The Coiffeur of Cairo

The Coiffeur of Cairo

CAIRO — Mahmoud Labib put on a dark suit when he received the call. Not his usual hot-pink shirt, open halfway to his navel. He slicked back his silver hair in a Chuck Berry-style conk. Hosni Mubarak was expecting him.

The 75-year-old hairdresser headed to the military hospital in the Cairo suburb of Maadi. It was late August, and Egypt was in turmoil; the former president had just been freed from prison after two years. And the man needed a haircut. Mahmoud says he considers Mubarak a customer just like any other, but the aged former leader stands at the heart of Mahmoud’s magic — the mystique that drew people and presidents to his hair salon’s iron latticed door, with a golden "M" at the center.

Mahmoud has cut Mubarak’s hair since he was vice president, and Mahmoud knew his sons when they were little boys running around in T-shirts and shorts. And the hairdresser’s time with the man who ruled Egypt for three decades provided him with a privileged view of a leader who often proved awkward and secretive toward the public.

"He was a man of very few words. For the first 10 years, it was just salaam alaikum and alaikum as-salaam," Mahmoud says between customers during a recent visit to his salon. "Later, I would go to him and we would spend a couple of hours after I finished [cutting his hair]. There was space. We developed a relationship like I have with any other customer."

While Mubarak’s critics paint a picture of a leader obsessed with handing power to his family, Mahmoud describes the former president as desperate to find a way to leave office in his final years but thwarted by his inner circle. "There was too much pressure from those around him telling him the country would slide into chaos without him," he says.

A statue of a naked satyr stands at the entrance of Mahmoud’s salon. Inside, Mahmoud projects himself as a fashion avatar: He bathes himself in cologne and walks across his domain, lighter than a feather, rolling his fingers through his customers’ hair. His half-dozen stylists wear matching yellow sports shirts emblazoned with Mahmoud’s name and a drawing of a more youthful, smoldering barber with a pompadour. He scoffs at hair-styling legends like Vidal Sassoon and Alexandre de Paris, dismissing them as men who lost their hunger for the art.

His clientele of graying, middle-aged men rejoice at any mention of his illustrious former clients. Caricatures and photos of Anwar Sadat adorn the space — one picture shows Mahmoud trimming the former president’s side hairs. Another has the barber crouched in a stylish black outfit behind a seated Sadat.

Mahmoud’s walls bear no extravagant tributes to Mubarak. The stylist speaks with affection about his longtime friend — but denies any deliberate omission. If someone had given him a photo of the two together, he insists, he would have put it up. Mahmoud claims no one ever gave him such a gift, and besides, he insists, he has never liked photographs of himself.

"Others go and get their photographs taken, but I never asked someone to be photographed with them. Even the actors and artists, who have been my customers for decades," Mahmoud explains. "These pictures come by chance. I go for work and work alone."

In the 1960s, his first client from the inner circle of political power was President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s teenage son Hakim. Nasser warned Mahmoud not to give the teenager sideburns — the colonel wanted his son’s hair cut like a soldier’s ­– but Mahmoud ignored the Egyptian strongman’s advice. The barber knew Nasser would forget his own warning but that his son would never forgive him. Next came then Vice President Sadat’s teenage son, whose hair Mahmoud still cuts today. Then Sadat came to sit in his barber’s chair, and finally Mubarak, who started visiting the stylist after he became vice president.

Mahmoud still loves Sadat, calling him a "wise man" and "salt of the earth." He traveled the world with the flamboyant Egyptian leader — including to the United States, for the Camp David Accords. Comparing his work on the Middle East peace process to a hair salon, Sadat told Mahmoud that if the Palestinians were hairstylists and lost their shop, and then were offered a seat back inside, they would be foolish not to take what was available to them.

Mahmoud brags that he never changed his ways for the powerful. "When I was first introduced to Sadat, I told him about all my flaws. That I am a hard drinker and a [marijuana] smoker, that I stay up late every night and so on. I told him all the bad things about me, so that if someone went to inform on me, he’d already know."

He muses that perhaps Mubarak thought he could learn the secrets of Sadat’s court from the president’s barber. "I knew nothing," Mahmoud chuckles.

When Mahmoud visited Mubarak at the military hospital in late August, it was the first time he had seen his friend in the flesh in two years. They kissed on the cheeks, hugged, and shook hands. He said Mubarak was physically weak but mentally as sharp as a tack. He says the former president continued to maintain a busy, organized schedule — every inch the air force commander that he had been decades ago.

"You know how these airmen are. If he finds a strand of hair out of place, he’ll tell me, ‘Don’t leave it,’" Mahmoud says admiringly. "Look: He is 85 and his hair looks as healthy as ever."

Mahmoud has watched Egypt struggle after Mubarak’s downfall. First the Muslim Brotherhood, which he dreads, won the presidency. Then the country was thrust into chaos when the military deposed the Brotherhood and launched a far-reaching crackdown that has cost over 1,000 lives. Today, the Mubarak years look far better to many Egyptians, even if the ex-president is shunned like a wayward relative.

Taking a break from a client, Mahmoud smokes a Rothman and describes Mubarak’s mindset since his release. "Perhaps on the inside he is happy that [the Muslim Brothers] have left, but that’s all," he says. "He is unhappy about what has occurred. He wonders how much time will it take Egypt to mend things. He is worried for the country."

Mahmoud also styled the hair of Mubarak’s two sons, watching them grow into dapperly attired men who joined their father in the stewardship of the country. When the sons were thrown in prison, Mahmoud urged the general prosecutor, another one of his clients, to let him keep cutting their hair. The prosecutor refused, however, leaving the sons’ hair to the care of their prison staff.

Mahmoud expresses sorrow over Egypt’s treatment of Mubarak’s younger son, Gamal, who had ambitions to succeed his father and today cools his heels in Cairo’s Tora Prison on charges of corruption and inside trading. Mahmoud remembers broaching the subject of Gamal’s succession to the presidency with Mubarak. "He told me, try as he might, Egypt is too big and Gamal couldn’t handle all of it."

Another time, says Mahmoud, Mubarak confided his worry about Gamal’s rising profile: "Mahmoud, he could be finished off by a bullet worth less than a piaster."

The fear that Mubarak would pass power to his son ultimately contributed to the popular protests that resulted his downfall in early 2011. But Mahmoud portrays Mubarak as an aging commander who wanted to loosen his grip on power but did not know how. After his favorite grandchild died of an illness in 2009, Mahmoud says Mubarak was vocal about his desire to resign and soon had to be hospitalized in Germany due to his own health crisis. "He was weak; I was fatter than he was," says the rail-thin coiffeur. "We’d have to carry him from the bed to place him on [the] barber’s chair, so I could cut his hair."

Mahmoud talks as if it were never Mubarak or Gamal who were at fault — somehow, they were always the victims, while the men around them sabotaged their efforts. Mahmoud blames invisible hands — "the movers and shakers" and "the people with interests and money to make" — for Egypt’s struggles and for undermining those whom he sees as good and true, such as Sadat and Mubarak. Mahmoud also mentions Mubarak’s belief that he was thrown out because he was standing in the way of an American plan to grab new bases in Egypt — a charge that the former president voiced in discussions with his prison doctor, which were secretly recorded and released on the Internet in September.

To Mahmoud, these past few years are like a reversal of the best decade of his life — the 1950s, when he apprenticed in downtown Cairo, which was then alive with writers, musicians, and military officers plotting revolution.

He doesn’t recognize his old haunts today. "These are haphazard times," he says, puffing a cigarette between clients. But he swears not to retire. "So as long as I am standing and working I have energy. I can work 12, 13 hours and not tire."

And when Mubarak calls again, he will come — as he has always done.