The Berber Barber: A Straight-Razor Shave in Morocco

By David Michael Newstead. Image

My barber didn’t speak English. My barber didn’t speak French. I tried to be friendly and I asked the man his name in a couple different ways. It was to no avail though. He was an Arabic speaker, I wasn’t. Eventually, I just pointed to the straight-razor on his counter-top and he nodded. Then, I sat down as the silent and stoic man went to work.

Earlier that day, my driver, Rachid, had recommended a shop on the edge of the Rabat Medina to accommodate my unusual request. This was the ‘old town’ part of the city, filled with market stalls, pedestrians, and narrow streets that were laid out before the invention of the automobile. Rachid told me he goes to this same barbershop sometimes and that was all the endorsement I needed. But when I arrived, the place had no name. And the barber had no name. Inside the small open-air storefront, there were six men doing what you might imagine takes place at a Moroccan barbershop at two in the afternoon. One guy was behind the counter. Another sat reading a newspaper. A lone customer was getting his hair trimmed and my presence didn’t seem to upset this delicate balance one bit. The man never looked up from his paper.

Initially, the nameless barber had grabbed what looked like a tube of toothpaste. Across the side, it read Supermax Shaving Cream. He reached for his shaving brush and diligently began applying Supermax to my face and into the foundation of my beard, which I had grown out some for this occasion. Perhaps five minutes went by like this. As the brush did circles around my chin, I found myself looking over the aging edifice of their store. I listened to the vague chatter of the barbershop and the Medina’s busy marketplace. I stared at a mirror reflecting a mirror reflecting another mirror. Above us, there were two portraits of the King of Morocco hanging there, constantly gazing at the tops of our heads.

The barber unwrapped and slid a new razor blade into position along the L-shaped handle. Then, he set a mug by the sink in front of me. What followed was a casual and effortless experience. Really, this was second nature to him. He’d been doing it for years. He shaved the right half of my face, starting from my sideburns down, and then did the same to the left half of my face. He lifted my nose as the blade moved strategically across the curves of my upper lip. I leaned my head back, exposing my throat to the straight-razor, but without a single moment of discomfort or difficulty. The barber shaved my entire jaw line, periodically stopping to wipe the blade against the rim of the mug he had set aside earlier. More Supermax was lathered on and he repeated the process a second time, making quiet progress against my facial hair. When he finished, the barber made a few last touch-ups with the blade. Then, he wiped the remaining shaving cream from my face and brushed away any debris. To close, he sprayed me with a pleasant but label-less aftershave, the color of water.

I thanked the man with no name. Afterwards, I ran my palm across my chin. It was slightly sensitive to the touch, but his technique was flawless and my face was utterly smooth and unscathed. Getting up, I paid the balding cashier at the counter, then asked if I could take a photograph of their shop. The owner stood upfront and my snapshot managed to capture the essence of the place as accurately as possible. I said my brief goodbyes and left the barbershop as I had found it: buried in a North African marketplace, the one man still engrossed in his newspaper.