The salon sat at the bottom floor of the developing world’s version of a gated community— a five star hotel. The hotel was precariously perched, hosting an army of foreigners working on war, while staying in business under a regime denying war crimes. As a Tamil-Sri-Lankan-American I am neither entirely foreign, nor comfortably local.
I had checked into this hotel, for just one night, several times. I came into the capital city as the first-world version of myself and quickly left for “the field” — to be someone else. As I worked in camps, orphanages, and hostels across the warzone I guaranteed my safety by parading as a curious expat, a local, and, just once, an Indian actress. In a militarized space where Tamil is synonymous with Terror, camouflage is the only way to go un-noticed.
On this trip, I was at the tip of a region recently cluster-bombed with violence. Young women proudly displayed the baby clothes made with the only form of reparations they would get— brand new sewing machines. The folds of their saris covered the invisible scars of rape but lifted slightly to reveal the artificial limbs they hobbled in on.
One young girl took me aside. Despite the fact that my Tamil only aspires to fluency, I am always comforted when fast-paced jokes, familiar phrases, and strong opinions in Tamil hover above the village dust. Akka (older sister), what we really want to do is open a beauty salon. Her eyes were bright with anticipation as she spoke faster, perhaps sensing my confusion. Yes, we can do hair. For weddings and big parties. Looking out through the bullet holes, I couldn’t see a population in urgent need of medicine and food spending money on hair. She protests, But Akka, maybe this is what the people really need. Things that make you feel normal. She asks to do my hair. I don’t love braids with lots of pins, but I don’t say anything. I hate conflict.
And then I returned — to the capital, where the war paint easily washed away. As with all gated communities, the hotel in Sri Lanka’s island paradise (as described by Conde Nast’s 2013 rankings) promised to stave off reality with the false sense of comfort that comes with complete isolation. When my reality involved the darkest parts of blood-stained political terrain, I was grateful to temporarily sell my soul for a hair wash in their lower level oasis.
This was not Queen Latifah’s small business with boisterous staff, blaring music, and a spontaneous community. This was a corporate endeavor, where the line between client and staff was to be maintained with chitchat that was polite without being intrusive. Everyone was brown, dressed in all white.
They recognized me by now, and always asked casually, You’re here for work? In this place, everyone knew my room number, my name, my face, my hair – but no one knew who I was. And I was never the same person. At first I was a volunteer, desperate to “help” orphans and save myself. Then an aid worker leading thirty eagerly overwhelmed play therapists into tsunami-ravaged villages. I was also a political scientist, gathering stories (‘data’) to understand what terrorizes female terrorists. And finally, the most damning. A human rights researcher compiling pain and misery into reports that should be read by people who wouldn’t read them.
I nodded and returned to perusing glossy photos of Colombo’s elite…often posing in front of the supersize floral arrangements just a few feet down the hall. As in any public space on the island, politics could not be discussed, and I was always temporarily relieved by the silence of superficiality.
It never took long for me to start to shift uncomfortably as staff members obsessively tried to ensure my utmost comfort. I would watch the city’s finest and most powerful (usually not the same) stroll in and out, and overhear snippets of casual conversation in Singhalese—a language spoken by the majority of soldiers and civilians alike.
Fresh from a ten hour drive that day I fidgeted with my shirt, covering my tattoos, casting my eyes downwards—a strange attempt to be inconspicuous in a place where I was unknown. My imagination wandered off to the day when my precarious house of identity cards came tumbling down—making me enemy number one.
The hip stylist rotates my chair to face the mirror. How do you like your hair done this time, Madame? he asks in impeccable English. Before I reply he confirms, You should wear it very straight. I glance down at the local paper I had picked up to avoid conversation. I couldn’t help but suck in my breath. Splayed across the front page was the image of a former fighter. I had interviewed her when she was a current revolutionary. Decked out in a rich sari, curls piled high on her head, I only recognized her by the stern look on her face.
Ah, you like her hair? he asks. I did that for their fashion show. Isn’t it wonderful how she’s been rehabilitated? He beams with pride that the government had taken notice of his skills for a propaganda photograph.
In the chair next to me, a similarly coiffed woman turns slowly, weighed down by the girth of wealth. Isn’t it wonderful now there’s peace, you remember how much security we used to have to deal with? And for these girls, how lucky to have a new life, no?” No.
In my first weeks in Dar Es Salaam, I sought comfort in the familiar spaces that I despised. The luxury outdoor shopping centers which co-opted the best waterfront views for the benefit of local elites and ex-pats alike. The food was generally awful and shopping attractions included overpriced handicrafts that you were assured would benefit poor women … somewhere, somehow.
Standing against the third-floor railing was a distinctly Sri-Lankan man—as easily distinguished by his features as the classic Colombo hipster gear (tight black shirt, gel-spiked ‘do, and an array of silver jewelry). He recognized me first—in a more intimate way than simply fellow country folk.
Didn’t you used to come to Colombo? Yes, and he had done my hair. And so, in a space eerily similar to the one across the Indian Ocean, I sat down in a rotating chair. This time, as the Swahili floated around us, we were both well outside our comfort zone. We searched for pieces of home in each other…only to come up empty-handed.
You don’t speak Singhalese. I left it at No. After all, he didn’t ask what language I did speak. And so began the introductory dance between two Sri Lankans trying to determine if the other is us or them.
Where are your parents from?
Colombo. (ethnically mixed)
Colombo 4. (also, ethnically mixed)
My answers were as purposefully vague as his were pointedly specific. Later, I skirted around the same inquisition with his wife, smiling noncommittally as she invited me to the Buddhist temple. She swings me away from myself to face her as she mused, You should wear your hair in curls. I knew I was afraid of exposing my work, but wondered if I was hiding who I was.
A few months later I was waiting for a friend at the same salon and marveling at how similarly obsequious the Sri Lankan staff were to white people in Africa as they were in Sri Lanka. Across the global south, white skin (turned uncomfortably pink and sweaty) demanded service.
This particular woman was an Aid Worker (I don’t know that for a fact, but I am making an educated guess based on the safari clothes worn in an urban space and the acronyms plastered on all of her belongings). In a well-meaning attempt to project cultural consciousness and curiosity she queried the hairstylist, Ohhh, Sri Lanka. Wasn’t there a war there?
Oh yes, it was terrible, she answers, sucking the air through her teeth—a uniquely Sri Lankan form of emphasis. We were always scared of them (me?) … you know, the terrorists. The label formed an invisible bond against a common threat. The Aid Worker shakes her head. Just awful, she commiserates.
I am tempted to intervene, to tell our version of events. But the effort seems misplaced, and possibly useless. Instead, I am determined to dislike the stylist now, perhaps even boycott the salon—largely on the basis of the personal politics I have placed on her, without her consent. It’s too late to leave now though, she is calling me next.
She speaks through the thread as she does my eyebrows, almost whispering as she explains the context of her life. In Africa, the kinship of island blood has offered her the possibility of camaraderie. She has two children from a previous marriage which fell apart. She met her husband at the salon in Colombo where an Arab woman from Canada asked him to run the salon in Tanzania. They figured they would work a few years, make some money, and return back home. But now, she has not allowed us to go back in three years. We cannot take vacation. She has installed cameras everywhere to watch us. We have not been able to save very much at all. I haven’t seen my children in years.
That’s the thing with empathy … it refuses to stay within the lines of our own prejudices. Even the smug reassurances of ethnic superiority couldn’t cure the woes of a labor force toiling away in silence, behind the pristine glass boasting an ocean view. They hoped to go to Vancouver soon—jumping oceans again to escape the global reach of corporate culture, in search of humane working conditions.
Back in Manhattan, I usually entrusted my hair to internet deals—in my home country I was no longer in the elite ranks for hair care. Nestled in between an Irish pub and chain store (clear markers of midtown east), the stylist here had a kind manner and buoyant spirit. Where are you from? she asks. I know she doesn’t mean which Manhattan neighborhood. From Sri Lanka, I say (instead of “I’m Sri Lankan”).
She is from Syria. The border of Syria and Turkey. She pauses, What do you do? A question I never quite know how to answer. I spend time with people who suffer in silence in the places we don’t see. I try to think, write, analyze, and program their pain away. I rarely succeed. I settle on, I work on women and war. She assumes this means I am the important U.N.-type who frequents the salon and begins to situate her family within the day’s headlines (will-he-or-won’t-he-invade).
She starts with the living, the lived experience. I have just been able to get my mother over here, three weeks ago. I tried to convince my dad, but he cannot leave my sisters. At least I know she is safe. That is one less worry. Only now my mother has begun to tell me stories. Maybe, I didn’t want to know. I was sending money. The price of bread is six times the price that it was. Can you imagine?
I don’t say anything. I don’t voice the comparison I’m making to civilian concerns in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, everywhere. I don’t want to interrupt.
Then she addresses the dead. My brother-in-law was just walking in the street. My cousin’s body, it was found in the water. They weren’t involved in anything. She doesn’t pause. I wasn’t surprised. When violence is a part of your every day, you can’t stop to think. She moves forward by going back.
I grew up in Damascus, you know. (I hear, this is not happening out there. It is in me). My son, I sent him back there to live for many years.
How is he handling this? I ask. He is sad, and sometimes angry. The missing link in theories of “radicalization” – sadness always comes before anger.
When I grew up, my best friends, one girl was Jewish, the other was Christian. I would go with them sometimes to church and synagogue. This, what is happening, this is not Islam. I am inwardly offended that she has not sensed in me the type of thoughtful consciousness which renders such an explanation unnecessary. She understands the limits of her options. We are waiting now, for the U.N. decision.
What do you want to happen? I ask. Because I know that even the most vehement anti-interventionist is happy to welcome Uncle Sam when their own people are on the wrong side of history.
I don’t understand everything, but I want someone to stop it. The U.N., America, somebody.
She pauses, searching for an ending, at the very least a place holder. She sighs, It’s all politics. It has nothing to do with people.
She offers me another mirror, to see both sides of myself. It’s nice like this, right? Full of waves. I don’t quite know how to extract myself from the narrative that surrounded us both and hung heavy in the air. I want to offer help, but I knew all too well the fresh devastation brought by empty promises.
The salon wasn’t doing very well, the economy and such. She offers me a discount to return and turns around to her next client with a smile. As I walk out, the harmony of hair dryers drowns out a voice that desperately needed to be heard.
Nimmi Gowrinathan is a policy consultant who has extensive experience as a human rights and humanitarian professional. She is an expert on gender and violence, and has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Los Angeles. She is currently writing a book on sexual violence and female fighters.