Rolf Potts travels around
the world with no luggage

An Egyptian straight-razor shave (in 21 easy steps)

September 10, 2010 by Rolf Potts

Back when I was preparing for my no-baggage world journey, one of the first toiletry items I removed from the packing-list was my razor. I did this in part because I don’t mind keeping a light beard when I travel — but also because I was looking forward to visiting barbershops from time to time to get straight-razor shaves. I’ve done this before in places like India and Thailand and Brazil — and it’s always been an intriguing little ritual.

Since some of the oldest known shaving instruments were used by Egyptians some 5000 years ago (copper and gold razors have been found in tombs dating back to the 4th millennium BC), it seemed proper that my first shave on the No Baggage Challenge should come in Cairo. Setting out from my hotel on Zamalek Island in the Nile, I found a back-alley barbershop called “Coiffure Beauty Center” that was overseen by a hip young Egyptian barber named Ihab. The place featured posters of Eminem, 50 Cent, and (strangely) a young Alec Baldwin, as well as a TV in the corner that played Arab soap operas. Since Ihab spoke only 20 or so phrases of English (and I speak just 15 or so words of Arabic), I wasn’t sure what I was in for when I sat down for the shave.

As it turned out, Ihab gave me what was probably the most meticulous and detail-intensive shave of my life.

Though barbershop shaves were common in the United States up through the 1950’s, I always get old-timey silent-film music in my head when I sit down for the ritual. Ihab started by sterilizing his straight razor, inserting a new blade, and massaging my beard with some kind of ointment before lathering me up with shaving cream and giving me two complete shaves.

At this point it felt like the job was finished, but it turned out I was only a third of the way through. The shave was followed by the application of Insane Clown Posse-grade white face-cream, which was washed off with two hot-towel treatments (one of which contained a strategic dose of menthol spray). This was followed by aftershave, two ice-cold towel treatments, another dose of aftershave, and a ritual whereby my ear-hairs were literally singed out of my head with a cigarette lighter (Ihab told me this technique is Turkish in origin). Finally, with the smell of menthol and scalded ear-hair drifting over my chair, Ihab thoroughly combed my scalp and brandished what appeared to be dental floss in an effort to give me a Middle Eastern metrosexual gel-spike hairdo.

I’m not sure if every person who visits Ihab’s shop receives such a thorough beard-removal, or if he was just angling for baksheesh (a tip) from the American guy. It was probably a combination of both — so I drummed up some baksheesh when Ihab asked for it.

I probably ended up paying more for the shave than your average Egyptian would have, but the novelty of the experience was worth the price of admission.

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  • Wow! A lot of steps for a shave! And the cigarette lighter technique look really scary!
    Awesome blog Rolf! Ive been following your travel since day 1.
    Greetings from Bogota, Colombia!

  • Dgjean

    How much did you pay for the shave, etc.?

  • Wow, I didn't realize you could ever put so much time and effort into a shave. Very interesting and fun to watch, definitely not as entertaining as watching my husband shave and make a mess in the sink at home.

    During my travels I come across the rare barbershop that is specifically for shaving and surprisingly they are usually in upscale malls in the U.S.

  • Sweet bit of film making there, along with the close shave. Nice!

  • Soren

    Can we learn about the west ? How is it ? Where to get it ?

  • Traindiva

    Can't imagine the level of courage it would take to sit down in Egypt (in an alleyway!) & let a stranger go at my face with a straight razor. wow. Certainly enjoyed watching the video, especially the expressions on your face Rolf. Loving the posts.

  • Peatt

    Fantastic job on the sepia and framing, Justin! That was a treat to watch.

  • Patrick

    AWESOME! I still remember my first Egyptian shave, which was the best thing I ever had, until he went after my ear hairs by using some doubled up thread to pull them out. That hurt like no one's business. Great video, had me laughing in the airport bar.

  • Hahahaha, That's great! I could always use a good hair flossing!

  • Joshi

    I had a shave like that in (a not so touristy part of Thailand) … However, it was impossible to get a shave like that in Ukraine.

  • Stephen Chapman

    Great stuff Rolf! Enjoying the journey.

  • Taj

    Kudos to Justin! I LOVE this! Okay… flossing the hair???? don't understand.
    Awards are on your way!

    • Thanks Taj! I'm hoping to win a leg lamp.

  • Jameswhitelive

    I had a similar experience in Nepal. Best shave ever and seems like you enjoyed it too until the baksheesh was sought. Keep the blogs coming.

  • This is cracking me up… I can't imagine what it would be like for the ladies to get a facial or our hair “done”!

  • Baksheesh… Haha. You didn't look to happy about that part.

  • Another great video! You guys rock! I loved the old-timey effects on this one! Wow!

  • Johnny Moose

    Hair flossing! What a crack up.

    Rolf and Justin – you guys are doing a great job considering the frequency of posting. I've watched all the videos and read all the content, loving it all so far. Top work!

    Hope you get some sleep along the way at some point as well fellas.

  • Erin

    That cigarette lighter to the ear hairs really freaked me out! But Jason said he'd do it.. Loved the old-timey silent film music!:)

  • Davidbrundage

    i hate backsheesh

  • The baksheesh has me curious – I'm assuming this is a tip, but what's so bad about it? The guy obviously did a fantastic job, so why would anyone be upset about giving him a generous tip?

  • jaq

    Rolf what is your process for writing the blogs? Do you use your analog notebook and then transcribe or do you write directly into your ipod? Do you find the creative muse works better one way or the other?

  • Pingback: How we make the videos (and how we lost one in Cairo) | No Baggage Challenge -- Around the World with no luggage()

  • KevinR

    …and note the young lad watching learning the trade. I had a similar experience in Turkey, and when we returned 2 years later the young lad was doing the shaves.

  • Rod

    That was an awesome video. I got a straight razor shave in Egypt one time in Dahab. Wasn't nearly as intensive, and the dude ended up cutting my face badly with the razor, which at the time was a bit of a bummer.

    I still have a thin scar arcing down from my lip which is quite cool, in my humble opinion, and heck, it has a great story behind it :)

    And yes, after cutting me, the barber still asked for baksheesh…. lol

  • txdakini

    Great video!

  • This is one of my favorite things to do on every trip to Japan – but it's pretty easy to trust somebody working in a culture that is THAT detail oriented and dedicated to their jobs

    (I've seen gas-station employees actually run out into traffic and hold it up just to make sure the car leaving the station would have clear passage onto the road).

  • JanetOakland

    Thanks for making my evening merry–reading about your video travails in Cairo and now seeing the video on the 21-step shave. I laughed outloud at the shave video. I think the flossing was the funniest part.

  • T-Dogg

    Not only was this interesting to watch it was also very soothing at the same time.