especially for someone like me, with only fringe framing a shiny head.

But I also keep a mental inventory of the haircuts I've gotten on working trips away from my home base: Madrid, nice beard trim, but expensive; Athens, barber a political conservative who refused to believe his fellow Greeks would return Socialist Andreas Papandreou to power (which they did); and Stockholm, shop owned by successful Turkish immigrants.

This young cutter worked in intent silence, inquiring about a beard trim with a few gestures. Then he untied the smock, signaling the job was done.

As I stood, a low, mournful chant began wafting into the shop from the dusty street, quickly growing louder. A parade of solemn men rounded a corner and passed in front.

``Somebody died,'' Muhammed said, reminding me he was there. Several of the men carried on their shoulders what looked like a wooden bed, upon which lay a body wrapped in a bright green shroud woven with yellow Arabic inscriptions. ``They go to the mosque,'' Muhammed added, ``then the cemetery.''

At that point I returned to my barber, asking his name. When he didn't understand, I pointed to myself and said my name. For the first time a wide smile came over his face, and pointing to himself, he said, ``Rasheed.''

Rasheed charged me 50 dirhams for the cut and beard trim, or about $5 - a couple dollars more that a Moroccan would have paid, Muhammed claimed later, as he escorted me back.

Once outside the old town walls, washed in the earthy red tone that identifies Marrakesh, I gave Muhammed the agreed 10 dirhams, and we said good-bye. I hadn't seen any of the city's renowned sites, but in addition to an excellent haircut I had received a tour of a certain Marrakesh. And at about six dollars, I considered it a bargain.

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