Nov 21.

Yesterday, Maayan and I headed to Gayathri Salon* for a haircut. It was 5 when we left the office, and 7, when, after much wandering through the streets of Muhimbili, we finally arrive at the salon. It was closed, the door, a massive chasm of black metal, padlocked.

Today, determined not to make the same mistake, we left the office at 3.30. By 4.40, we had taken two daladalas. The second one had dropped us of in the middle of a seemingly endless hospital complex. We found ourselves wandering down dusty, tree-lined streets that looked familiar, but which time after time betrayed us with foreign curves and unexpected turns. Eventually, after waving at the same jogger we had unsuccessfully requested directions from the previous day, after asking new strangers for directions, and by dint of some basic cartographic math, we finally found ourselves once again in front of Gayathri. It was 5.15. A phone call confirmed that the salon closes daily at 5. It is very hot. We have stopped being able to smell ourselves.

But the woman who runs the duka next door gives us directions to another salon, a 5 minute walk away. This one is also called Gayathri. “It closes at 6,” she says. “So it should be open. Unless she sold it. I haven’t walked by it in years.”

With that warning lending haste to our dirty, tired feet, we set off once more. I positively sprint through the open door when we see its sign.

Five minutes later my hair is cropped close to my scalp, providing immediate relief. I feel more like myself than I have in many weeks. I chat with the owner. She is Guajarati. She was born in Mumbai and moved to Dar with her husband at the time 25 years ago. She converted to Islam 10 years ago. “It was hard at first, but it got smoother.” She has a daughter in Toronto. She had another Sri Lankan customer, a woman named D. “Do you know Sri Lankans here? I can give her your number. She lives close to the mosque. She is very friendly, such a good person. She loves visitors.”

Not long after Maayan’s cut is complete, we find ourselves in the owner’s living room. She is making tea, in response to our request some minutes earlier for directions to the nearest tea shop. “KT Shop,” she says, “but it is not walking distance.” Her house, on the other hand, is in the same compound as her salon. While we sip our cups of strongly brewed chai, she drinks a glass of milk and continues telling the life story she had begun sharing in bits and pieces at the store. It’s a winding and fascinating tale of treachery, fraud, migration, and heartbreak.

While she pauses to pray Maghrib (she warns us that she will take half an hour, and she does), Maayan and I discuss the possibility that she is in fact a serial killer posing as a lonely middle-aged converted Muslim divorcee entrepreneur. Maayan tries the kitchen door and finds it locked. But by this point, we have agreed to get dinner with her. She had promised to take us to a vegetarian restaurant that does a thali buffet.

And she does, driving us there in a massive four-wheel drive, after changing out of her shalwar into blinged-out abaya. The food is good. The staff all know her. They serve dosai here too, and sometimes gulab jamun.

After dinner, she drives us home (where Maayan and I will spend some minutes taking a nail scissor to her hair, transforming its sporadically mushroom tendencies into an edgy asymmetrical cut). On the way, she tells us that she is researching different religions, and peppers Maayan with questions about Judaism. “What do you think the purpose of life is?” she asks, with the tone not so much of someone hoping for the answer, as with the tone of someone prepared to give it. Over the course of this conversation, which I only half-heartedly indulge, I am dismayed to discover how much of the scriptures I have forgotten: the 99 attributes of God, the names of the holy days, the spaces between the words of prayer. I dislike the thought of forgetting things I had turned my mind to memory. Knowledge is valuable in and of itself, whatever its subject matter. I feel the pull of memory’s desire like nostalgia.

She drops us off in front of my house. “The next time I see you,” she says, “maybe you will teach me more about being Muslim.”
“But aren’t you already?” I ask. “You said you are, so you must be.”
“Yes,” she clarifies, dismissing any idea of convert insecurity. “I am. But I am always learning.”

I spend the evening reading, writing.


*Name changed. Dar is small.