Barbershop Conversations: Refugees, Time Travelers, and Polyglots



My black privilege affords me the opportunity to have my hair cut by Jamaican-Canadian barbers whose unintelligible dialect, Patois, is a hybrid of English mixed with a pint of aged rum. I liken the language to someone being quite inebriated, whilst speaking and chewing on curry goat meat, and attempting to baby-talk the nearest adult into some undistinguishable action. If the listener is unfamiliar with the dialect, as I am, the best we can do is laugh it off; as Jamaicans laugh, probably at us for not understanding their humorous tongue. I appreciate my Jamaican barbers, they’re phenomenal human beings, even when I can’t understand a single word they say. My best friends are of Jamaican descent. Having known them for fifteen years I can assure you that I’ve learned more German, Italian, French, and possibly Russian than I have Jamaican Patois. And that’s okay. 

Anyway, today’s post is less about my awesome Jamaican barbers but more so about my experience with a Palestinian barber, who, for the sacredness of anonymity, we shall call Mo.

But before I strain to share my ebullient experience with Mo and Mo’s barbershop I must advise my non-black readers of the struggles of dealing, coping, and styling black men’s hair. Prior to discovering my Jamaican barbers here in Edmonton, I solicited the services of black Brazilians and mixed Latinos while still in Florida. But now that I’m north of the border and partially frozen, finding a Brazilian national around here is tough. Finding a black Brazilian national other than myself is like finding a black needle in a post-European, densely populated East Indian haystack. Yes, it’s hard. Now, finding a black Brazilian barber or a Latino barber is, well, almost impossible. 

So I’ve ventured into barbershops where I’ve been dealt deathly blows by an Asian woman who seemed unsure of how to cut my hair. This experience destroyed me inside. I’ve been met with grimaces when barbers would venture out into the lobby for their next client and I was next. I’ve sat with Lebanese hairstylists who are great at styling Lebanese hair. I’m not Lebanese so you can imagine how that turned out. I’ve gone as far and as low as having to call barbershops long before making the trip or confirming an appointment to ask, anonymously so, partially masking my voice, to see if they know how to “cut black hair.”

I’ve received all sorts of replies from the all-too accepting, “Of course we do!” That’s a lie, Sally’s Salon. (Name changed for privacy issues). I’ve gotten the resounding and possibly comforting, “No, no, we don’t do black hair here.” As problematic as that sounds I need the reader to understand that a “no” for black hair for lack of comfort is better sounding to me than a “yes” for all-inclusive hair monstrosities. 

I’m okay with being denied service if I know I will be granted a disservice should I pursue their products. 

Either way, it took me years of bad hair days, pseudo-afros, homeless dad looks, to finally find a group of barbers that one, knew how to style black men’s hair, two, were black, and three, were Jamaican. That last part was just a plus for humor. Black barbershops are an experience in and of themselves and I felt comfort in that. 

The barbershop experience for a black man is an event, an undertaking, a memorable program we visit every so often to commune with friends, find counsel from seniors and fellow customers, and possibly gossip a bit about nothing and nobody important.

But it’s Sunday and of course, my Jamaican barbershop isn’t open on Sundays. 

Why not just wait until Monday, Mr. Theory?

Great question. Well, it’s a Jamaican barbershop so they’re not open on Mondays either. 

So out of luck, I chose to solicit the hairstyling services of a different barbershop, and this against my wife’s better judgment. 

She knows that whenever I get a bad haircut I don’t complain to my barber or their shop. I look at my misshaped head, hairline, poor cut areas, bald spots (I’m not balding) and I thank the barber for the wonderful cut. I get up, thank them, pay them, and heave and cry in the car on my way home, complaining to my wife about the trauma I’ve experienced because of this horrible cut. 

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this phenomenon, black people cannot afford to walk around with a bad haircut. Our white brothers and sisters can get away with it because as soon as Jimmy shows up at school with a bowl cut they’re greeted with smiles and kind gestures other Jimmy grows up and shoots up the school. If Sandy shows up with part of her hair cut off because gum found itself mysteriously stuck to it, then teachers and friends embrace her and reassure her well knowing that Sandy needs love and encouragement. Sandy’s mom is a lawyer, you see. The school district cannot afford to have Sandy’s mom take them to court because Sandy was bullied.  

But should Jamal or LaQuanda show up with patches on their head, asymmetrical lines, hair too long or too short, then boy, let the hazing begin. You will be remembered, your legacy on earth, should you find a cure for Karens or the end of police brutality it still won’t matter. You will be remembered for your bad hair day. 

So, because of this trauma, I hesitate to seek barbers outside of my comfort zone but this Sunday I needed a cut, badly. 

We had a baby, baby girl number three just last week and I looked disheveled. In fact, when our pastor and his wife (our pastor is of Jamaican descent, by the way, convenient) showed up at our door with gifts for my wife and the baby I told them I looked disgruntled when I meant disheveled. That’s how ugly I looked. My afro was amateurish. My curls made me look like a substance abuser. And my beard, well, my beard was fine. 

But I desperately needed a cut and my go-to Jamaican barbers were closed and the trip to their shop took about forty-five minutes one way and forty-five back. (It’s a sacrifice).

So off to Mo’s barbershop I went. It’s not his shop but he works there, you know. 

He’s new to the place. 


Mo tells me arrived in Canada after leaving a refugee camp in Syria. He was born and raised in Palestine and confessed that he witnessed family members being killed, friends he cherished being killed, and others he knew well losing their lives to senseless violence. 

Mo is a rotund jovial individual who is scarcely not smiling or expressing content from life, but as he informed me, so comfortably so, about his now-dead family and friends, I could tell that there was a ghost, one could say, living with him. A ghost of horrors. How easily one rehashes and retells stories of trauma, loss, death, war, and poverty has to do with overexposure and repression of said trauma or a coming to terms with it all through years of therapy.

I’m not sure where Mo stands on the issue of his past trauma but his confidence in retelling his story was admirable, commendable even. 

Mo informed me that it took him and his mother, who he lives with now, months to relocate from Palestine to Syria, where they acquired refugee status attempting to flee terrorism at home, only to meet more terrorism in Syria. From there they managed to qualify for residency status in Canada as refugees. 

I informed Mo that I was happy for their transition and glad that they made their way to Canada, instead of, say, Sweden or one of the nordic nations, as many refugees there are met with hostility and animosity by racist and nationalist natives. He agreed.

Mo said he was happy to be here and by here he meant Canada, but then he went on to inform me that being here, no matter which part of the country, was more than anything they’ve ever had before. 

This young man, no more than twenty-five years old, was grateful for his new life.

And you know what? So was I. 

Time Travelers

Oddly enough, as Mo worked on my top, his coworker, a scrawny, light-skinned middle eastern Ja-Rule looking fella sat beside us in one of the available chairs because our discussion was apparently too friendly and forthcoming to ignore.

The strange thing is that this fella, whose name I did not get, nor was I truly interested in finding out, not because I didn’t like the fella, I had no reason to dislike him, but as soon as his questions came to light I was too distracted laughing within myself to stop and ask him for his name. 

He sits beside us, smiling and gawking at us, there were only three people in the building at this point, Mo, myself, and this strange fella. He asks:

“Alright, real talk, for real, real talk, right? So, would you take $40 million dollars in a bag or all the knowledge you have today and then travel back in time to the year 2000?”

I knew the answer to this question. I’ve handled it before, fifteen years ago when my Jamaican best friends asked it. I’m a pro. 

We went back and forth, unfortunately, because I was enjoying my chat with Mo until the Time Traveler interrupted, and I told him I’d take the money. 

He laughed at my conclusion because he mentioned bitcoin, Apple’s iPhones, Bezos’ Amazon, and other technologies that one could travel back in time to invent and become quite wealthy from it all. 

I retorted with the fact that as tempting as that sounds I wouldn’t want to do that because I wouldn’t have had the same connections, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk had. Nor would I have had their resources, their means, their motivations, nor the patience to endure the numerous and later pay for lawsuits and fines they did. I wouldn’t have the patience to see all these things through, the loss of friends because of my success or how long it would take for these companies to launch and become financially fruitful.

I explained to him that taking $40 million cash today helps me pay off my bills, debt, help my family and friends, and invest in other businesses and ventures immediately, without strings attached. I would prefer money now, then possibly losing it and much more, later by traveling back in time. 

We both laughed at this, but I knew I had won this nonsensical barbershop battle of nonsensical theories, and he got up to assist a new guest that had entered the building.

Thank God.


Mo explained to me that he speaks Arabic and English. When asked how many languages I speak I said three, comfortably, and I can understand some German. I was born in Brazil so Portuguese is a given. I lived in Florida for nearly two decades so English became my first language, one can say. Because of my stint in the Floridian peninsula and having had such proximity and immersive interaction with the Hispanic community there, in school, extracurricular activities, work, and church with the same community, Spanish became a thing for me. I cannot say that I am fluent in the language but I understand close to 100% of what my Spanish speaking friends say, with the only exception being the Spanish or pseudo-Spanish spoken by my Cuban and Cuban-American friends. There’s a difference. 

I can’t understand a single thing my Cuban friends say. It’s weird. Their Spanish is weird. 

So I informed my buddy Mo that I can speak three languages and partially understand a fourth. This brought the man great joy, as he said, in his most joy-filled way, “I like that about people, you know, people who speak several languages because it means they have an open mind.”

I agreed and then retorted Chesterton’s line that the only reason one opens the mind is the same reason they open their mouth, to eventually shut it on something solid. 

I was trying to be smart. Mo was kind and let this unnecessary English regurgitated nonsense pass by nodding and quietly agreeing. 

We both expressed the beauty and complexity of Arabic, its inseparable connection to the Quran and Islam, and the varying dialects connected to this language. I explained to Mo that it would be easier for me to fully comprehend and speak German than for me to learn Arabic. He chuckled and said I’d have little to no trouble tackling the language since I had already learned so many. 

Mo explained, without scientific backing, this is street knowledge that I took to heart, that the more languages one knows the easier it is to learn others. 

I’d have believed the man if German didn’t exist but it does so his formula is nonsense. 

Seine Formel ist absoluter Müll

See what I mean?!

Concluding Thoughts

I went out of my way, stepping dangerously outside of my comfort zone to visit a barbershop I did not know too well, placing my hairline and social dignity in the hands and clippers of a man I did not know at all and things turned out just fine. 

My cut was on point. Mo did a phenomenal job. I met a great guy and a very good barber. I was able to have a good chuckle with Mr. Time Traveler and his $40 million ultimata. The service was cheaper here than at my regular place. The travel here was shorter, like a ten minute car ride there and then ten to get back. 

This does not mean I’ll go on trusting my life and looks to someone other than my usual Jamaican barbers but it’s a hint that there are still some great barbers out there. They needn’t be black nor Jamaican. Shoot, these guys were open on a Sunday afternoon. 

Like… man, that’s weird.

Either way, I was content with the service and experience. 

The greater news is that Mo is engaged and plans to wed his fiancee soon. To know this young man has struggled and thrived through so much in so little time and is soon to be awarded with love and commitment is truly uplifting. 

Anyway, can’t wait to get back to my Patois speaking crew. Their unintelligible mockery of what I understand as English is quite calming. Knowing all I have to do is laugh, say ya mon, to every question, concern, critique, suggestion, a conversation starter, or disagreement is quite the relief. At my barbershop, I’m not Jarrel. No. There I’m Brasil! 

I answer to that and I take pride in it. I pay the higher fee, drive from one side of the city to the other, sit for hours, listen to people shouting and laughing, watch as ministers, gangsters, working-class men, adorable little children with voluminous afros, black sisters and mothers who “do hair” and do it very well all come and go through this barbershop. I got my braids done there by a Jamaican lady named Jerika. Jer-REE-Ka. What a name. What a service. I love everything about the place. I support it wholeheartedly. I hope to take my girls there too, for fresh braids and also the experience. My kids are light skin but I’m sure they’d appreciate this lovely experience as well. 

I also hope Mo has a life of peace, recovery, and success. Not success monetarily alone, but success in life, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually, so that his daunting past may be just that, his past. 

So raise your glasses and your clippers to my buddy Mo, to refugees, time travelers, and polyglots! 

And yes, to my Jamaican people! Whatgwonmon! 

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