Hagop “Jack” Sulian unfurls a black cape, drapes it over my body, and reaches for an electric hair trimmer. His desk has four scissors of varying length and thickness resting in a mug. Two additional trimmers hang from a stand. A spray bottle of water is positioned next to a bottle of hair gel, and a blow dryer hangs from a hook on the side of the desk with a large mirror, about two-feet wide by four-feet tall.
Jack does not ask me what kind of haircut I want. He already knows. He can tell just by looking at me. And even if he asked, I wouldn’t know what to say. I’ve always struggled to describe the kind of haircut I’d like. Elsewhere, I might search for a photo that approximates a desired style, but this seems unnecessary with Jack. By the way he carries himself, with the poise of a virtuoso, I can tell he knows what he’s doing. His posture is ruler straight. His salt-and-pepper hair gives him the air of a sage. His white, button-down shirt and blue jeans are spotless, not a trace of hair.
The other barbers preside over the salon’s two remaining stations. One of them lounges in her barber chair, swaying back and forth on the pivot of her heel as she puffs on a cigarette. The barber next to her shakes a can of hairspray and covers her client’s hair in a chemical mist. Soon the room is thick with a scent. Mixed with the smoke, the combined aroma is something like burning plastic meets rotting teeth with a dash of lavender. Jack cracks open a window.
As Jack clicks on the trimmer, his gestures become more pronounced. He moves like a dancer-magician, graceful with hands that seem to induce an otherworldly state. His arms slowly rise to meet the side of my head, the trimmer in his dominant right hand twirls like a wand while his left hand hovers around my head as if to conjure a vision of the final product before the first swipe.
With each pass of the trimmer, his arms seem to freeze for a moment, lingering in the gesture before repeating. After a few initial passes, he switches to scissors. With one hand he collects my hair in the teeth of a comb, and with his other hand, the scissors snip. By this point he’s in a full trance, the scissors his baton, my hair his symphony falling in rhythm to his snap.
There is no time for small talk. No musings on Armenia’s national soccer team almost qualifying for the World Cup. No chit chat about the influx into Yerevan of Armenians from Aleppo fleeing the Syrian Civil War. No discussions about the historic revolution when a peaceful, opposition-led coalition toppled a semi-authoritarian oligarchy.
There’s another reason for the lack of small talk. Jack does not have a larynx. Years of heavy smoking, a habit he picked up as a teenager, deteriorated his vocal tract, requiring surgery in 2004 to remove his vocal chords where isolated cancer cells were discovered.
Jack grabs a second trimmer and sculpts my sideburns and neckline. He presses his left thumb against my temple as he guides the trimmer down the sideburn, pressing more firmly as the trimmer descends. He stops to admire the fade. We lock eyes in the mirror as he grins and we give each other an approving nod. In the mirror I also spot a faded photo of Jack with his wife and their son. There’s also an image of the Marian Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon perched atop a coastal mountain overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and Beirut.
Jack was born in 1960 to an Armenian family in Kaladouran, a village outside the northwestern Syrian town of Kessab. There near the Turkish border, Kaladouran belonged to a cluster of villages along the northeast Mediterranean coast in the region of Musa Dagh (Moses Mountain). The area is known for its dramatic topography of green mountains dipping down into the sea, and as the site where, during the Armenian Genocide, local Armenian villagers built a camp in the mountains where they used rocks and rifles to fend off the advancing Ottoman army. Word spread of this resistance, inspiring several narratives. Franz Werfel, a Jewish writer from Austria, wrote of the mountaintop struggle in the 1933 novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a book publicly burned by the Nazis. The 2017 film The Promise, subject to a revisionist campaign by Turkey’s government, also featured scenes from the defiant act of survival.
As a child, Jack enjoyed swimming in the emerald waters of the sea. Quiet nights sparkled under starlight as Jack enjoyed his mother’s delicious meals of bamya (okra), harissa (wheat porridge with lamb), and kufte (meatballs). But unemployment plagued his family, so in 1968, they moved 280 kilometers down the coast to Beirut, a city flourishing with opportunity and a vibrant Armenian community where he would eventually learn his trade.
After more trimming, Jack grabs a pair of shorter scissors and commences a round of more precise cuts. His chest puffs out as he works. His elbows rise parallel to the ground, expanding his reach. He snips in bursts of three and four. Intervals vary, sometimes in quick succession, sometimes adagio to observe the impact of a single cut.
In 1975, Jack began an apprenticeship under the respected barber Serob Hovsepyan. Hovsepyan’s salon was located in Jdeideh, one of Lebanon’s many localities rich with culture, commerce, and an Armenian community. Merchants displayed colorful bags of spices. Window mannequins modelled chic suits and dresses. Children kicked soccer balls past a potato seller rolling his cart down the street while shouting his pitch, “YALLA PATATA PATATA PATATA.”
Jack had little time to enjoy the neighborhood’s quirks. He dropped out of high school at fifteen to maximize income. His parents, themselves uneducated, struggled to find and keep work. His first year of apprenticeship overlapped with the start of a fifteen-year civil war that would engulf a new generation of Armenians in traumatic violence. Jdeideh, strategically situated on the coastical highway separating Beirut from the northern city of Tripoli, saw increasing clashes. Jack took up smoking to deal with the uncertainty of his safety and finances.
With a pile of black curls at his feet, Jack stops cutting my hair to review his work. He lifts his chin for an elevated view. He leans left and right to check the sides of my hair. Smiling, he taps me on the shoulder and points to the back of the salon. I follow his direction and go to an adjacent room where he has me sit in a chair and tilt my head back into a sink. Jack turns on the water, checking the temperature with his hand before splashing my hair. He squeezes shampoo into his palms and massages my scalp before using his fingers to scratch at hair roots. He turns off the water to let the shampoo settle.
Jack reaches into a pouch affixed to his leather belt and pulls out a grey, cylindrical object resembling a microphone. He pushes it against his neck and speaks, “Hima yet goukam” (I’ll be right back), he says, his voice projecting from the device. There is little variance in the tone or volume of the sound, and the timbre resembles the droning, metallic buzz of Jack’s electric clipper. Introduced in the 1940s, the electrolarynx compensates for absent or weak vocal cords by generating the throat vibration necessary for the production and articulation of sound.
Fresh from the end of his apprenticeship, Jack threw himself into his work. He planned to continue with Hovsepyan for a few years before opening his own salon. But Lebanon’s unravelling could no longer accommodate the entrepreneurial workforce who once thrived in the country’s booming economy from the 1950s to the early-1970s. Electricity cut out daily, forcing many homes and businesses to purchase gas or battery-powered generators. Beirut’s municipality could not provide its citizens with potable water or proper waste management. Stray bullets shattered windows. Bombs severed chunks of buildings that crumbled onto neighboring balconies and garages.
After the war ended in 1990, Lebanon could not nurture a viable middle class. Regional powers and global empires waged proxy wars for influence in the country, furthering governmental dysfunction and corruption. Affluent tourists, meanwhile, turned the proud nation into their playground. Ancient cedar forests, seaside cliffs, and remote villages became backdrops for Polaroids as workers faced increasing living costs. Among them, Jack struggled through the nineties to run his own salon in the bustling neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud.
Jack saw no future for himself in Lebanon. The West looked alluring, but his visa applications were rejected. In nearby Armenia, just a two-hour flight northeast, opportunity seemed more abundant — and the rules for migration less stifling — following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Armenia’s war with Azerbaijan, which took place about 300 kilometers east in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, ended in 1994. The small republic, roughly the size of Maryland, became a hub for Armenia’s global diaspora. Investments in real estate, tourism, mining, brandy production, and religious institutions meant growing demand for a service industry to support this gradual economic development.
In 2000, Jack reached Armenia and quickly found work in the capital, Yerevan. Wealth concentrated in the city center meant a reliable client base. Some employers mistreated him. People he once considered friends had betrayed him. But overall, life in Armenia allowed Jack to refine his craft and provide for his family in ways Lebanon could not match. Even the four seasons of valley-nestled Yerevan gave life more variety than the wet and dry seasons of coastal Beirut. Though he was in a new country, he still felt that he had come home to his motherland, inspired by the sense of national cohesion, yet disheartened by the depopulation crisis. Locals moved to Russia or the West in search of better salaries. In 2004, remittances jumped to 23 percent of the country’s economy. Armenia had its own economic challenges to overcome, but at least it had a semi-functional government, a feeling of unity, and most important for Jack, stable employment.
Jack returns and rinses the shampoo from my hair, spraying water from the adjustable spout. I cringe when the water trickles into my ear, but Jack immediately notices and swoops in with a towel to dry it off. Soon we’re back in the main chair for the finishing touches. He lathers hot shaving cream on my neck and cleans it with a fresh blade. He rinses and dries the blade before pressing it against a comb which he uses to remove any stray hairs that survived removal during previous passes. Then he uses hot air from a blow dryer to shape my hair. The haircut is complete, the style I could not articulate realized, the final product a manifestation of his vision.