Week 3, Day 2: Close Reading of Zolf’s The Barber

I wanted to do a close reading of this poem because in general, I felt like we could have spent a great deal of time on Zolf, and I must have read “The Barber” seven times before really forming a picture of what potential narrative it is telling.

The barber

One soldier danced into the shop, ‘Nice, nice’

Whose faces were painted certain images don’t appear

Cutting in random lines the machine touched my scalp

Can you be gentle I’m not an expert open your mouth

A group of children stones his weapon on my shoulder

Intolerable eruption patting his chest, ‘Now I’ll tell you my name’

Sometimes staccato sometimes continuous

The soldier left the barbershop with the scissors

The soldier left the hair on my lips


Above you’ll see the poem in the format seen in Neighbour Procedure. The style in general is very much a collage of bits and pieces pulled from exterior sources, many phrases standing alone much better than in the same line. Overall, I was confused with this poem because I felt like there were multiple things working at once. First, power. Soldiers are seen as having power. Secondly, there is an overt innocence of the narrator because terms like “gentle” and “children” really stand out as descriptors.

At the start of the poem we see a soldier, not walking or striding in an authoritative way, but he/she “danced” into the shop. Even though 80% of military positions are open to women in Israel (Palestine much lower), I didn’t see this as a female soldier, but a male. It is interesting to point out there is nothing gender specific here for either the narrator nor the soldier. The dancing and ‘Nice,nice’ provides a superficial feeling of joy or at least relaxation, although the tone here felt almost demonizing. Like a dancing soldier was one who would do cruel things with a smile on their face. The dancing soldier is the one to watch out for.

Moving on to the next two lines:

Whose faces were painted certain images don’t appear

Cutting in random lines the machine touched my scalp

I assumed the soldier’s faces were painted in some way, perhaps the way soldiers mask their faces in guerrilla warfare, blocking out their identity as they blend with the landscape. I saw the soldier entering as either the barber, or a military shop, where the “machine” could be something to cut close to the scalp like a shaver perhaps. Hair is very important to Palestinians so I saw a barber shop as an interesting tool to create tension.

“Can you be gentle

I’m not an expert open your mouth”

I split this line up this way because this is how I read it. The words slice through me each time because the mood has suddenly shifted in the poem. What barber asks someone to open their mouth? Isn’t it usually the opposite? This threw up a red flag for me. There is a fear of pain by the narrator, and then a forceful negligence on the part of the barber or whomever is doing the act. While we could read this literally in this way, I felt the rest of the poem dealt with forceful sexual misconduct, or even rape.

This is why. Reading the poem, our speaker wants the person doing the act to “be gentle” and “a group of children stones his weapon on my chest” is suggestive of our speaker being a youthful person, or perhaps this soldier/barber has done this many times to other children. The weight and forcefulness subdues our speaker, followed by “Intolerable eruption”

The “Intolerable erruption” here is thick with emotional and physical images – intolerable being unable to tolerate or endure–too much to handle. An eruption is typically something powerful like a volcano, or an orgasm. In other words, something violently burst forth, breaking free. Immediately following “patting his chest, ‘Now I’ll tell you my name'” the barber/soldier is done putting weight on the speaker, done erupting and can be personal. This feels very distant and deviant.

“Sometimes staccato sometimes continuous” could be indicative of the rate at which penetration occurred, in both a physical and oral sense. This too felt sexual in nature, fast and painful, slow and ongoing. The repetition of “sometimes” here also indicates this isn’t necessarily the first time and our speaker wishes they were “gentle” in the process. This isn’t the first time this has happened.

“The soldier left the barbershop with the scissors

The soldier left the hair on my lips.”

If we continue to look at this as a violation, the soldier is the barber and leaves with his weapon, or a weapon. The hair here indicates a lack of care on the soldier’s part — the violation is increased. Hair from the shave is most likely the source, but could it also indicate a dirty floor? Or where our speaker’s mouth has been?
I’ll be honest, although I can’t get past my initial reading of this poem, I do see how there are other ways to take it. The violation and fear and mistreatment could also deal with a young adult signing up for the military, getting his/her first hair cut.  Feeling the beating in their chest, and fear associated with this type of act.

Either way, I found this poem to be very powerful and resonating.


**While crafted in 2007-2008 in discussion of Gaza, I did find this image interesting from 2014, which could suggest a third reading of this poem.


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