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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