The Thunker - Sarah Donohoe

We were on a bus, trying to nudge our way through the crowded streets of Al-Karak, Jordan. Faded yellow taxis, old cars and practical work trucks (not the monster pickups that Americans drive) were wedged higgledy-piggledy in the intersection and nobody was getting anywhere. A horn honked every once in awhile but for the most part it was a peaceful traffic jam. A few men got out of their cars and gathered for a smoke while they waited for the congestion to clear.

Our driver climbed down from his perch, hopped out of the bus and found out from the smokers what was causing the bottleneck. It turns out one guy had left his rusty van running in the middle of the crossroads while he dashed down the street to buy some tomatoes. Our driver turned and jogged down to the produce booth to find the tomato guy. Soon he returned with the van owner holding his bag of produce. Mr. Tomato climbed into his van, our driver hopped back onto his springy seat, the smokers dispersed, and traffic started moving again.

While we sat on the driverless bus, trying to stay calm in the eye of a traffic storm, we observed our surroundings. It appeared that a person could buy just about anything on the streets of Al-Karak, from freshly squeezed pomegranate juice to toilets to olivewood nativity sets.

One shop along the street caught my attention, not because I read the sign in Arabic (which is Greek to me), but because the shop I observed had a barber pole spinning outside the entrance.

I rubbed my eyes to make sure I hadn’t become delusional in the midst of all that traffic. But there she was, a red-, white- and blue-striped spinning cylinder—the universal symbol for barbershop. Not just in small town Estes Park, or in the Wild West of old, or across the United States with its patriotic colors, but around the globe.

The slow-whirling pole seemed out of place among the dulled colors of a desert people—men gathered around outdoor ovens baking flatbread, modest women wearing hijabs, vendors selling olives (did you know black olives are simply riper green olives?). Yet it was something familiar in an unfamiliar land and it brought a flash of comfort. No matter where we are in the world, what language we speak or what religion we practice, we know where to go to get a haircut!

Way back in the Middle Ages, illiterate people were using the candy cane stripes to identify a place where men could get their hair cut—and also their teeth pulled, their broken bones reset, their limbs amputated and their blood let (although the candy cane as we know it today didn’t come along until the 17th century). After all, barbers were skilled (?) with sharp instruments, don’tcha see. There are multiple theories about what the colors originally represent, for instance: red represented blood, blue stood for non-oxygenated blood and white indicated bandages. Another suggestion: red was for bloodletting, white was for teeth pulling and blue was for the simple, painless haircutting and shaving. The sphere at the top symbolized a container of leeches used in bloodletting and the bowl at the bottom represented the vessel used to catch the blood. This is a gory topic, the barber pole.

Bloodletting became obsolete (thank goodness) but the barber pole did not. In fact, the one in my small downtown has to be brought in at night or it will disappear, likely the target of juveniles learning the lessons of petty thievery. Be that as it may, I prefer to think that the shop owner takes his barber pole down at night as a sign of respect, just as he does the American flag when there is no light shining on it in the dark.

We can all identify the McDonald’s golden arches, the Nike swoop and the Starbucks two-tailed mermaid but those are logos recognized worldwide. They each represent a specific company. The barber pole does not stand for any particular brand of barbershop, it isn’t backed by a ticker symbol and it doesn’t indicate one hairstyle over another. (Nor are there imitation barber poles!) A barber pole is simply information, twirling slowly like a whirligig in a light breeze, to let us know that if we need a haircut, we can get one right there. The classic icon, mesmerizing with its optical illusion of stripes spiraling downward, represents the industry as a whole. The only other universal symbol I can think of off the top of my head is the wood-carved cigar store Indian, which has gone out of favor with the growth of racial sensitivity.

I have fond memories of going to the barbershop on Saturday mornings with my dad when I was a little girl. Back in the ’60s barbershops were exclusively for men, so I don’t know why I was allowed into the narrow, two-chair shop. But I was, and my reward for sitting quiet and still, taking in the sounds an smells of a men-only club and watching Dad’s locks tumble down his apron onto the floor, was a piece of Bazooka bubblegum in its wax-paper wrapper with a Bazooka Joe comic inside. (My brother says his trips with Dad to the barbershop gave him his first exposure to Playboy magazine. Thankfully I don’t remember any such thing.)

We were surprised to see one other recognizable icon during our trip to Israel and Jordan. His picture is included above. Who’da thunk!

You may let The Thunker know what you think at her e-mail address,

© 2019 Sarah Donohoe

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