This is Europe

The Master Barber of Berlin

A Palestinian barber puts his stamp on the German capital by transforming a rundown bus into a barbershop on wheels.

Across Europe, the far right is on the rise and it has some of the continent’s most diverse communities in its crosshairs.

To the far right, these neighbourhoods are ‘no-go zones’ that challenge their notion of what it means to be European.

To those who live in them, they are Europe. These are their stories.

In the Neukolln district of Berlin, Hussein Seif raises the graffitied shutters of his barbershop and steps inside. A few moments later, the Palestinian barber re-emerges with his red, blue and white barber’s pole. It takes pride of place beside the door.

Back inside, he lights a cigar and changes into a crisp white shirt, houndstooth braces, a bow-tie and black-and-white brogues.

This is Kucuk Istanbul, the old school barbershop Hussein has run since he left Jerusalem for Berlin in 1996.

With its antique cash register, exposed brick walls lined with sepia-tinted photographs and green chesterfield sofa, it is a small piece of 1920s London in a vibrant multicultural neighbourhood that is more familiar with traditional Turkish and Arab barbershops, where customers can get a cut or shave for less than 10 euros.

Hussein in his element, giving a customer a shave in his barbershop. [Al Jazeera]
Hussein in his element, giving a customer a shave in his barbershop. [Al Jazeera]

Home to people from more than 160 countries, Neukolln has become the centre of the German capital’s Arab community. Cafes, nail bars, second-hand clothes shops and bars occupy the ground floors of its red-roofed townhouses.

But with its luxury treatments, fine cigars and prices to match, Hussein’s barbershop seems to reflect a change taking root in Neukolln – gentrification.

His willingness to embrace this is a reflection of more than just his entrepreneurial spirit – it goes to the heart of his belief in integration.

“In the shop,” he reflects, “I don’t feel like an Arab… I see myself in my surroundings, in my shop, as a Berliner.”

Now Hussein wants to take his distinctive style on the road, creating a barbershop on wheels in an old American school bus.

Ensuring that the bus is not only roadworthy but also meets his exacting standards will be one of the biggest challenges Hussein has faced. Will he be able to pull it off and how will the neighbourhood he loves react to his new venture?

As Germany tackles a national debate about immigration and integration, Hussein is determined to find success by being true to himself.

This is his story. This is Europe.