Letting Our Hair Down

A cut-and-color becomes subversive at the author’s local Bedouin salon. 

LettingOurHairDown1Nadia’s hair salon is on the ground floor of her house, a five-minute drive from my house in the Jewish town of Kiryat Tivon. Nadia Zubidat, 38 years old, lives in the Bedouin village of Zubidat, 15 kilometers southeast of Haifa, in Israel’s Galilee. We have known each other for 10 years, and in that time have seen our daughters grow up, her two sons born, and our personal and political perspectives widened significantly by wars and life experience. Nadia and I meet as regularly as the white roots that appear on my head —about every three weeks.

There are always women of all ages at Nadia’s. They’re getting their hair cut, colored, highlighted, styled. Eyebrows shaped. Faces waxed. Nadia’s clients, Muslim and Jewish women from the surrounding area, come to her faithfully because she’s so good at what she does, and because she is a powerhouse of a positive woman with exceptional professional and domestic skills. A serious balebusta, as we say. Dozens of clients — and she files each one’s hair-color formula in her head. Same with culinary recipes.


Though I always bring a book with me, it usually remains closed. The goings-on in the salon are too interesting to miss.

“I need to know. How did you get them so light?” Nadia asks Ruti, a Jewish woman having her hair cut, about the homemade Alfajores cookies she brought with her.

“I’ll tell you later.”

“No, tell me now. I know you.” Nadia teases Ruti and hands the box around for all of us to sample. “We’ll get busy talking about other things, then you’ll run out, and I won’t get the recipe.”

“I promise I’ll give it to you. And if we forget, I’ll send it to you when I get home. Stop worrying.”

“You better. I need to make them,” Nadia says, and we all laugh.

The traditional South American Alfajores cookie — a delicate crumbly sandwich filled with dulce de leche and rolled in shredded coconut — is serious business in both Arab and Jewish communities in Israel. Nadia, a prolific cook and baker, is determined to try Ruti’s outrageously good recipe. Usually the recipes fly the other way around, with clients asking Nadia how she makes her fish, her zucchini, her many eggplant salads.

Ruti leaves without giving Nadia the recipe. Could be she’s not eager to share it. Nadia is undeterred. Before she begins to apply color to my hair roots, she calls Ruti.

“I told you we’d forget,” she mock-scolds. “Okay. Send it. I’m waiting.” She turns to the women in the shop. “She’s going to take a photograph of the recipe and send it on What’s App.”

Sure enough, moments later Nadia’s phone has an incoming ding. The recipe has landed.

LettingOurHairDown3Where Jews shop in Israel is an openly political act. During times of aggression between Israeli and Palestinian forces, both inside the State and outside, in Gaza or the West Bank, there are those who say the Jewish public should punish Israel’s Arab citizens via an economic boycott — to isolate them, to have their billfolds remind them of the power of the Jewish majority. During the Gaza War this past summer, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for a boycott of Arab businesses that expressed sympathy for the people of Gaza. Jews were not immune. Those who spoke out against the loss of children’s lives south of the border — like actress Orna Banai, filmmaker Shira Geffen, and musician Achinoam Nini — were labelled traitors and ostracized in social and print media. (The first Jewish voices emphasizing humanitarian concern were women, and they were the first ones publicly vilified as well.) But for these artists, and for thousands of others living here, it is possible to be both concerned for Israel’s soldiers and civilians and also to oppose government decisions.

During this last war, and the one before that in 2012, and the one before that in 2008, and the one before that in 2006, and during the Second Intifada that began in 2000, there were those like me who didn’t heed the call to boycott Arab businesses. I never stopped patronizing Nadia’s, or the supermarket, greengrocer, tire shop, car wash, bakery, nuts shop, housewares shop, building supply place, plant nursery, electronic store in the two villages closest to me, Basmat Tivon and Zubidat. And the Bedouins who live there have continued to shop and patronize the stores and cafes in my town of Kiryat Tivon. Without too much fuss, most of us around here reaffirm social ties developed over decades. We don’t only live side by side. Our lives are bound up with one another.

And yet, even in progressive Jewish Tivon, during this last war there were those who decided not to go into the Bedouin shops until the fighting stopped. “The Situation” (ha-matzav in Hebrew… euphemism for the violence, like “The Troubles” in Ireland) made them uncomfortable. Or they were afraid. Some said they wanted to buy only “blue and white.” But aren’t the Bedouins blue and white, I asked? Aren’t they citizens whose businesses are part of Israel’s economy, whose sons are fighting at this very moment in Gaza? 

LettingOurHairDown4I first met Nadia in 2004 when I went to Hanna’s in Kiryat Tivon’s town center. Nadia was Hanna’s assistant, and the shop was almost entirely patronized by Jewish women. In 2008, Hanna retired and Nadia, pregnant with her first son, decided to take time off. Then, three years ago, I ran into Nadia at the local supermarket in Zubidat. She told me she had opened her own hair salon in the ground floor of her house. Happy, I typed her number into my phone, and the following week came to take care of my rogue white hair roots. I didn’t go to Nadia’s because she’s Bedouin and I wanted to empower her. I went because my hair was a big mess after I’d been dying it on my own for over a year and was desperate for bona fide professional attention. An added bonus, then and now, is that she is Bedouin and I am happy to spend my shekels there and to send friends to her. Another bonus is the opportunity to be close to her and to her community of women every three weeks.

The women who come to Nadia’s usually don’t bring their children, though most have them. Time at Nadia’s is time for themselves, time to be pampered, time to talk to other women, to trade recipes, to gossip. If I knew Arabic I could follow the conversations. As it is, I only understand a word here, a phrase there. When there is a lot of laughter I know I am missing out on some juicy item. Sometime Nadia translates for me, sensing my eagerness to be in on the loop. At these times I feel so helpless that I don’t know Arabic. This is not just a personal matter, it’s a countrywide, contrived imbalance: all Arabs, Bedouins, Circassians and Druze learn Arabic, Hebrew, and English in school; Jews learn only Hebrew and English. There was a time when Arabic was compulsory in Jewish schools. But with the increasingly right-wing government, not only was that amended, but this past August a Knesset bill was proposed to make Hebrew the only official language in the country. Luckily it did not pass.

When the talk switches into Hebrew, which happens frequently and easily, especially if there are a number of Jewish clients in the shop, I can fully participate, usually about food, children, fashion. Yet over the years, I have begun to detect a shift in topics. Traces of politics now appear. When we spoke about the war this past summer, first we expressed concern for the soldiers. The Jewish and Bedouin women sitting there all had family members “in” — as in “in Gaza.”

But then there was talk about governments and the men who make war and the families who suffer. Tentatively, I spoke about what I saw as the cynical exploitation on both sides of the border and was surprised when other women voiced similar opinions. Then we talked about the pain of seeing the dead children in Gaza, the families made homeless. Feeling sadness for the civilians in Gaza in no way diminishes the pain we feel for those on the Israeli side of the border for whom rockets have become an intolerable part of their lives. Up in our neck of the woods we have also suffered rocket attacks… in fact the fears and losses of the Israeli residents near the Gaza border are very real to me, to us, too.

In Nadia’s shop we let our hair down. Some of us literally. A few months ago I watched a woman’s long silky hair being blown dry. In this country of Semites, much time is spent straightening natural curls. Same goes for creating pencil-thin eyebrows.LettingOurHairDown5

“She’s been here half the day,” Yasmin, Nadia’s assistant, told me. “Came in the morning for a cut and then decided to stay for a new color, then decided on blond highlights.” The woman’s little boy rolled on the couch. His patience had come to an end, though he entertained himself and waited some more.

Finally the coiffure was done. The woman got up from the chair and everyone told her how beautiful she looked. And she did. The real added value to coming to Nadia’s is that everyone leaves more beautiful. This woman smiled delightedly, then took a large dark brown scarf from her bag. Practiced, she pressed it down flat on her forehead and wound it tightly around her head. She left, and I asked Nadia: “So much work now under wraps?”

“When she gets home she takes off the scarf,” Nadia said. “She’s religious, so only at home.”

“That’s a lot of work for only at home,” I said, thinking too of religious Jewish women who uncover their hair only at home.

Nadia shrugged. “She wants to feel good when she’s home. Why not?”

And indeed, why not? Lately, there’s been more talk at Nadia’s about women’s lives, their discontent with the status quo, wanting change, yearning for more options and opportunities. I’m delighted. For years I’ve been dying to ask pointed questions, to do my feminist probing. Some women describe the hardships, the imbalances and injustices they experience, both in the street and at home.

Husbands who expect them to shoulder 100% of the household work, cooking, shopping, cleaning, children; the demand to take care of in-laws; increasing pressure to do all that plus work outside the home and bring in an extra income, like Nadia; the demand to do all that and also look good. One woman says her husband sits in his chair while she stands before him and turns around slowly. She’s a beautiful mother of four, with a head full of yellow curls that Nadia cares for regularly, wearing tight jeans and a flattering tee-shirt, and this scrutiny is no modesty-police tactic. It’s a more routine kind of sexist patrolling. Her husband wants to check out how she’s dressed, how her face and hair are done up.

“As if he cares about me.” We sit together on the couch and wait. Me for my hair to be shampooed, she to pick up her little ones from school. “He just wants to make sure I look good so he won’t be embarrassed in front of the other men.”

Other women chime in. They know that script all too well. Vashti, I think to myself. Called to appear before the King to show off his prized possession to the assembly of men: a woman of beauty. And like Vashti, these women know, as I do too, the price paid for disobeying male authority. Few have the economic and social support to divorce. Many suffer silently. In Nadia’s world, unlike in my Jewish one, only a few dare to protest. But Nadia does.

“I saw your Facebook post,” I tell Nadia, impressed with her bold public listing of women’s labors. She’d written a long and proper J’Accuse that reminds dear husbands to see and appreciate the endless household work women do, the physical pain of childbirth, the not-simple matter of losing a family name compounded by leaving a family and moving in with a new strange one, and the unsung efforts women put into providing men with a relaxed and healthy home life that fosters well-being.

“Oh, you saw it!” Nadia laughs. “My husband asked me if I posted it for him. And I said, yes, I post on Facebook just for you.” She laughs harder and I laugh along with her.

Sometimes I interject that sexism is rampant in Jewish society as well. And the response is consistently: “not like in ours.” And I don’t contest this, because they’re right, and we know it. We live too close together for the disparities in our lives as women not to be totally obvious. Israel’s secular Jewish society is exasperatingly sexist, with, for example, a persistent 25% average wage gap between men and women. And we can find ourselves at the mercy of the utterly patriarchal rabbinate, whose far reach controls our marriages and our divorces and sometimes even our children. Still, Jewish women have far greater mobility to go places physically, intellectually, and emotionally without male permission and supervision. We have more life options.

Last year Nadia told me that if it were acceptable in her village, and if she had the energy, she would run for the head of the local council. Clean things up, set them right. I encouraged her to do it. She would be amazing in politics. She laughed and said they’d never give her the chance. Maybe her daughter’s generation. She decided to have another baby instead. “That’s good too,” I smiled, and we stared at my shaped hair in the mirror, admiring her skillful handiwork.

Now, with her baby boy sleeping in a stroller next to her, Nadia tells me she wants her eldest daughter to attend a summer camp for Palestinian and Jewish teenage girls in the United States.

“It’s only for girls, so my husband agreed,” she says. “I really want her to go. It’s for peace. To teach them to talk, and to listen. To learn about each other.” Nadia is ambitious for her children.

My good friend’s daughter participated in that program a few years ago, I tell her. It was intense, not always easy, but overall a wonderful experience. And I make the connection. My friend and her daughter drive five minutes from our town to Nadia’s house. Over tea, the mothers and daughters talk. Questions are answered, phone numbers exchanged. Afterwards, Nadia tells me, her daughter feels more confident about her upcoming interview, an important part of the application process.

Girls learning to listen to one another. Girls learning to speak about their lives. Girls becoming part of a peace process that recognizes that the partner on the other side is as human as she is. Exactly what we do at Nadia’s. Jews, Muslims, Americans, Bedouins — Israelis all of us, involved in the hard work of taking care of ourselves and those we love. In the safe female corner of the hair salon we open our pocketbooks, our skill sets, our hands and our hearts to one another. We have learned over the years to trust one another enough to share some of what we enjoy in life, what we find not comfortable, and what is confusing. We talk, we listen, we relax into the stories of each other’s lives across a divide we accept but are not eager to fortify.


Miryam Sivan, a former New Yorker, now lives in the Galilee and teaches literature and writing at the University of Haifa. SNAFU and Other Stories, her collection of short fiction, was recently published by Cuidono Press in NY.