A Moroccan in Slovakia, a man about to become a football player turned hairdresser. Funny story, isn’t it? It’s the life of Abi. ‘I was going to play football with a club, Albion Brighton. I was a striker, quick on my feet and I had a little bit of technique. But I broke my leg in London. That’s sport. It’s the absolute top or you’re going down.’ And why Bratislava? ‘Because of my wife. There was no other reason to come there. My wife and I came to support the family, that’s the reason why I’m here in Bratislava.’

That explains it. Abi runs his shop, London Hair, in a small and quite luxurious shopping centre, just outside the city centre. Clean and bright, with three chairs, one occupied by a client whose hair is being cut by one of his staff. ‘Let’s go in here,’ he says and leads me to a side room. Suddenly we’re in Little Morocco: a dimly lit room with heavy carpets and candles. And a massage table: it is still part of his shop. ‘Nice, isn’t it?’ the owner says.

Quite relaxing. That’s an important part of your job isn’t it, to make sure your clients are at ease in the chairs. How do you make them feel comfortable?

‘Yes, there is a trick, the trick is…’

Valium in their tea?

‘No, no, no, sometimes you can give them a head massage while washing the hair. Using nice, warm water, especially in the winter. Then again in the summer, I do the opposite. I cool them down. And as soon as the client sits down, you start talking. About his hobbies, anything.’

And what if the client just wants to sit and be silent?

‘That’s fine. I would give him something to read, a newspaper.’

He is not your everyday hairdresser, and being an-almost-football-pro he is a bit more macho: ‘Sometimes female clients can be difficult. They might have family problems, relationship problems, whatever, and they want a change. They may want to change their life and their lifestyle, but they start with one very noticeable change: a new hairstyle. So when they ask for a new style, they may have strong opinions, and be a bit self-centred, without thinking what it will be like the next day, is this haircut suitable for me or not? You know, it is always delicate,’ he says. ‘Nobody is a hundred percent happy with his hair. Nobody. Not even me.’

He came to Slovakia fourteen years ago. ‘Hairdressers were badly paid then. 30 Crowns, about 1 euro, was normal for a haircut. So I started a club for foreign ladies, a place for them to meet and talk to each other. Then the club signed contracts with me to come to do the hair, at a discount. It worked very well.’

Nice. Good marketing. So you could ask at least 7 – 8 euros, I guess.

‘Yes, and the price now is 29, for men. Life’s become more expensive everywhere, but in Slovakia still the price is a little bit lower…’ He opened a second shop, a third and a fourth, but now he’s back to one. ‘I’m happy with one, because I find it very difficult to find staff. That is the worst part in Slovakia, maybe. People will go to hairdressers’ school for three months. Then they have a diploma or a certificate and they’re qualified to be hairdresser, which of course is impossible. What we first learned in school is what problems somebody can have with their hair. Why is it greasy, dry or why does it have split ends? We even learned medical things in the beginning. Only then did we start to wash hair and hold scissors. Now in three months you’re qualified to be a hairdresser and to open your own salon. This is why Slovakia has got a bad name, as in: bad hairdressers.’

Has Slovakia changed since it became a EU-member?

‘The country is getting better, that’s for sure. A lot cleaner and more beautiful than we were used to. And it’s safer. People are more confident and not terrified to go outside the city, to go for dinner or a walk, or to go outside the country. Slovakia was a closed country. It was really hard to leave, now it’s easy. Many Slovakian people travel, to Austria, Italy, maybe Denmark, Germany, and even Holland. They travel to work, because there they earn more money than here.’
Do you feel Moroccan, Slovakian or European?

‘My identity changes all the time. I go to Morocco twice a month, and as soon as I’m there, I shift to African and Muslim. You have to adapt to the culture. Here I’m European: one has to adapt to the country one is living in.’

Are you not a Muslim here then?

‘I certainly am! My religion hasn’t changed, that’s for sure. I do Ramadan. I do everything like a natural Muslim. But as soon as I come to Slovakia, I respect the change in culture. I don’t want to change anything in here. Nothing in Slovakia or in Europe. I’m satisfied the way it is. I’m happy.’

And are the European values also good enough for your children?

‘Absolutely. One hundred percent. I wouldn’t change a bit. My children were born in Slovakia. When they go to Morocco, I try to tell them exactly what the religion is, why it is that way and how. They have to pick what they want. Only satisfying me wouldn’t make them happy. So I do my best to teach my children what I know and in the end, I leave it to them.’

To me that sounds like a liberal, European way of raising your children. But maybe it is also Moroccan?

‘It is. For them, it’s very good to travel. We try to travel, five times a year to make sure they get a little bit from different cultures. We make sure they speak three or four languages in one year. They learn from the change in culture and language and eventually, they will adapt to it. And it’s up to them what they pick to use. You have to give freedom to your children. There’s nothing better than to have freedom.’

(interview by Mark, written by Amanda Brouwers)