For many in Egypt, the hair salon is a favoured spot for gossip, beauty secrets and socialising. On a busy day, the hairdresser’s is a hive of activity as customers chatter with staff and exchange the news of the day, or flip through magazines in search of the latest social media-worthy look.
However, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed over four hundred lives since it arrived in Egypt in February, hair salons, like many other small businesses, are facing an uncertain future.
The Egyptian authorities have imposed unpreceded restrictions in an attempt to stem the spread of the virus, including closing schools, restaurants, mosques and churches, and implementing a nightly curfew.
They have not shut down hair salons, but do require them to close by 5pm, like most other non-essential shops and commercial ventures.
Proprietors like Mohamed El-Doksh, who owns a mid-range salon in Cairo satellite city 6 October, says that while his business is still open, the drop in demand has been catastrophic.
“We have been affected one hundred percent. This is completely out of the ordinary,” he told Ahram Online, describing how he opens his salon daily and waits for the usual spring customers who flock to salons ahead of the season’s numerous holidays, but receives only a trickle.
Easter Sunday and the traditional Sham El-Nassim spring holiday are both dates which normally bring increased footfall to salons, as Egyptians prepare for social and religious gatherings.
But this year, El-Doksh says it would be a good day if two or three customers enter the salon to pay EGP 50 ($3.22) for a haircut, despite him taking the necessary health procedures in his miniature three-chair establishment.
Business is “dead,” he says.
The salon has implemented a range of health measures, and most staff now were face masks, and can use disposable towels and razors at an extra charge to customers.
“Not everyone can pay EGP 25 as a service for disposable products,” he notes, adding that reassurances from him and his staff about the level of hygiene have not lured customers back.
In a wealthy neighbourhood in Sheikh Zayed, not far from El-Doksh’s salon, a group of staff were chatting outside an upscale hairdresser’s, with one eye on the door in case a customer appeared.
Business seemed down there too, despite reassurances by owners about constant disinfections and sterilisation and regular check-ups of staff themselves.
A manicurist at the salon told Ahram Online that the falling demand was unprecedented, especially given the shorter working hours of 10am to 5pm due to curfew hours. On a shelf behind her, a new collection of glittery polishes for summer, which she said had been ordered in September, seemed largely untouched.
“We’d consider business to be good if we serve four or five customers in the branch,” she said, distraught and unsure about how long the business will continue suffering.
The heavy drop in demand has also led salon owners to slash salaries, reasoning that this is a better alternative to the layoffs occurring in other sectors, which have happened despite officials urging the private sector to avoid firings.
The manicurist said the salon had already slashed staff salaries by more than half in March.
“We’re expecting April’s cuts to be even more. We’ll most probably take a quarter of our salaries. Only God knows,” she said, as she disinfected a basin ahead of an appointment with one of her increasingly rare clients.
The client, who asked to not be named, told Ahram Online that she had to “think twice” before finally succumbing to her desire to go to the hair salon.
“I want my normal life again, where I can take a break and where going to the salon doesn’t require much thinking,” she said, pulling a small bottle of disinfectant from her handbag and spraying down the salon chair.
In the wake of the fear of contagion, some once-loyal customers have been starting to recreate the grooming services they would normally get at the salon at home.
“People are now scared, despite our preventive measures. Many of them are shifting to home grooming amid the pandemic,” El-Doksh said.
Several people interviewed by Ahram Online said they have chosen to abandon the usual salon services and take a DIY approach.
“I used to go weekly for a hairdo and a facial threading. I haven’t gone for over two months, and I’m experimenting with waxing or bleaching powder at home, but I’m not happy with the results,” Hadeer Mohamed told Ahram Online.
Others have had more success, and say it may even change their salon-going habits in the future.
Yasmin Nabil told Ahram Online that she and her friends “have experimented with new techniques and hacks from videos online, with everyone now excelling in a specific hack.”
“We now boast about who is better in shaping a perfect eyebrow or doing a new pixie cut. Maybe when this over, we’ll rely on our skills more. Who knows?” she says.
But for some, the reality of DIY hair and beauty has made the simple pleasure of a salon visit seems more essential than ever.
“I’ll definitely break the quarantine and go to the hairdresser, but I’ll wear a face mask because the situation is unbearable,” Hadeer said.