Barber & his Social Role in Velyan Village, Iran
Mohammad Mir Shokrai
Reprinted from: Ethnology and Traditional Culture of Iran Magazine, Iran, No. 3, 1977
Velyan is a village within the district of Savoj-bolaq in Karaj, near Tehran. It is located 30 Km northwest of the city of Karaj. The major productive activities here are horticulture, animal husbandry and farming. Horticulturists, livestock breeders and farmers respectively constitute Velyan’s main top social strata. Some members of each of these strata are shopkeepers, too. One could also add to the above three strata a forth stratum, the workers, who have no ownership of any means of production.
Among the latter stratum, people like barbers, bath keepers and shepherds, who because of the nature of their job have more contact with people, have special position. These people, who in local terminology are referred to as tradesmen, are always chosen through communal deliberations from among candidates, who have little means and generally have no orchards or animals and if they possess anything, it is nominal.
Among members of this group, barber, who has closer interaction with people and their families, has bigger role than an ordinary tradesmen. Until 1957, village barbers were not stationed in a shop, but in order to conduct their work, they visited people at their homes. Today still, those of high esteem and respect and/or those unable to visit the barber, have barbers attending their homes. Two of Velyan’s current barbers are stepbrothers (of separate mothers), who have received their job from 3 family generations back.
Barber in Velyan, like in most other Iranian villages, also has traditional medical responsibilities, especially as a dentist. In this way, he is similar to those village old women, who perform traditional medical practices. Barber has also particular intimate relationship with people and their families. An old man from Velyan said: “Barber is the keeper of all secrets. For instance, if my wife wanted a tooth pulled, who else would be the job?” But another man from Velyan said: “Barber is nosey and gossips and therefore people discuss little of their personal affairs with him.” Although these viewpoints are contradictory, they nevertheless indicate the barber’s close and deep interaction with people.
Till a few years ago, on one of the Norouz days (Norouz is Iranian New year, which begins on 21st March) or Sizdeh-bedar (13th day of every Norouz), village tradesmen used to be chosen in a carnival-like ceremony, with music, at Kadkhoda’s house. There they make agreements with them for a year. Barber’s wage is in cash or in kind, and it is paid on a yearly basis.
The barber’s cash customers are more shopkeepers, salary and wage earners; in general, those who have more dealings with money.
A woman barber, which is also midwife, works in the village, too. She knows how to perform “Hajamat” and “Badkesh”. The woman barber’s responsibilities, which are shaving and cutting the hair of women and some medical practices, have similarities to those of the male barber. But because of being a woman and having fewer customers, her responsibilities are not as diverse as those of the men barber.
“Hajamat” and “Badkesh” are two traditional methods of medical treatment:
For “Hajamat”, an animal horn, open at both ends, is placed at one end on the back, near the shoulder of the patient and it is sucked at the other end; so that the vacuum created causes swelling on the skin. This act is repeated several times on spots near one another, till a large swelling appears on the skin. Then the swelling is cut at several placed, by a razor, to release the blood collected under the swelling. This treatment is used when, in popular language, one’s blood gets infected.
”Badkesh” is a similar method, in which instead of a horn, a cup is used. Burning a piece of cotton wool, which is removed, creates the vacuum inside the cup and a lid put on. No cutting or bleeding is involved here. This treatment is used for the cure of muscle and bone aches. These two methods of treatment were used in the all villages and cities in Iran. “Hajamat” was done once a year for every adult men or women.
The barber’s other activities that gradually have become part of tradition are: To invite, and entertain; to see to people in wedding and funeral ceremonies; to accompany the bridegroom to the baths; and to oversee and act as an accountant in weddings. In the past, and perhaps even today, people used to visit the barber for treatment and the pulling out of teeth. Washing people in bath is also another of the barber’s activities. By using tools named “Mile” and “Qamish”, he circumcises small boys.
In traditional medicine, belief in the existence of harmless winds in the body has special place. “Badkesh” used for removal of these winds, and “Hajamat” or bloodletting are performed by the barber. People also go to him for the treatment of wounds. Apart from his medical activities, barber also performs other works, including sharpening hammers and knives and sometimes washing the dead.
In the past, the barber’s tools were a wooden comb, a pair of scissors, “Qol-qolak” (a flash-like container for holding water), “Sollab” (a leather band for sharpening razors, a “Photeh” or cloth, a mirror, a leather handbag and a metallic razor without handle.
Tools used in other activities were a horn for “Hajamat”, “Kalbatein” for tooth-pulling, lancet for wounds, “Mile” and “Qamish” and a razor for circumcision and a belt for knife sharpening.