They killed the dogs last night. Gunshots and panicked yelps then—for the first time in two months—silence. Now I’m walking two blocks toward the river on the way to the barbershop and there are corpses piled in heaps on the curb awaiting removal.
Calo is unconcerned. He is singing the praises of the neighborhood barber. My hair is thick and shaggy, while Calo’s is buzzed tight; his dense Dominican curls smooth against his head.
“He will make you…zzzt,” he runs his fingers across his scalp, “so good, so cool.”
Dog tongues loll out of dog mouths. The flies, used to the meager pickings on discarded mango pits, are feasting.
“Que…” I search for the right question, “Que es esto?” “What is this?” As if some thing has been here, some single beast, slouching toward the river to die.
Calo shrugs his shoulders. “Sanidad.”
The dogs ran wild all summer, howling through the night, scrapping over trash bins and mating in the dust. Now they’re gone. Caught in some kind of city sanitation drag net, killed, then left in piles to be carried away by trucks mid-morning.
We stroll past the piles to the end of the road, where the paving gives out into a dirt track down to the slum by the river. The barbershop is sea-foam green with the picture of a man’s head, well-shaven, painted on the wall. The customers and hangers-on surround it, spilling from its small storefront into the street.
The barber is genial, and like most male barbers, knows approximately what I want with minimal instruction. He calls me by my neighborhood nickname, “El Rubio,” (The Blonde).
The conversation around me is politics. This is an opposition neighborhood, draped in white flags in contrast to the incumbent’s purple. “No solo un politico, un buen administrador,” the banners say of their candidate. “Not just a politician, a good administrator.” Hardly an inspiring rallying cry.
Meanwhile the state’s power and munificence were still on display in the pile of dead dogs outside. The men are saying it is all politics—the sanitary sweep of the strays and the extra hours of electricity at night. It’s all politics. Sops to the slums to buy a few votes. “No solo un politico.” No one believes that. We are all political animals here. Even the dogs.
Elsewhere, the day after, they killed Bin Ladin. I need a haircut and a shave. I am in Khujand, Tajikistan—a small city in a majority Muslim country containing 149,000 people, two universities, several uranium mines, and at least one untriggered car bomb at the bottom of the river.
Islamic extremists were said to be behind the bombing attempt—foiled by pushing the car, bomb and all, into the Syr Darya River. But if there is a radical element in the city, its presence is muted. The only response to Bin Ladin’s death I have so far received is a message of congratulations from my students—“your nation’s enemy is dead,” they say, quite formally—and the nonplussed commentary of my host mother:
“Osama bin Ladin died,” I say.
“Who?” she asks.
“Osama bin Ladin.”
“Did the police catch him?”
“No. American special forces.” I know how to say this in Tajik because my host father and I have debated whether America’s Special Forces or Russia’s are more formidable. I hope the news will tip the scales in favor of the Navy Seals, but she is unimpressed.
“How old was he?” she asks, her back to me, tending the stove.
“I don’t know.”
The embassy warns us to be careful, though no specific threat is apparent. They say to stay away from crowds, stay inside if possible.
But I have my classes and I hate staying home and hanging about the house, busy with its own life, in which I feel like an intruder when I don’t go to work. And there is the barber. I’m past due, disreputably unshorn by Tajik standards.
My barber in Khujand has his shop in the courtyard of a mosque, a small storefront in the corner of the surrounding wall, with a door facing out to the street. Inside hangs a picture of the Kabbah—the black stone known as God’s House, Islam’s most holy site—and a poster of Mecca, foregrounded by a young girl in a headscarf, a single tear of contrition or ecstasy trailing down her cheek. He’s a jovial old man with a white beard who refuses payment every time I come.
Here in Tajikistan, the barber’s place at the mosque is no accident. Men must be well-groomed when they enter to pray. The body is holy and it must be clean and presentable—fingernails trimmed, face and hands washed, prepared.
But there is an ambivalence to the barber’s shop as well. Men are required, by the state, to remain clean-shaven until they are fifty. Paranoid about extremism, the government regulates outward signs of piety like the beards so ubiquitous in other Islamic societies. The body is holy. It bows, it kneels, it prays. It also stands and marches and bears an AK-47.
But my barber seems to ignore the double nature of his trade. He is white-bearded and plainly devout. He smiles and brushes on the hot lather with practiced circular motion. Then he fits a new blade into his straight razor and bends over me.
And I would like to say I don’t shudder slightly as this man—behind him the Kabbah—holds a sharp blade to my throat. But I do. Then I stop, grip the chair, and we begin.
After I stand up from the barber’s chair we enact the ritual: he refuses payment, I offer three times before stuffing the money in his pocket and leaving with smiles and thanks and salams all around.
Orhan Pamuk writes that when Mahmud II upended the old Ottoman Janissary order in Istanbul, he sent his soldiers to the barbershops first. They were centers of dissent, and were closed as soon as his modernized army solidified control of the city.
In a similar vein, Henry VIII, while tightening his grip on the church, exercised his sovereignty over the barbers as well. Their guild was merged with their brothers-in-blades the surgeons for more efficient regulation.
The moment is commemorated by Hans Holbein—who so often commemorated Henry’s momentous occasions. Which, make no mistake, this was. As in the struggle of Mahmud II and the Janissaries, Henry subdued the more intransigent elements of medieval society in order to establish the modern state. That there was less violence in Henry’s conquest is incidental. He had co-opted the body’s stewards and caretakers, the performers of bloodletting, circumcision, surgery, and yes, shaves and haircuts.
But despite the rise of the early modern state, despite the eventual division between barbers and surgeons—which nonetheless left the barbers with their characteristic emblem, a pole festooned in their patients’ blood—despite the myriad changes from the dawn of the profession to today, barbershops retain their magic.
Democratic, yet class-haunted—as all the service professions are. Political, but neutral ground. You can talk about anything, but what you do talk about is last Sunday’s scores. And while you’re sitting there, everyone else is doing the same thing, everywhere around this planet. Sitting, safe for the moment, ready for the blade.
 In Other Colors: Essays and a Story
 His painting Henry VIII and the Barber-Surgeons is now kept in the Royal College of Surgeons of England in London.
Photo by: Frederic Brenner