Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Ahmad Zaher or Manga Style? The cutting-edge business of Afghan barbers

Obaid Ali 7 min

A young Afghan man’s morning, across the country, often starts with a time-consuming session of arranging his hair. Afghan men are proud of their usually thick, glossy tufts and barbers accordingly make good business providing their style-hungry customers with the latest cuts. This has tradition. A variety of distinct hairstyles can be seen on photographs throughout different periods and political regimes, going back to the liberal 1960s, with Kabul always the trendy capital. Even during the Taleban era – when the regime considered a man ‘proper’ only with a bushy beard – Kabuli boys and men never gave up on style, says AAN’s Obaid Ali. He has a look at the fast increasing number of barber shops in Kabul and elsewhere in the country and portrays the changes within a profession that is still – but maybe not much longer – at the fringes of society.

Two young Kabuli barbers, Rohullah and Ali. Rohullah, right, is sporting a favourite among hair styles, copied from Korean movie stars. Photo: Obaid Ali

Four hairstyles are currently the height of Afghan fashion; whoever wishes a glimpse of them, just spend a day at Kabul University. There you can see the so-called risha’i style (chin- or even shoulder-length, in the front nose-length, and often straightened). Then, there is the Ronaldo style, copied of course from the Brazilian soccer star of the 2006 World Cup final, with the hair cut extremely short at the sides, but longer on top and forced up with lots of hair gel. Lately, the Ahmad Zaher style has made a comeback, too, named after the most famous of all Afghan pop stars. Zaher, assassinated in June 1979 was also called the Afghan Elvis (listen to some of his music and see him shake his hair here). This style was very popular in the 1970s and ’80s. It features a large quiff over the forehead, long sideburns known as tabarcha’i (hatchet-shaped sideburns) and is often treated with olive or nut oil to make it shiny. It is suspected that, in the countryside, particularly in the Dari-speaking north (Zaher was Pashtun, but sang most of his songs in Dari), the Zaher never went out of fashion; many men still wear it there and probably not retro-ironically. And then, there is a rather extreme cut, inspired by, it seems, the heroes of Japanese mangas or Korean movies with its starkly layered bobs and long fringes. Young (often Eastern Asian looking) Hazara men, mostly, prefer this cut, coupled with flashy clothes which gives the impression that Kabul University is populated by Far Eastern movie stars. Other styles are copied from the Hollywood and Bollywood film industries.

In Kabul and other urban centres, the number of barbers providing these haircuts has increased significantly in the past few years, although there were plenty of them already at least since the 1980s. In those old days, due to the lack of internet or even DVDs, barbers copied foreign haircuts from movies or from fashion magazines found floating around in the markets. In the 1980s, every Thursday evening was ‘Hindi movie’ time on Afghan state TV, which literally emptied the streets and provided more ‘fashion-news’.

Nowadays, though, barbers are not simply barbers – dalak – anymore. Like in the West where barbers became ‘stylists,’ titles are more grandiloquent. In the Afghan rural areas, they are now salman (which means the same, just sounds fancier), and in urban areas even English terms are in vogue: here barbers like to call themselves ‘hair and beauty dressers.’ In the bigger cities and district centres, salons can be found in every market place and lined up in several ‘barber streets.’ The most famous in Kabul are located in Shahr-e Now and Taimani. They are mostly run by young men and are for men only – women have their own universe of beauty salons – and offer not only the cutting and styling of hair, the shaving, head massages and ear hair plucking, but also eyebrow shaping and treatments for the skin.

Preparing grooms for the big day is also big business. On Friday afternoons, many hair salons are booked solid by husbands-to-be who want to look good for the evening wedding ceremonies. Ahmad Qasem, a well-known Kabuli barber who runs the Hair Fashion Salon in Taimani, says a groom spends around four hours in his salon for the whole service and keeps at least three of his barbers busy. After the range of ‘hairy’ treatments, pimples are taken out and at least three kinds of face moisturizer cream are applied; each mask takes 30 minutes (see also here and here). Then, powder is applied to prevent the face from shining and looking unfavourable on the many photos and videos taken during urban weddings. For Qasem, preparing a groom “means presenting a model in front of hundreds of commentators.” Not that all of his colleagues would agree, though. Kaka Naqib, a 78-year-old barber in the old city of Kabul, says that he has prepared thousands of grooms in his time but never put face cream or powder on any of them. “What would be the difference between a man and a woman, if one puts that on a man’s face?” he asks. There is a distinct divide between the ‘hairdressers’ of the new generation and older barbers.

... and a Kunduz barber in the traditional style. Photo: Obaid Ali

… and a Kunduz barber in the traditional style. Photo: Obaid Ali

The love of a fashionable hairdo is not new, though. Even during the Taleban era – a regime obsessed with regulating its citizens’ hair growth – many youth kept up with fashion. (Taliban wanted hair to look the way Prophet Mohammad wore it according to different Hadiths: ear-level at its shortest and shoulder-length at its longest, simple, un-styled, combed back and accompanied by a bushy beard. Some people ended up held in containers at certain check posts until their beards were long enough.) (1) At that time, a hairstyle called Tere Naam, named after a Bollywood character and movie, was in vogue. The character in Tere Naam wore his hair long and parted in the middle, with the fringe styled into the face, framing the eyes (see photo here). Those who wore their hair Tere Naam-style spent most of their time inside, fearing that if they went out, the Taleban would shave their heads. Some resorted to wearing a lungi, a traditional kind of turban – which somewhat messed up the style, but was practical, as the wearer could tuck his hair under it in public.

Don’t let the village barber get too rich

In the countryside, things are different. Work for barbers is easier because the hairstyles customers might want are fewer. Apart from the classic Ahmad Zaher style, hair is either mostly short (in the north) or kept long and straight (south, east and west). The latter is useful in provinces where young men dance attan, a traditional Pashtun dance that requires the hair to fly decoratively when the dancers rhythmically move in their circles and shake their heads.

The method of payment is different, too. In most villages, barbers do not demand cash – they get a share of each villager’s harvest instead. The rule is simple. Per person and year, one man (14 kilograms) of wheat and one man (seven kilograms) of rice are due. This might sound much but it is because the barber’s job in rural areas is not only concerned with hair. He also has all sorts of other important functions in the community: he plays music and sings during village parties; cooks for parties; and acts as a barker, or ‘public awareness director,’ spreading the latest news. He also pulls teeth and does circumcisions for boys. This role as a provider of services that are necessary but not deemed respectable also impairs his social status (something that slowly seems to be changing in the cities).

Like the village black smiths, the village barber belongs to a particular social caste; no ‘honourable’ man would give him a daughter to wed. (2) On the other hand, no one would dare ‘forget’ to give the barber his share, either. Khalifa Khairo, a barber in the Mullah Gholam village of Khanabad district in Kunduz, for example, says that people were anxious not to violate the rights of two categories of people. First, the mullahs (who are also regularly given shares of harvests or, for example, Eid sacrifices), because they know if they violated the mullah’s rights, the religious men would do badwa (in Dari) or khera (in Pashto) – meaning ‘bad prayers’ (wishing bad luck upon people). The second category is the barber. According to Khairo, if someone did not give the barber his due, the barber would let everyone in the village know what a pathetic cheapskate he is – quite a threat in the tightly woven Afghan rural communities where what people know and think of their neighbours counts tremendously.

Because usually the number of customers is large and the number of barbers is small, village barbers benefit in manifold ways, also receiving small cash ‘presents’ for the services rendered during weddings or burials. In some eastern parts of the country, villagers have a ‘game’ to prevent the local barber from getting too rich. Once a year, they storm the barbers’ house and loot it. They believe if a barber gets too rich, he will stop his services and try to rule over the villagers.

So it is not all beauty in an Afghan barber’s life, not even in the big city where they are ‘hair dressers’ and ‘beauty salon’ owners. Shokrullah, a barber in Shahr-e Now, says that last summer one of his apprentices ruined a customer’s hairstyle. Unfortunately, the man was a gangster. He forced all four barbers in the salon to shave each other’s heads bald.


(1) An Afghan colleague who, had just returned from a job in Dubai, talked himself out of such a situation. And, so that other Taleban would not harass him, he was given a certificate saying that he had just returned from abroad and specifying a deadline by which he had to show his Taleban-style beard.

(2) The German ethnologist Peter Snoy wrote in 1986: “The term dalak comes from the Arabic and is best translated with the archaic [European] ‘barber-surgeon.’ He guards the bathhouse [hamam], does the cutting of hair and is called when a boy needs to be circumcised, as demanded in Islam. . . . Accordingly, those performing those professions stand at the fringes of society. No one wants to engage in marriage relations with them. The dalak constitute an endogamous pariah group that is spread over the whole country; their services are required everywhere. Other artisans also need to be mentioned in this respect: blacksmiths, goldsmiths, leather workers whose professions almost everywhere are considered as low. . . . The dalak, however, are always the lowest ranking among them.”

(Source: Afghanistan Ländermonographie, ed by Stiftung Bibliotheca Afganica, Liestal, 1986; translation from German: Thomas Ruttig.)


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