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The peddling barbers of Karachi


Balmy evenings in the city of Karachi, not too long ago, would echo with a familiar sound. One that generations had grown up tuned to. “Get your hair cut, get your beard shaved, refresh your look!” peddlers would chime in the local language, trotting from one neighbourhood to another. Their footsteps followed by the jangling of their barber’s box, a metal or sometimes wooden chest that would sway to and fro with every frolic.
With the passage of time however, the once familiar chants of Karachi’s street barbers have become a thing of the nostalgia-brimming past. Their services now have been replaced by modern day salons and hairdressers that tout luxury and panache at their swanky outlets.
“We would go door-to-door and yet charge barely a fraction of what the cheapest of these hair salons do now. These salons have started offering at-home services that cost a sum we could never imagine of,” said 55-year old Naziran, one of city’s last peddling-barbers who quit some 10-years ago, when modern hairdressers were inching to be the norm. “I have now set up my own shop in Punjab Colony. It is not fancy like the big salons, but it’s all I can afford to have,” he said.
The closet that come to the peddling-barbers of the not-too-distant past are the street barbers one can still spot, often camped under the shade of the city’s many Neem or Banyan tree lined sidewalks. “Most of us have been in the profession for generations. Our forefathers would walk from street to street. However, our later generation finds it more lucrative to set up a makeshift shop on the footpath, as people have become shy of inviting service people into their homes,” expressed Safiullah, who runs a humble barber’s shop on a footpath in Karachi’s FC Area.
Though it’s debatable whether a crooked chair, a dusty mirror mounted on a tree bark, a wobbly table with barber’s box on it, could be considered a shop in the modern sense, but it is where Safiullah offers his services and his clients religiously return to the same spot every time that they need a fresh cut. “It’s mostly the elderly who come to our humble, little shops, mostly because they have been getting our services for decades and have built a degree of loyalty.
Also, that generation is not as superficial to care about ritzy salons that cost a fortune. For them, a barber is a barber whether he, be under a neem tree or a glamorous store,” he added.
Speaking in this regard, 65-year old Haji Sharafat who’s a veteran hairdresser believes that salons and spas are among the most lucrative businesses in the city, with a majority of them being run by young, educated individuals with an entrepreneurial streak. “In the past, hairdressing was a skillset that was passed down from one generation to another. Now it’s an entire discipline, an art form almost, that people are trained to. While those who inherited the skill from their forefathers, are fast losing interest in it, because they cannot compete with the modern trends.
“Modern-day salons are not just for haircuts, they offer a variety of services ranging from pedicures and manicures to skin and hair treatments and spa services. The bill they charge accounts for the training of their employees, the products they use and the investment put into setting up the swanky salon,” he told The Express Tribune.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 7th, 2021.

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