Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 March 2018

Home is where ... the roots are re-coloured

Having the confidence to have her hair cut in Abu Dhabi was a turning point for Deborah Williams.

Choosing to use a local hairdresser can be a sign that you feel at home. Mike Young / The National
Choosing to use a local hairdresser can be a sign that you feel at home. Mike Young / The National

I did something the other day that marks a rite of passage in making Abu Dhabi “home”, even though I’ve already lived here for four years. No, I didn’t attend a wedding, or gorge myself at one of those infamous weekend brunch extravaganzas. Instead I did something both simpler and dramatic: I got my hair cut.

For as long as we’ve lived here, I’ve got my hair cut when I go back to New York. I have longish hair that has no perceptible style to speak of and thus doesn’t require the upkeep of shorter, more precise cuts. A twice-annual chopping seemed like more than enough, but even that simple shearing made it seem as if I were still living, at least part-time, in Manhattan.

I hear your scepticism: it’s just a haircut, you’re thinking, and you would be right: while it is a pretty fabulous haircut, it’s hard to make a hash out of trimming long hair. (Someday I might regale you with the story of the time I got a very short haircut and ended up looking like a brunette broccoli, but I won’t go into that here.) No, the significance of my haircut rests in something far more dangerous: the highlights I needed to cover my greying locks.

The risk involved in asking a new stylist to cover my am-I-really-that-old grey hair may not be up there with military service, but as anyone who has suffered through a bad dye job knows, there’s a particular misery in having hair that screams “mistake”, whether the mistake means landing-strips of blonde across brunette curls, or a rinse that looks purple in the sunlight, or an auburn shade that goes disco pink instead. It was the fear of that sort of mistake that kept me attached to my New York stylist, a lovely low-key woman who works out of her apartment and has kept my grey at bay very successfully.

I would like to be one of those women with fabulous grey hair, like the platinum white tresses of singer Emmylou Harris or the chic silver bob like IMF president Christine Lagarde. But alas, my grey lacks sophistication; it won’t play nicely with the other hair on my head and so I dye it into submission.

I don’t know if, for men, finding a barber carries such a deep resonance, but for me and many of the women I know, putting our heads in someone else’s hands seems like an important link in making a new place seem like “home” instead of a temporary perch. It may be odd to create that link now, on the verge of Ramadan and the summer holidays, when people are poised to leave town, but my grey demanded attention – and erasure – so I went in search of a colourist who wouldn’t paint yellow stripes on my head and declare the job done.

Tina Fey once said, when someone asked her about her new hair style, that she and every other woman in America would eventually be honey-blonde. I’m not quite honey-hued yet; my hair is about the same shade as Caitlyn Jenner’s tousled locks on the landmark Vanity Fair cover that heralded the emergence into the world of a highly publicised gender change.

It’s a remarkably brave photo, don’t you think? After all, who among us would, at 65, pose in a white satin corset, as soignee as a 20-something debutante? Caitlyn has no discernible grey and now, thanks to my Abu Dhabi colourist, neither do I (but a satin corset is not in my foreseeable future). As if to affirm my decision to deny my grey reality, the day after my cut-and-colour, a friend exclaimed: “You look so … rested!” The surprise in her voice should tell you not only that I should get more sleep but also that the colourist hit the mark: I’m refreshed, not striped.

When we moved to Abu Dhabi, the last thing I thought about was my hair; I was more concerned with bigger questions, like schools and doctors and jobs. But now I realise (to make the inevitable pun) that in hiding my roots, I have rooted myself even deeper into Abu Dhabi. Who knew: home, it seems, is where the highlights are.

Deborah Lindsay Williams (mannahattamamma.com) is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi