Remember to wipe your feet

I almost didn’t go. It’d been raining all morning and the November cold was starting to take hold — the sky was one giant puddle. It wasn’t really a day for moving far from bed. But I knew that once I got there I’d love it. So I dressed reluctantly, quickly made a rainy day playlist and left my house.

“Be a good lad and remember to wipe your feet,” Stephen said to me, peering over the thin edges of his wire-framed, taped-together glasses. “What’ll it be today?” he said, patting the chair and inviting me to sit. “A number one all over?”

He always makes that joke.

I love going to the barber’s. For one thing, it’s an experience charged with nervous energy, as I constantly worry that I’ll come out looking like this:

Still, the main reason I love it is because it’s the only time I’m really forced to chat with people I’d normally not come into contact with. Stephen and I come from different countries and cultures — we’d never normally cross paths, let alone sit down and have a chat. When I go to get my haircut, I get to peer into other people’s lives and learn a bit more about the city I live in. It can be a bit uncomfortable sometimes, but that’s not such a bad thing.

Stephen likes to have the radio on while he works. A self-proclaimed artist, there’s nothing that gets his creative juices flowing like bland nineties and noughties pop.

“Do you like Snow Patrol?” I asked him this morning, as he started hacking at my barnet.

“I don’t care. It’s all shit,” he said, giving off a little chuckle.

About 30 seconds of silence passed before Snow Patrol stopped chasing cars and the news came on: more than 120 people murdered in Paris.

“Those senseless bastards,” Stephen said, the good humour draining from his words. “They’re not muslims. They are so far from muslims. They could not tell you the prayers. They could not tell you the mid-afternoon prayer. They are not muslims.”

He was breathing hard, trying to control his words.

“Do you think other people will look at the attacks and think that Islam is the problem?” I asked.

“Of course! It already happens — people, Muslims, good Muslims, get turn away from shops. It is shit, totally shit. They don’t know anything about Islam. They’re crazy extremists, animals. They don’t care about anyone but themselves. Me, as a good Muslim, if I go to tell them to stop, they shoot me, too. No, no… they are killing us all. They know nothing about Islam. In the Qur’an it says not to kill, not to steal, not to cheat. And they do everything! They say they stand for Islam, but that’s the one thing they damage the most.”

I looked into the mirror and thought I could see fear in his eyes, or perhaps despair at the knowledge that terrorists had hijacked part of his identity, his beliefs and used it to justify something he abhorred.

“What do you think about people calling them the Islamic State?” I said.

“It’s not a state and it’s not Islamic, so why should we call it that? Tyrants will use anything they can to gain power. That might be religion, just as it might be nationalism, patriotism, racism and classism. They will use whatever they can to spread fear and take power.”

“It’s so easy for us to create an enemy,” I said.

“Exactly. And that’s what we’ll become! Ten, twenty years ago, all these people from the West were learning all the amazing things about Islam. They were reading the Qur’an and becoming good Muslim people … but not any more. The media, everyone, they want us to be the bad guys.”

“What should we do?” I asked.

“Just love each other,” he said. “And kill all the terrorists.”

“Kill all the terrorists?”

“Yes, kill all the terrorists. Europe has such double standards. It supports terrorists in other countries when it’s convenient for them, but the circumstances change so quickly. This is wrong. A terrorist is a terrorist, whether they belong to PKK, IRA or ETA. There is no excuse, no need. They have no idea who they’re killing.”

“You’ll probably get your wish,” I said.

“The whole thing is just so unbelievably sad,” Stephen added, carefully putting away the clippers and moving onto the scissors. “What has become of the world?”

“So sad,” I said, trying to fill the silence. “I guess we just have to do what we can to try to understand each other and not fear what we don’t know.”

“You’re a good boy,” he said, brushing away the excess hair.

I sat there and stared hard at myself in the mirror as Stephen searched frenetically for his hand-held mirror. I wondered about how everything that had happened would affect people like Stephen, about how it would affect us all. I wondered how I would feel if I were Parisian or French. I wondered how I would feel if I were a Syrian who’d lost everything in the war and felt oppressed by a government that remorselessly dropped bombs on me. I wondered if I might consider joining a rebel group, if I could only see further turmoil and repression in my future. I wondered what the attacks said about the human race and our inability to overcome our differences. I wondered if we’d ever stop living out the Hollywood-esque good-and-bad-guy — us and them — narrative.

I had no answers, just a heart heavy with sadness for all the people who’d done nothing else but get in the way.

“How does it look?” Stephen asked, proudly holding the mirror to the back of my head.

“Great job as ever, Stephen,” I said, a smile returning to my face.

That’s another thing I like about the hairdressers: it’s the only time I get to see what I look like from the other side.

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