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The Comb

Photo by Irving Penn // Vogue US. October 1997

I have a dear comb, made by a French beauty brand Officine Universelle Buly. It was made specifically for thick & long hair. It even has a name “Indulgent”, fitting for my own disposition, comes with a personalised engraving & a beautiful velvet pouch. Its own manufacturer says: "Its lovely curves make it one of the most popular combs among lovers of beautiful things, curiosities and other aesthetes." (X).

The comb luxuriates the daily routine of hair combing which occurs twice a day — upon waking up & before going to sleep.

In the morning, I brush to undo the traces of the night. The night herself is quite a stylist & she comes up with curls & twists that many human stylists could only dream of. As I write of the touch night leaves upon the hair, I recall the stories my grandmother would tell me. Long time ago, at the farm, she had a horse. It was a beautiful, black horse. I was very young & my memories of the animal are quite dreamlike. His name was Gavran, a word that means “Raven”. My grandmother told stories, and similar stories were also told by others, of how sometimes, early at dawn, she found the horse’s mane to be braided. Lacking rational explanations, the people would say that the fairies visit horses at night & braid their manes. Since they are generally considered to be animals of noble & subtle natures, the fairies are drawn to them.

At night, I comb to remove from the hair any leftover of the day. Sleep is a journey that ought be prepared for. It is a death and into death one can only go clean and free. The indulgent, curved comb moves through the hair easily and gently. I hear no sound of my hair’s breakage, and I feel no hair’s weight upon the comb. With a perfumed oil added - perhaps one with Eritrean myrrh or something that carries in its name & scent the complex spirit of the stops on the trade routes, like Comoros of Mauritius - and an ordinary, daily routine, is transformed into a ritual. Into this daily & nightly ritual, I weave with a handcrafted comb, anoint with oil the story of hair, death, farm, fairies & horses. What odd worlds unify here with me - would the dark Gavran of my childhood ever dream to be in a meditative essay without a purpose or a point, and in it to be brought into connection with combs & Eritrean myrrh? Perhaps not - but inside of me, they find to have something in common. I build a bridge & a connection between what seemingly has none.

As I sanctify my daily routine - I think of the Swiss manufacturer who touched the comb with his hand while making it. Him, in his own innocence, not even knowing, participated in the fate that made it possible for me to have this moment and weave into it my own illusion, narrative & dream. And it also has me think of how the art of creating a comb is an ancient art that stems all the way back to Adam. And as I give poetry and myth to my daily combing, my ritual moves from personal towards the universal & becomes a blessing, a salutation to the lineage of Adam — for the art of comb-making finds its root within him. It is not just one person, or two, but an entire lineage of them who made the comb that now sits in my hand, touches the sacred top of the head & the receptive tenderness of the hair’s ends. As the red hair falls down upon the floor beneath me, I offer them as a sacrifice to the Soil, to the Heritage of the Prophets, to the Human Hands. I shall finish with a quote from “Fez: City of Islam” (X) by Titus Burckhardt:

"I knew a combmaker who worked in the street of his guild, the mashshatin. He was called 'Abd al-'Aziz ('slave of the Almighty'), and always wore a black jellaba - the loose, hooded garment with sleeves and a white turban with the lithâm, the face veil, which surrounded his somewhat severe features. He obtained the horn for his combs from ox skulls, which he bought from butchers. He dried the horned skulls at a rented place, removed the horns, opened them lengthwise, and straightened them over a fire, a procedure that had to be done with the greatest care, lest they should break. From this raw material he cut combs and turned boxes for antimony (used as an eye decoration) on a simple lathe; this he did by manipulating with his left hand a bow which, wrapped round a spindle, caused the apparatus to rotate. In his right hand he held the knife, and with his foot he pushed against the counter-weight. As he worked he would sing Koranic suras in a humming tone. I learned that, as a result of an eye disease which is common in Africa, he was already half-blind and that, in view of long practice, he was able to “feel” his work rather than see it. One day he complained to me that the importation of plastic combs was diminishing his business. “It is only a pity that today, solely on account of price, poor quality combs from a factory are preferred to much more durable horn combs,” he said, “it is also senseless that people should stand by a machine and mindlessly repeat the same movement, while an old craft like mine falls into oblivion. My work may seem crude to you; but it harbours a subtle meaning which cannot be explained in words. I myself acquired it only after many long years, and even if I wanted to, I could not automatically pass it on to my son, if he himself did not wish to acquire it - and I think he would rather take up another occupation. This craft can be traced back from apprentice to master until one reaches our Lord Seth, the son of Adam. It was he who first taught it to men, and what a Prophet brings -- for Seth was a Prophet -- must clearly have a special purpose, both outwardly and inwardly. I gradually came to understand that there is nothing fortuitous about this craft, that each movement and each procedure is the bearer of an element of wisdom. But not everyone can understand this. But even if one does not know this, it is still stupid and reprehensible to rob men of the inheritance of Prophets, and to put them in front of a machine where, day in and day out, they must perform a meaningless task."


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They say that Seth also took the Grail from the Garden--or was it Adam? Whatever; someone did. The point is, I can imagine the disappointment of slowly losing the dizzying, angelic humming of qiraat and hymns, leaving that beautiful Place. But the real mystery is why he took it out of there in the first place.

Combing was never something I was good at. But then, I like that both your manufacturer and the man in the story developed their own technique.

Regarding the combing of horses, there is a wonderful Celtic myth. I don't remember all the details, but in essence, it was this: a witch developed a vendetta towards a certain knight. At every court gathering, she would…

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I love love the story. Perhaps I could one day venture on a collector/philologists/ethnologists path & collect fairytales & myths about horses, manes, braids and hair.

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