Wednesday, July 26, 2006 | 7:31 a.m.
You can tell quite a bit about a society - or a community - by its barbers.
When most of the world had never heard of the Taliban, for instance, a visit to Kabul's barbershops would have provided ample evidence that something was terribly wrong in Afghanistan.
Before the religious extremists who ruled the country were blowing up the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan, they issued an edict to the barbers of Kabul: no "Titanics."
Despite the Taliban prohibition on Western forms of entertainment, by late 2000, Titanic fever - as in the movie - was sweeping Afghanistan. Afghan men began clamoring for haircuts that emulated the coiffure of Leonardo DiCaprio. And the Taliban started throwing the purveyors of un-Islamic hairstyles into prison.
"We are very nervous to accept orders for this hairstyle anymore," a wary barber told the BBC.
Barbers served as a similarly useful barometer in Baghdad. Beyond the security of the Green Zone, a good indication of how sectarian violence was spinning out of control in the Iraqi capital could be found in its barbershops.
Sunni extremists began killing barbers who gave Western-style haircuts or trimmed facial hair in violation of militant Islamic aesthetics. "There has been an increase in the number of attacks against barbershops, to the extent that it has become a daily occurrence, and we have to look for safer places," one customer told Agence France-Presse last year.
Fortunately in the United States, the barbers' practice does not normally carry such gravitas. But American barbershops are no less informative. Show me a "barbershop" that applies fruit pectin conditioners to its patrons' heads, and I'll tell you a good bit about the men who frequent the establishment.
At its worst, a haircut is merely an exercise in vanity and hygiene. At its best, it's a milepost in life and a chance to confer and confide.
Who doesn't have a memory - and probably a bad one at that - along with a picture and maybe even a lock of hair from his first haircut? Not every trim is so momentous. But as I've grown older, I've come to appreciate my monthly visit to the barber.
JB Sumerlin has given me birthday haircuts, back-to-school haircuts, holiday haircuts and summer haircuts. This week, the shop that bears his name marks its 50th anniversary. He'll proudly show you the fading bill of sale on the wall, dated July 25, 1956. And in some respects, walking into JB's Barber Shop is like taking a step backward in time.
Maybe it was the sign on the door that for decades announced "regular haircuts." I need to ask JB if anyone ever came in, even during the '70s, and asked for an irregular haircut.
Maybe it's the old padded barber chairs, the old toy train or the old Admiral television that doesn't work. You half expect Wally and the Beave to come through the door.
The music is from the 1940s: Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Peggy Lee and Duke Ellington. But it's on XM Satellite Radio. And then you remember that time moves in only one direction.
In 1993, when JB reached a certain age that often suggests retirement, he sold the shop to his nephew, Terry Sumerlin.
JB still cuts hair, only not as much as he used to. His hands move a little more slowly now. That's liable to happen after 60 years of being a barber.
But that just gives us more time to talk about the drought, about his soldier son who's now home from Iraq, about who has the best barbecue, about the fish my kids caught, about life.