The Pubic Hairdresser

The Syrian knight Usāma ibn Munqidh (1095-1188) experienced the Crusader states in Palestine and parts of Syria and was personally in contact with a number of Christian knights. He had no high opinion of Europeans: although their courage was admirable, he found their culture and civilisation primitive. No wonder, for in his time Arab-Islamic civilisation was indeed far superior to that of Western Europe. Especially the morality of the Europeans was utterly inferior in his eyes. For example, men did not find it offensive when their wives came in contact with other men, and they had no clue about bathhouse etiquette either. In his Memoirs Usāma illustrates their barbarity with an anecdote that he claims to have heard from a bathhouse owner named Sālim:

  • I opened a bath-house in Ma‘arra to earn my living. Once, one of their knights came in. Now, they dislike people wearing a towel about their waist in the bath, so he stretched out his hand, pulled off my towel from my waist and threw it down. He looked at me — I had recently shaved my pubic hair — and said, ‘Sālim!’ Then he came closer, stretched his hand over my groin, saying, ‘Sālim! Good! By the truth of my religion, do that to me too!’
  • He then lay down on his back: he had it as thick as his beard in that place! So I shaved him and he passed his hand over it. He found it soft and said, ‘Sālim, by the truth of your religion, do it to Madame!’ — madame in their language means ‘the lady’, i.e. his wife. He then told one of his servants, ‘Tell Madame to come here.’
  • The boy went and brought her in. She lay down on her back and the knight said, ‘Do her like you did me!’ So I shaved her hair there as her husband sat down watching me. He then thanked me and gave me a proper reward for the service.1

Seven centuries later, in the year 1798, ‘Abd al-Raḥmān al-Jabartī (1754–1826) wrote a diary about Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt. Al-Jabartī had a much better opinion of the Europeans than Usāma. He was impressed by the French military discipline and efficiency, and he admired the activities of the scientists and artists that Napoleon had brought with him. That too was no wonder: Europe had developed itself, whereas Egypt was going through a period of stagnation. However, he criticised the morals of the French, especially those of the French women:

  • Their women do not veil themselves and have no modesty; they do not care whether they uncover their private parts. […] They have intercourse with any woman who pleases them and vice versa. Sometimes one of their women goes into a barber’s shop, and invites him to shave her pubic hair. If he wishes he can take his fee in kind.2

Most crusaders would not have been sophisticated people, and the women they had brought with them were certainly not fine ladies. The same applies to the soldiers of Napoleon and their women. Yet we immediately understand that neither of the two authors, nor their contemporaries, had ever laid eyes on a naked European women who was shaven by a male pubic hairdresser. We are dealing here with an urban legend, that survived for seven centuries and became even more spicy in al-Jabartī’s version.

It is nasty, long-lived anecdotes like this that keep prejudices among peoples alive. Needless to say, Europeans spread many such stories about Arabs as well.

1. Usāma Ibn-Munqidh: Usāmah’s Memoirs entitled Kitāb al-I’tibār, Arabic text edited by Philip K. Hitti, Princeton 1930, 136–7.

‎ومن ذلك انه كان عندنا رجل حمامي يقال له سالم من أهل المعرة في حمام لوالدي رحمه الله. قال: فتحت حماماً في المعرة أتعيش فيها، فدخل إليها فارس منهم وهم ينكرون على من يشد في وسطه المئزر في الحمام، فمد يده وجذب مئزري من وسطي رماه، فرآني وأنا قريب عهد بحلق عانتي، فقال سالم: فتقربت منه، فمد يده على عانتي وقال: سالم جيد! وحق ديني أعمل لي كذا! واستلقى على ظهره وله مثل لحيته في ذلك الموضع، فحلقته فمر يده عليه فاستوطأه فقال: سالم بحق دينك، اعمل للداما! والداما بلسانهم الست يعني امرأته. وقال لغلام له: قل للداما تجيء. فمضى الغلام أحضرها وأدخلها، فاستلقت على ظهرها وقال: اعمل كما عملت لي، فحلقت ذلك الشعر وزوجها قاعد ينظرني، فشكرني ووهبني حق خدمتي.

2. ‘Abd al-Raḥmān al-Jabartī: Tarīkh muddat al-faransīs bi-Miṣr. Al-Jabartī’s chronicle of the first seven months of the French occupation of Egypt, Muḥarram-Rajab 123/15 June-December 1798, ed. and transl. S. Moreh, Leiden 1975, 43/١٢:

ونساؤهم لا يستترون ولا يحتشمون ولا يبالون بكشف العورات […] ويطؤن ما طاب لهم من النساء وبالعكس وربما دخلت المرأة منهم الى حانوت الحلاق ودعته لحلق عانتها وإن شاء أخذ أجرته منه.

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