Insider Outsider

Gossip and Tragedy Inside Delhi’s Afghan Barbershop

Political refugees, businessmen, and bakers drift through Mohammed Shadab’s shop in Lajpat Nagar
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by Zeyad Masroor Khan
15 May 2018, 2:30am

Gul Rehman Hamdard, a 33-year old man with an afternoon stubble expressed surprise I was a journalist. He was waiting for his turn on a bench at a generic barber shop in “Little Kabul”, a nickname given to an area chockfull of businesses catering to Delhi’s Afghani community, near Lajpat Nagar Central Market.

“I’m looking for a job in India. I was a governor’s spokesperson,” he said, as he settled into the barber’s chair.

Inside Mohammed Shadab's barbershop. Image: Zeyad Masroor Khan

Mohammed Shadab began to trim his hair. Shadab, a tall 28-year-old with wavy black hair, moved to Delhi from Uttar Pradesh a decade ago. He’s been running this shop for the last five years, cutting and trimming the hair of Indians, Afghans, and Iraqis. Shopkeepers, translators, refugees, and patients here for medical tourism are some of the people he sees regularly. India is home to almost 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers from Afghanistan. Many of them have settled in Delhi in areas such as Lajpat Nagar, Bhogal and Saket. We decided to ask a few of them what brought them here, or what their plans for the future was.

The reasons for this enthusiasm among Afghans for hair and beard styling trends lie in Afghanistan’s troubled history. As the followers of a orthodox version of Islam, the Taliban government had imposed strict rules regarding hair and beard styles, even arresting people for hairstyles believed to be offensive to Islam. This censorship over fashion led many Afghans to participate in a silent revolution of sorts—by hiding stylish haircuts under their turbans.

Gul and Shadab seemed to share a warm camaraderie. Above a central mirror hung framed calligraphy in praise of the prophet Mohammed. A shelf held rusted scissors, cheap shaving creams, yellow-green brushes, spray bottles and once-white combs. An old Toshiba played an Afghani soap opera above Hamdard’s head. The Hindu goddess Lakshmi smiled from a picture on a side wall.

This censorship over fashion led many Afghans to participate in a silent revolution of sorts—by hiding stylish haircuts under their turbans.

The two were discussing India’s political climate. The conversation shifted to the ridiculous hair styling trends followed by some of Delhi’s teenagers, to the challenges of shaving a customer when you don’t quite understand each other’s language.

“Gul is fluent in English, Urdu, Pashto and Persian,” Shadab told me. “Help him find a job if you can.”

Hamdard offered to tell me how he came to find himself living in Delhi. As a minor member of the local government, the Taliban targeted him and his family. The final straw came when they killed his father and injured his son.

Gul Rehman Hamdard sits outside the barbershop. Image: Zeyad Masroor Khan

Hamdard was born in 1984, in a refugee camp in Pakistan, at the height of the Soviet-Afghan War he told me. Bribes and beatings by Pakistani officers were a regular part of life, he said. After school, he got married and had two children. “We went back to our motherland only in 2002, when it was relatively peaceful,” he said.

In Kabul, Hamdard told me, he would a job writing scripts for ads and short dramas—a whopping 3,000 scripts in total he claimed. “I used to work as an actor at AINA Afghan media centre in Kabul,” he said. “The head of the radio department was facing difficulty in writing an ad about the ill effects of smoking in public. I wrote a script to help him. He liked it so much, that I got hired.”

Hamdard explained how he came to become a spokesman of the educational department of Laghman province, and then as a spokesman for the state governor, briefing the media on official initiatives.

“Anyone who works for the government, for Indians or for foreign charities is an enemy to the Taliban,” Hamdard said. “Threats to my family’s safety became a daily business. I finally resigned from the position in 2009, but they did not forget.”

A few days after Eid in 2017, Hamdard’s father and son went to visit an aunt in Laghman and were kidnapped. “It was most probably a relative sympathetic to the Taliban who informed them,” Hamdard told me.

He found the body of his 78-year-old father, and his 15-year-old son severely injured, lying in a ditch the next day. They had been held captive in a mountain tunnel, where his father had suffocated. When his son started to scream, he was hit with rifle butts.

Hamdard’s son was in a coma for 13 days and is still dealing with the aftermath. “He sometimes talks to himself for hours, and offers three-hour-long namaz,” Hamdard said. “Many relatives hold me responsible for the death of my father, as I had ignored their warnings.” He decided to leave the country, arriving in Delhi last October.

“Allah has sent him to us,” Shadab said after Hamdard had left. “He is a very nice and intelligent person.” He turned his attention to Jehan Nawabi, a 24-year-old entrepreneur from Kabul. “The best thing about India is its diversity,” Nawabi told me. “Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus go to each other's religious places and festivals. People have been so helpful to me.”

I asked him if he had a girlfriend. “Yeah, I have two. One in India and another one back in Kabul,” he smirked.

After his brown beard was trimmed to satisfaction, I took him up on his offer of tea at a nearby Afghani restaurant. “If you give love, you will get love,” he said, paying for my Afghani chai.

Jehan Nawabi stands outside an Afghan cafe in Delhi's Lajpat Nagar. Image: Zeyad Masroor Khan

I went back to Shadab’s shop, where he was busy with a skinny boy with a big smile. Shah Ashmat—Zamir to his friends—said he was from Tirpur village, near Kabul. A kid with spiky hair sat on the adjacent bench. “Rayyan works with me,” Ashmat said. “We run an Afghani roti stall together.”

Rayyan doesn’t speak much Hindi yet. ““He used to go to a school in Afghanistan,” Ashmat said. “Now, after working at our stall during the day, he goes to play football with his Indian friends. He wants to play for Afghanistan.”

Ashmat left his village two years ago he told me, when he learnt that he was under suspicion of being a spy for the Americans, and that the Taliban had issued a shoot-on-sight order against him.

A die-hard Ajay Devgn fan, Ashmat said he used to watch three Bollywood films a night as a child. “The 90s ones were far better than recent ones,” he said. His favourite is Jaan, starring Devgn and Twinkle Khanna.

I asked him if he’d ever been in love. “She lives back in Afghanistan. I still call her, and my family,” he said. “There’s a song in Tere Naam,” he added—“‘ Ye pyaar mein kyun hota hai (Why does this happen in love)’. I play the song when I think of her.”

A die-hard Ajay Devgn fan, Ashmat said he used to watch three Bollywood films a night as a child.

I asked him if he ever planned to go back to her.

“If there’s ever peace,” he replied. “It’s an elusive dream. I have accepted India as my home. It’s the most peaceful place on earth. That’s what is important.”

Shadab didn’t agree. “Come to Seelampur one day,” he said, referring to the suburb about 20 kilometres away, where he lives.

Ashmat got up and embraced me before leaving. “Come to my shop” he said. “Everything is free for you.”

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