Encounter in a Palestinian Hair Salon

Photo Credit: Jennifer P. Sheridan

Judith Dupre reveals what happens when an American puts herself in the hands of “the enemy”

I woke up in Jerusalem on a July morning to the sound of cats fighting. It’s a huge noise, one not heard in calmer places, that reminds me how much about the Holy Land will be forgotten once I’m back home. The way a bowl of hummus tastes, the touch of a gnarled olive tree, how the sun rises over Bethlehem and rakes across the separation barrier one concrete plank at a time: these are what make up these evanescent days.

Yesterday, I spent the morning at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, running my hands over its ancient umber stones, worn smooth by fourteen centuries of pilgrims before me. It’s the kind of place that stops you in your tracks and makes you think about the miracle of every birth, the epic journey of every life.

Afterwards, I hurried to meet my study group for a bus tour of outer Jerusalem. I wasn’t particularly worried about the time, figuring I’d glide through the Israeli checkpoint at the separation barrier, or Wall, as Americans most always do. This time, however, I found myself hopelessly at the end of the line, while a group of Palestinians ahead of me were being asked repeatedly to put their hands in a handprint reader, one of the many Israeli security measures at the Wall. Sure, I could wave my big blue American passport in the guards’ faces, which usually worked like a charm. But after spending hours at the humble place of the Nativity, I wanted to bear some of the ignominy that the Palestinians endure daily.

I stared impatiently at the guard as minutes ticked by. Like a cat with a mouse, he seemed to be deliberately toying with those ahead of me. Jesus’s birthplace is a literal prison for thousands of Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian. Many have not been to Jerusalem—six miles away—in years, hostage to the long antagonism that runs both ways.

Finally through the line, I ran chuffing up the hill only to see the bus disappearing into the distance. I was furious at the tour director. That petty clock-watcher! I began indignantly plotting my revenge. It’s funny how grace and vengeance walk hand and hand.

But all the anger in the world wasn’t going to bring the bus back. Instead, I wandered over to a Palestinian beauty salon, which, having the geographic good fortune to be located on the Israeli side of the Wall, wasn’t subject to the vagaries enforced at the checkpoint. This was a Western-style salon, full of women in spaghetti-strapped tops with flowing hair streaked with blonde highlights. Nothing could be further from the hermetic intimacy of the hijab.

Few of the shop’s stylists spoke English. Jacqueline, the owner, understood in the universal language of the salon that I wanted her to rescue my snarled hair, which, after days of desert hiking, looked like a flock of goats moving down the slopes of Gilead. At first I was nervous about being in a place so different from the exclusive salon I frequent at home, good hair being my one splurge. Yet before she applied the color, the assistant took pains to dot the edges of my hairline with cream so that the dye wouldn’t stain my skin. She then applied the color slowly, strand by strand. She washed my hair, generously lathering it twice, and finished with a luxurious head massage. Then Jacqueline glided in and expertly snipped with the kind of hands-deep finesse possessed only by masters.

Two hours later, my initial anxiousness replaced by that seductive, relaxed state that comes about in beauty salons, another woman, Danah, arrived to blow-dry my hair. Halfway through this labor, she looked deeply into my eyes, her own as blue as lapis beads, and asked where I was from.

New York.

Oh, she said, choosing her words, then you are not Greek, and continued drying with the same careful attention that the other women had showered on me.

Moments later, I realized that “not Greek” was her kind way of saying, Oh, then you are a Jew, or perhaps, you are an American Jew, or, most fundamentally, you are an American, the friend of my enemy, the government by which Israel has the authority to take away our lands, livelihoods, and children’s futures. Like many in the Holy Land, she and the other salonists must have assumed I was a Jew, with my dark eyes, unruly curls, and, after three decades in Manhattan, a good bit of brash confidence. Or perhaps their tolerance was typical of the thousands who daily step away from the divisiveness propagated by both sides, and go about their days.

Danah’s comment opened a floodgate of understanding.  I recall that today, July 22, is the feast day of Mary Magdalene, celebrity stand-in for the many Biblical bad girls who had courage enough to face their demons, engage the stranger at the well, or dry Jesus’s feet with their hair—to do the right thing, the human thing, by the other. Here, in this Palestinian beauty salon, my hair was being lovingly tended by holy women who ministered to me, a stranger — and, by most political measures, their enemy.

Editor’s Note: Judith Dupré is the author of Full of Grace: Encountering Mary in Faith, Art, and Life, as well as several international bestselling works of narrative nonfiction. Currently, she is matriculated at Yale Divinity School where she is exploring the ethical implications of  architecture and community building. She lives outside New York City.

20 comments so far.

  1. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    At least you didn’t have to go through a scanner showing your naked body or have people fondle your pubic hair as opposed to or in additon to the hair on your head with gloves that had done the same for oh…lets say 100 or so before you… as would have been the case had you chosen to leave a major US city this week.

    And, I daresay, neither did the Palestinians going through the Israeli checkpoint. I would gladly give my handprint to the TSA as opposed to exposing my hoo hah to them. Not to mention have dirty gloves touch my clothes or skin that had had touched god knows in front of me with the invasion of lice and bedbugs we have these days thanks to the elimination of DDT.

    Is the point of your article that we can all get along as long as we highlight together?

    Did it occur to you that you that you were like Elaine in the episode of Seinfeld where the Korean manicurists are making fun of her? Thought not. Of course they loved you. You were an enlightend dhimmi. With money for tips.

    • avatar Briana Baran says:

      Katharine, in case you were not aware of this, all too frequently Palestinians are required to be strip searched before entering Israel. They are afforded little to no privacy during this procedure, and it is more invasive than anything you might “suffer” in an attempt to fly for pleasure from point A to point B in the United States. They don’t wait in temperature controlled airports either…they wait, sometimes for hours, often when seeking medical care for desperately sick children, or pregnant women, in sweltering heat without water or food. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, after truly suffering much more than “indignities”, they are turned away. It is very arbitrary.

      As for those awful scanners, they don’t show a Hustler gatefold image. Only an extremely peculiar person would find that image erotic (I suppose everyone has to be somewhere) or offensive and intrusive. No one cares about anyone’s hoo-hah, not after hours on the job. As a very wise woman told me, “If you think everyone is so fascinated with you that they’re all going to be staring, consider this; What makes you think that you’re so special?”

      I am not paranoid, but hey, if they want to check me out, so be it, because they might also check someone out who actually has a nasty little present hiding in her bra, or undies. I have this thing about my loved ones being harmed because some entitled group of people think that they’re above the law, and only their personal “privacy” matters. Things other than metal can do tremendous harm, and can be spotted on scanners.

      As for icky lice and crawly bedbugs…the former are much more likely to become friendly with you at a movie or live theatre, or any venue with cloth seats…and the latter don’t live on humans at all, only in carpets, bedding, cracks in walls and upholstery. Neither adhere to latex or vinyl at all, so do not be ridiculous. However, I do understand that DDT and malathion (my daddy used that to spray our old metal trash cans back before plastic bags) can be purchased in special instances if one can get the proper licensing. Perhaps you could douse yourself in one of these before entering the check-in line (just a dab behind the ears and in the elbows should do it, and keep the risk of cancer and brain damage down too!).

      Or, alternatively, and probably to the relief of those who care about humanity as a whole, you could just drive…

    • avatar blueelm says:

      My friend, a Palestinian Christian who attends medical school here, typically has a full anal and vaginal cavity search performed after visiting her family across the border and before going back.

      Check your privilege, man. The TSA is annoying as can be… but that doesn’t make it a walk in the park to be a hated ethnic minority in a country.

  2. avatar macwoof woof says:

    THis seems like simplistic reasoning of a complex situation that helps no one. It is very easy to blame but would love to see some realistic solutions instead of the same ole same ole stuffs.. You DON”T know what these women were actually thinking- only your speculation (which is dangerous). Next time try engaging in conversation with the people you are judging. They might just dislike wealthy arrogant Americans who think they know it all, even what they are thinking.

  3. avatar Judith_Dupre says:

    Katharine Gray: you missed the point and spirit of the article entirely. And, Macwoof, it might interest you to know that I’m not wealthy, not arrogant, and have in fact spent years engaged in conversations with Israelis and Palestinians. I’d suggest that peace –everywhere — can best be furthered by thinking before making inane and judgmental comments.

    • avatar D C says:

      Perhaps Macwoof took your comment, “At first I was nervous about being in a place so different from the exclusive salon I frequent at home” plus your living in Manhattan to mean you were wealthy. I admit, I have to wonder what you spend at that exclusive salon and how often you go. This coming from a woman who got a really bad haircut in ’88 and has been cutting her own hair ever since. Naturally curly thick hair can hide a multitude of scissor sins. I take no issue at all with your column — I thought I was reading a travel piece rather than a political statement. Oh well… down here in Texas we are rather simple I guess.

      • avatar D C says:

        Sorry — my mistake… you said New York… not Manhattan. New York is a big state, but when people who are not from there hear New York, they are mostly thinking NYC.

    • avatar macwoof woof says:

      EXACTLY my point Judith.

  4. avatar Elinor Stone says:

    Dear Judith Dupre,
    I’m glad you were treated nicely in a Palestinian salon. I don’t know what they were thinking, but I can guess what the Israeli guards were thinking. They were hoping that their children would not be killed today by a Palestinian IED on their way home from school.
    The hairdressers had no reason to be anything but good to you. You were there only to appreciate the cultures. No reason to feel guilty because our country supports Israel, a democratic county in the Western style, surrounded by twelve neighbors who live in tribal style and want Israel out. Maybe these Palestinian women could try to influence their men to be less brutal. That would benefit everybody.
    Elinor Stone

  5. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    The fact that you received careful attention showed that these women took their work seriously. They were probably glad to have an unexpected patron that day. I don’t think everyone is focused on politics or hates because one is of another culture. Perhaps it is time to realize that most of us are focused on our personal issues, health, in-laws, finances rather than picking apart someone different. Knowing where someone is from could be a bridge to understanding.

  6. avatar Briana Baran says:

    She does live in Manhatten, and has for three decade, as she clearly stated. Manhatten is one of the five buroughs (districts, villages) of New York City…which is a very large and densely populated city. It happens to be the oldest part. No, I do not, nor have I ever lived there, but come on people…

    I support the position that our government takes in giving aid and support to Israel. That said, it is categorically untrue that Israel, at present, is a quite a Western style democracy. The current government is extremely Orthodox and conservative, which has caused a great deal of internal strife for the citizens. Attacks on non-Orthodox Jewish women and girls, including beatings, stonings and harassment, have become a serious problem. The assaults are perpetrated by groups of ultra-Orthodox men (there are numerous different sects of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, not just the Chassidish Jews) who believe that Israel should be given over to their interpretation of Torah and Talmudic law. The present government has also been extremely unyielding in any negotiation attempts with Palestine or other neighboring countries. Believe it or not, there are many Christian and Jewish people living within the boundaries of Israel’s neighbors.

    It is a desperate situation, as most respectable medical care is on the Israeli side, and Palestinians cannot even get emergency care for their children without hours long delays. There are strip searches, many of them, for women as well as men. There is already a women’s movement to bring peace between the two nations…for the sake of children on both sides. And please remember, every time that an Israeli soldier is killed, the reigning politicians think little of lofting bombs into densely populated areas based on the belief that a single Hamas agent may be hiding there.

    This piece, however, was curious to me. I am not at all religious, so the ruins of a place where an alleged man supposedly was buried 2000 years ago has no spiritual meaning for me. Too many wars, too many deaths, too much suffering and agony in his name, and God-Yahweh-Allah’s names. All based on the same 3000 year old text, all trying to exterminate each other. The Catholic Church persecuted and executed Jews long before the Muslims ever thought about it in any serious way…and, what’s more, the Holy see invaded the Holy Land and spent a lot of time persecuting and executing Muslims too, as well as burning thousands of words of wisdom. The Mother Church turned its face away, and the Pope sent Hitler a birthday card religiously, every year, while zyklon b poured out of the showers, the musslemen shuffled as the undead, and the flames roared in the ovens. Hitler and his cohorts were all Christian.

    Now, Tea Partiers and Christian Dominionists want a “return” to a fundamentalist Christian Nation that never was, the world is largely the good friend of Israel, Muslim TERRORISTS (I would have used italics, much more polite, but they were disappeared and I needed to emphasize) fly passengers planes into buildings making all Islamic peoples the devil incarnate, Israel is always in the right…except when it isn’t, and we have a very pious Christian woman extrapolating based on a single, simple comment that a Palestinian woman might loathe her because she suspects that she is an American New York Jew, and the cause of all of her suffering.

    Judith, based on the title of your book, I am going to dare to assume that you are Catholic. I will admit that I still get $15 haircuts (they are basically crew cuts, after all), and that, upon venturing to the Holy Land (which I think of, personally, as part of the Cradle of Civilization…excluding religion, which is about as uncivilized as mankind can be), I would wash my own hair. Your facial features and coloring could suggest a Greek, or Mediterranean ancestry, or perhaps she did think you were Jewish. But, Judith, she was doing her job. Like beauticians all over the world, she was talking to you. Perhaps the discomfort was all yours. Why should she feel anything particularly about you?

    You seem very conflicted about your experience in Israel. I certainly would be, if I went there as a Christian and understood the history of suffering and misery that religion had caused ALL of the people in the Cradle. I would love to see peace and harmony come to Israel, and the entire Middle East…but as long as religion, with its various organizations, irrational beliefs in the absolute rightness of its convictions, its sects and denominations, divisiveness and power-mongering exists…it will never happen.

    The most terrible thing to occur in the history of humanity was the first human who spoke the words, “There is a god, and we should follow his word”.

    • avatar Pdr de says:

      Excellent, Brianna.  You should be writing a weekly article in wowowow, we readers can learn a great deal from you.  Thank you!

  7. avatar mamiejane says:

    Interesting story but I wish the editor and writer had resisted the reference to “the enemy.”  Most Palestinians think the American people are wonderful. They don’t always like our government but they are smart enough to separate the American people from policies they consider unjust. To whatever extent Judith considered these Palestinian women her enemy when she walked into the salon…I hope she came out realizing her mistake. Although the use of the word in the headline suggests otherwise.

  8. avatar Vicki Sarris says:

    Judith,  Thank you for sharing this loving and moving story; it is inspiring and encouraging.  These gifted Muslim women tended to your needs with great care and consciousness, regardless of your background or beliefs.  What a shining light they are creating.  It is something we can all emulate and reflect – their grace.  Mary’s light is in all of us too.   I am grateful to have read your story.  My day is just that much brighter.

  9. avatar Suzanne Burk says:

    Briana, you seem to blame alot on religion without realizing it is the people who made all of those things happen, not religion.  Even if you say religion is the cause, it is still those who misinterpet the Word that are the cause of evil…..not religion or my God.  I feel for you and pray you will be able to distinguish the difference one day and see that God is good and evil exists because of free will and evil minds, not religion. 

    • avatar Briana Baran says:

      Suzanne, an humble question: precisely who created organized religion? Are you saying that it is simply a few, misguided individuals who caused the Crusades to happen, or the 100 Years War, the Inquisition, the witch-hunts in Europe and the Colonies? Will you claim that only a few who misinterpreted the “word” turned their backs on nine million people who were slaughtered without mercy in the Death Camps at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau? Was it not the Catholic Church that unilaterally refused to ask Hitler to turn aside from his wholesale slaughter of the innocent, then aided and abetted his war criminals in their flight away from prosecution and trial? A few, you say.
      Is it not the religious who would prevent women from having reproductive rights to their own bodies, and other humans from having civil and human rights because they have a sexual orientation that the dogma-bound are affronted by? Is it not those who which to make this nation a soley Christian nation, in direct defiance of our Constitution and Bill of Rights, who want myths instead of science taught in our children’s schools?
      Man made god in his image. Homo sapiens created religion as an institution of power, to exclude those who were different from his tribe, to promote fear and ignorance and divisiveness, and to explain that which he hadn’t the wit to understand. If you think that god is a benevolent being that exists in sentient consciousness of our plight, where is he? When children drown in tsunamis, are crushed in earthquakes, where is your god? When they sob for help while being maimed and tortured, where is your god? Where is your god when Ebola, cholera, tuberculosis or malaria kills millions of the innocent?
      Yes, of course god is good…for those like you who are happy, safe and comfortable. For others, not so much, I think. I, personally, have seen no proof of the wretch’s existence, and I’ve been around a good while.
      I can, however, prove that humans exist, and that they are endlessly able to make excuses for themselves and their vile acts (O, Satan!) and mumble fearfully at what they don’t comprehend (God!), and slough off responsibility like snake-skin with visions of a benevolent deity to pray to for dubious guidance and an end to accountability…and an afterlife filled with redemption from whatever hell they caused others in this mortal coil.

    • avatar Mary Miller says:

      But Suzanne, doesn’t religion rely on the very same people who have made it evil?  Has religion changed to accomodate those evil people?  Organized religion would not exist today if it wasn’t for evil in people. I always thought that religion was a catalyst to turn evil away by example of  love and forgiveness.  If I was a “sinner” for example, isn’t it the churches responsibility to forgive me and to show me love and support, thereby acceptance of Christ, ( that is in respect to the Christian church).  Isn’t it the responsibility to leave judgement to God?  When did it change and man make it’s own rules as to what defines the church?  I have gone back in history to answer these questions and cannot find a starting point as to when man did not take over the power over the people’s thought process and become powerful in the name of Religion.  It is not that I don’t believe in God, it is that I don’t believe in the power of man and man’s never ending battle for power and Power to decide what people can believe.  I cannot even find a good example of how the leadership of church can benefit the masses.   Ideology , theology and belief is very different than what organized religion is represented by and teaches.

  10. avatar Briana Baran says:

    O, apologies to all of the truly dear people on WoW for my irritability. I truly dislike when someone piously declares that they will pray for me. I had a maiden auntie who would do that. When I was a very small child (before I became wise, and abdicated my position as Catholic-in-good-standing forever at the age of eight), I feared greatly that, should anyone pray for me, “god” might take notice. Since he’d allowed his alleged son to be hung up so unpleasantly on a cross, and when Jesus was a much nicer person than I thought I was, I was very sure that “god” wasn’t going to be doing me any favors.
    This also figured into my panic at my First Communion, when I was made to wear a white dress and veil to become a “Bride of Christ”. I didn’t want to be married to a human person (or wear a dress, come to that), and the terror I felt at being married to anyone related to “god” was extreme. I sobbed silently all day, unable to explain to all of the moronically delighted adults. I was reasonably sure that my post nuptial situation might involve uprights and cross-pieces and very large spikes.
    But, when it became clear that I could freely leave the church, I guardedly stopped fretting…then went into the back-yard and played soccer with my boy-cousins in my white organza communion dress, staining it liberally with grass and dirt, and subsequently being yelled at by mother who spent so g*d-d****d much of her money on that dress (but never went to church anyway). Sweet. And the old man in the sky never did get his hands on me…

    • avatar Mary Miller says:

      When I first read this article I thought it a nice piece and reminder of how we often misjudge by our pre conceived notion of what we think , what we hear and how often we are wrong.  Then as I read how others have responded I wonder at how often my thinking is challenged.
      As I thought about it, I wasn’t going to respond, but my fingers will not be idle, so I find myself typing my thoughts.

      I have lived all over this country and have seen so many predjudices within this country that it is unreal.  We fear other countries and other religions but don’t look within ourselves and often find it easier to be sucked into the thought that we are safe from ourselves and often it is because many hide behind their rightous selves.  I did belong to organized religion for many years, but I cannot abide by it any longer, maybe someday I will return to it, but not now.

      I moved to the “bible belt” of Ohio 15 years ago from upstate N.y. for personal reasons.    One of the first things I found was that the minute I said I was from N.Y. doors slammed closed on any future for me here.  One reason was that people associate N.Y. with crime, bad manners, and tons of bad things.  I learned very quickly that in order to survive I had to also explain that I had relatives here and once I named them, well I was deemed OK and a poor misguided soul that returned to the folds.  I used to be quite confused here when I first arrived that everyone would wave and smile at me , whereas in N.Y. it was not unusual to get the finger freely for nothing.  I didn’t know the people here yet and I didn’t know the finger waving people in N.Y. either, but my first thought was how nice.  Well not realy nice after 15 years realizing that the waving smiling “christian conservative” does the smiling waving thingy because they want to appear to be loving and open.  Yes they don’t care who they get their money from , or where it came from, but judging beyond that is knife cutting and demeaning in every way.  Isolation is as painful within a community as being in a jail.  In N.Y. you pretty much know where you stand and it is more honest.  You make your friends harder but they will always stand by you.  Here if  you are not within their church you never will be their friend.  They speak about love, about Jesus, about everything except practicing their words.  Why is that different than traveling from Israel to the Palestine?  If someone around me here starts talking about their church, about loving me etc. I take it as a warning to be very very careful.  Those are the people in my experience who will cause you the most pain.  Truely I think that if there is a God her must be shedding many a tear because it is not what I always believed Christianity should be and I fear that Christianity in the true sense is so far away from it’s intent that it is just plain sad.  I am not ruling out that it may be just a local thing, but I kind of don’t think it is.

      I have had this discussion with many people who like me have come here from different areas and we all see it and we all wonder after this many years if the whole world has come to this same point.  These thoughts also have  opened discussion and thought provoking ideas provided by looking at the history of religion and ideology.  So I have studied it and each and every organized  religion I have studied relies heavily on government and is represented by a leader who represents power and decides for it’s congregation a belief system that may or may not represent the ideology of the original church foundation.  It is quite interesting that so many are willing to put their individual thoughts and morality issues in the hands of churches that are not even in tune to the original ideas and values of their own beliefs.  I am not saying that all people are bad but, I cannot worship within a community that says one thing and does another.  My beliefs are strong and personal, I try to live a kind and peaceful existance and don’t feel the need to be a part of a organization that has become part of the politics, control and judgemental mentality that has evolved from the institutions of religion.
      Whether I live in Europe, the Middle East, Arab nations, Africa, or the USA I wish to be identified as a human being, not identified by my religion.  I hope someday we can come to that notion and perhaps then we can live in Peace.

  11. avatar SandraAbernathy says:

    Excellent story. But I found myself more concerned that the bus had left you. Where did you end up spending the night? I wasn’t concerned about the people. Maybe I should have been? I was more upset that the bus had left you. Shame on them not making sure the members were all present on that bus. My two cents. :-)