FOR SOME PEOPLE, travel is all about the food. Others would prefer to climb a glacier, get lost in an art museum or gaze up at the clerestory of a Gothic church.
Hadley Hooper for The Wall Street Journal
Over the years I’ve been shorn in Fez, trimmed in Luang Prabang and anointed with aromatic oils in Delhi—all of which I very much enjoyed. But for my money, the Turks are the best barbers in the world. So when my Turkish publisher offered to fly me to the International Istanbul Book Fair, I enthusiastically agreed—so long as there would be time in the itinerary for a haircut.
I was accompanied on my mission by Yusuf, an editor at the publishing house who knew exactly what I meant when I said I wanted to find a real, old-fashioned Turkish barber. He suggested we conduct our search on the side streets of Beyoğlu, a centuries-old shopping district known for its traditional bars dedicated to raki, an anise-flavored spirit; European embassies and hardware stores.
Making our way from Taksim Square down toward the Bosporus, we passed a couple of seedy-looking hostels, a string of nearly identical fish restaurants and more than a few “men’s salons,” modern hair cutteries that seemed to specialize in the gelled-up faux hawk. Eventually, we found an appropriately old-school barbershop by the name of Biber (“pepper” in Turkish). Its chairs were filled with hirsute old men, smoking and drinking tea while they submitted themselves to the straight razor or waited for their greenish-white facial masks to set.
Yusuf told the proprietor of Biber that I was a famous American novelist writing an article about Turkish barbershops for an important magazine. (In addition to his editing work, Yusuf doubles as a publicist.) The proprietor hesitated for a moment, looked at me again, then laughed and said he had just the barber for me.
“As he ripped off the wax, I tried to comfort myself with the image of airmen enduring this same routine.”
A few minutes later, a clean-shaven young man smelling overwhelmingly of cologne walked out of the back room. He told me that he used to be a barber in Adana, near the big U.S. Air Force base, so he knew just how Americans liked their hair cut. I said I didn’t want an American haircut. I wanted a real Turkish haircut, with all the extras. Okey dokey, he said, and whipped the plastic cape around my neck.
A Turkish haircut is more than just your standard shampoo and snip. It’s an elaborate depilatory routine, evolved over centuries to suit the demands of this exceptionally hairy society. My barber began by shaving my beard with an electric razor. When I inquired about the possibility of a straight razor and pointed to the old man next to me, he just shook his head. Apparently, I wasn’t straight-razor material.
This was followed by a short cigarette break, during which time the barber’s 11-year-old assistant warmed up a greenish wax concoction in what looked to be a tiny Crock-Pot. When the wax started bubbling, the barber returned and applied it generously with a tongue depressor to my earlobes, nose and upper cheeks. He drank a cup of tea while the wax cooled, then ripped it off with an offhand flick of the wrist, pulling out hairs I didn’t until that very moment know I had.
The depilatory portion of my Turkish haircut concluded with a milder, pinkish wax applied with a q-tip along the ridge of my eyebrows. I tried to object, telling the barber that I liked the natural shape of my eyebrows. But my protests fell on deaf ears. As he ripped off the eyebrow wax, I tried to comfort myself with the image of airmen enduring this same routine.
I was still smarting along the eyebrows when the barber’s young assistant ambushed me. Without so much as a word of warning, he pushed my head down into the sink in front of me and began washing my hair, rubbing shampoo in my eyes and accidentally squirting hot water up my nose.
When the shampooing was done, my barber rubbed me down with aftershave and squeezed a healthy portion of gel into my hair. I was about to protest, to tell him that I didn’t want any gel, that in fact gel was the opposite of what I wanted, when I looked in the mirror and realized that my barber had given me a hairstyle almost identical to his own.
—Mr. Lukas is a former Fulbright Scholar and National Endowment for the Arts fellow, and the author of “The Oracle of Stamboul.”