A cut above

After 50 years, legendary hairdresser Marcel is calling it a day.

Epithets like "acclaimed" and "landmark" are regularly bandied about in the media like so much loose change but in the case of Marcel Sellouk, the adjectives hardly do him justice. Now in his mid-70s, Marcel - no one ever called him Mr. Sellouk - is known to Jerusalemites of practically every socioeconomic standing or political hue as the man from the eponymous barber shop on Rehov Ben-Yehuda. He opened for business there in November 1958 and now, half a century on, has finally called it a day. "It is a sad day for me," he says, five days after he produced his last haircut. In fact, his last day of business should have been January 31 but the snow intervened and he closed a couple of days earlier than planned. "I didn't really have any choice. It was getting a bit much for me." Looking at Marcel, trim, impeccably coiffured and with a perpetual twinkle in his blue eyes, it is difficult to imagine anything being "a bit much" for him. Our chat starts out with me sitting in the famous original swivel seat, which bears witness to tens of thousands of hairdos over the decades, and Marcel standing, as the workmen set about concerting the place into a retail outlet for Dead Sea products. The chair, of course, is still in pristine condition. "I take care of my things," says the legendary hairdresser, without even a hint of self-aggrandizement. "The chair comes from Japan even though it has a European name [Belmont]. They probably wanted to give it some sort of French prestige," he laughs. Feeling somewhat uncomfortable chatting with someone a generation older than me while he stands, I suggest that Marcel take a seat. "No thanks," comes the reply. "I have been on my feet since 5 a.m., as I have been every day since I became a hairdresser." Marcel's day starts out with what he calls "the Parliament." "I meet with my friend Avi Raz from Albar Pharmacy at 5 a.m. every morning. We have been doing that for more years than I can remember. We have a coffee, sort out all the world's problems and then get on with our work day." Marcel has kept countless prime ministers, presidents, Knesset speakers, IDF generals and regular Jerusalemite Joes looking trim and presentable. "Menachem Begin used to come here and I remember [Knesset speaker] Menachem Savidor crying in my shop after his wife died." Marcel must have heard some stories in his time. "Yes, people have told me lots of interesting things, and talked about some of their most intimate problems while having their hair cut. People say I am something of a psychologist too," he recounts. "Maybe, but I don't divulge things like that. I will take their stories with me to my grave." Marcel began his hair snipping activities as a teenager, in his hometown of Casablanca. "My parents decided it was time for me to leave school, and my father sent me to do an apprenticeship with a barber." But 15-year-old Marcel was initially far from happy with his new course in life. "To begin with I didn't even cut hair," he recalls. "I just brushed the loose hairs off the customers' clothes after they'd had their hair cut and I opened the door for them. I went home and told my father I was fed up with it but he said I should persevere and things would get better." The youngster dutifully stuck to the task and, before long, starting honing his hairdressing skills. A couple of years later he moved to France and found work with a veteran barber in Paris. "He was like a father to me," says Marcel. "When I got married in Israel in 1953 he sent me material for my wedding suit from France. I could have got the material here, but he thought we didn't have anything in Israel in those days. I was very touched by the gift." Marcel made aliya in the early Fifties and, after a short stay on a moshav near Ramle, moved to Jerusalem. He soon proved his worth working for a hairdresser on Jaffa Road. "He told me to cut his hair and, if I did a good job, he would take me on." Marcel was duly employed. Marcel has no idea exactly how many Jerusalemites have benefited from his hairdressing skills; however he is particularly proud of his customers' loyalty. "I cut the hair of five generations of one family and four generations of a few others," he says. "I remember a young girl coming to the shop one day. I was busy with a customer but she refused to have her hair done by anyone else than me. When she eventually sat in my chair she asked me if I remembered her. It was Menahem Begin's granddaughter. She was a teenager then and I'd last cut her hair when she was about five years old." Customers' loyalty has also meant Marcel could follow their lives as they unfolded. "This is a picture of a young soldier having his hair cut by me," he says, picking up a large framed photograph carefully propped against a wall near the legendary Belmont chair. "He later turned religious and now he's a father of three." But things haven't always run smoothly for Marcel in the last 50 years. "During the second intifada a suicide bomber blew himself up very close to the shop," he recalls. "I was cutting a young boy's hair and I threw myself on top of him to protect him from the falling glass. Neither of us was hurt but I tore up a lot of towels to bandage some of the other customers." Naturally, Marcel has also seen a few changes since setting up shop. "Turning Rehov Ben-Yehuda into a pedestrian mall also wasn't particularly good for business, for anyone around here, but I managed okay," he says. "I remember horses and carriages trundling up and down the street, and we had the very first neon shop sign in town. That was a few years ago." Our chat was constantly interrupted by now former customers coming to shake Marcel's hand and commiserate with him over the closing. "Where am I going to get my hair cut?" says one customer of 30 years. "You can go to [Marcel's former employee] Eli across the road or to a place near the shuk," Marcel replies. "Yes," says the bereaved customer, "but it won't be the same." "People have been coming up to me for weeks with tears in their eyes," says Marcel with genuine bewilderment. "Just last week I was cutting someone's hair and I saw a couple outside reading the notice about me closing down and crying. But I'm not dead. The barber shop may be gone, but I'm still here." It is safe to say that Marcel - the iconic hairdressing establishment and the barber himself - will be sorely missed by Jerusalemites one and all.