On a chill Monday morning, Hussein Seif swings open the door to The Barber Yard, the retro barber shop on Neukölln’s Flughafenstraße that he runs together with his brother Raed. Seif cuts a stocky but elegant figure behind the glowing embers of a large cigar; his thick dark hair is streaked with silver. From the street outside – with its election posters on lampposts, its tidy rows of lime trees, its Spätis hosting morning meet-ups – entering The Barber Yard feels like travelling to another time and place: 1920s London, to be specific. Inside, it looks like an old-timey gentlemen’s club: vintage plush leather sofas, stained dark-wood floors, a big black analogue phone and walls adorned with framed photos featuring a variety of well-groomed gents.
For Seif, this shop is the culmination of a long journey. He remembers very clearly the words that his father, a pharmacist, said to him as an eight-year-old four decades ago: “Listen, son. You have to learn something in life.” As a schoolboy in West Jerusalem, Seif’s parents told him and his brother that, like other Palestinian children, they would have three months in the summer to explore potential career ideas. “So me and my brother decided to go, every vacation, to a barber’s,” he says. “And we got this feeling.”
At 21, Seif left for Europe in search of opportunity. In 1996, in Kreuzberg, he opened his first barber shop and named it Kücük Istanbul (Little Istanbul). When his rental contract ended in 2007, he moved to Neukölln under the new name The Barber Yard. Here he was joined by his brother, Raed. He likes that they work closely every day, now. “We are stronger,” he says. “When we do something, we do it together.”
During his time in Berlin, Seif discovered the retro style of the Roaring Twenties – those of London, that is, not of Weimar Berlin. Its rich cultural edge and Art Deco aesthetics captured his imagination. “I try to play the London style, the really old-school British style,” he explains. “It’s like a mirror – it shows how I feel inside. I calm down, I relax, I find myself in my shop and job.”
On work days, Seif looks appropriately vintage in a white cotton shirt, suspenders with subtle black and white stripes, slaty trousers in the Douglas Fairbanks style and two-tone leather shoes while sporting a bulky cigar and a silver-touched beard. He certainly matches the decoration of his barber shop, where period leather barber’s chairs – fire engine red and burnt timber in colour – rest in front of rectangular mirrors set against a dark green wall. A series of raw sienna wooden cabinets are packed with Seif’s tools of the trade: shaving brushes, straight razors, shaving cream and aftershave.
“Aftershave is very important for me as a master barber. It’s supposed to be 80 percent alcohol, no less,” he says. The quality must be right for the antibacterial effect. Seif also keeps handy some “salt” – a crystal-like salt stone that stops bleeding wherever a spot shows on the skin. That doesn’t necessarily mean a shave came too close for comfort, Seif explains, since a tiny tug of hair can be enough to cause a spot. “I use it, but not so often,” he says. “Of a hundred people, I don’t cut one. So no more salt.” With several decades of experience between them, the Seif brothers charge premium prices: €30 for a beard trim and €30 for a haircut. Enjoying the look and the decor come for free.
The Barber Yard now draws its clientele, not only from Neukölln locals and other Berliners, but also from international hotel guests and even the occasional celebrity. Matt Damon dropped by while filming a Bourne film in 2016, as have the New York hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan and one Saudi prince. (“I don’t know which one: there are too many,” Seif says.) Certainly his flare for self-promotion is a big part of his success story. An entire wall in his shop is dedicated to portraits of the owner, spinning Seif’s retro brand into a cult of personality. A barber’s business, he points out, is not only for cutting but also for selling. Two of his own labels – The Barber Yard and Kücük Istanbul, each branded Seif’s bust – market beard oil, balm, wax, shampoo and hair cream.
His mobile barber shop, which travels in a fitted-out yellow US-style school bus (1999 model), does the festivals and events circuit. He also sells cigars shipped in from Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. But his most prestigious coup may well be a coffee table book in which he told his own story – a book, Seif says, that has found its way to the pampered suites of the Haupstadt’s swanky hotels. Did he ever imagine, as a kid on the streets of West Jerusalem, that he would hit such dizzying heights as a Berlin master barber? “Not really,” he says. “But it was my dream.”
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