A place in the sun for the Sephardi from a well-barbered Angels' Town

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The Independent Online

I have had some horrible haircuts in some horrible places. The worst was executed by a steel-eyed peroxide blonde in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. She ignored my "not-too-short, don't-want-to-look-like-a-soldier", and produced a helmet of bristles that left me with the appearance of a fresh recruit to the KGB, who still run that sad country. The first and only time she grinned was when I began to grumble.

I have had some horrible haircuts in some horrible places. The worst was executed by a steel-eyed peroxide blonde in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. She ignored my "not-too-short, don't-want-to-look-like-a-soldier", and produced a helmet of bristles that left me with the appearance of a fresh recruit to the KGB, who still run that sad country. The first and only time she grinned was when I began to grumble.

This week, I was certain it was going to happen again, at the hands of an elegant and almond-eyed young Muscovite called Abigail.

She was alone in the hairdressing salon, watching a Spanish afternoon soap opera on Russian cable TV, when I shambled in, grateful to get out of the head-hammering heat of Kiryat Malachi, a small town in central Israel.

It started well enough, although I did notice she seemed somewhat tentative with the scissors.

We had a friendly conversation, about her 21 months in Israel, about her home-sickness for Moscow's buzz and vitality, about the oddity of starting a new life as a single mother in a provincial backwater, a town for Jewish immigrants whose 22,000 inhabitants include Ethiopians, Moroccans, Iranians, Tajiks, Georgians, Uzbeks, Moldovans and more.

Then, wearing a strange and dreamy smile, she announced that she was ... umm, not a hairdresser at all.

She was sweeper-up, coffee-maker, dogsbody. The proprietor was out, so she thought she would have a stab at it. I was her first paying client, and her third scalp after her father and brother. "You frightened?" she asked, eyes sparkling.

A few minutes later, a hefty man called Victor bowled in, brusquely sent her back to her broom and finished the job (passably), before attempting to cut my eyebrows, an invasion that Abigail, as a former citizen of the global capital of facial caterpillars, would surely not have attempted. Business in the town was very bad, Victor explained, after I fought him off.

There were, he said, no fewer than 15 hairdressers in Kiryat Malachi, a town roughly one-eighth of the size of Southend, plus a further 25 hairdressing businesses run from private homes. Abigail had done well. By posing as a professional, she had snared a client in a hopelessly over-crowded market.

This can hardly have been the fate a handful of Iraqis and Hungarian and Romanian Holocaust survivors had in mind 50 years ago when they established Kiryat Malachi as a camp for newly arrived North African Jews, 15 miles inland from the Mediterranean and 12 miles north of Gaza.

Its name - which means "Angel's Town' - is in honour of Los Angeles, the "City of Angels", whose Jewish community provided funds for the new community. The comparison is not as ridiculous as it sounds. Kiryat Malachi has the faceless mini-mall architecture of LA's poorer quarters and, again like LA, hides its extraordinary ethnic and cultural diversity behind the drab concrete stamp of consumerism and low-cost housing.

This week Kiryat Malachi won another claim to fame. To universal astonishment in Israel, a local boy, Moshe Katzav, was elected by the Knesset to be the next president, defeating the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, former prime minister and overwhelming favourite, Shimon Peres.

After years of obscurity, this ugly little town has a hero, and he isn't a hairdresser. Mr Katzav had even twice been its mayor, including a three-month stint when he was only 24. Now the job is done by his younger brother, Lior.

More to the point, the Iranian-born Mr Katzav, like most of the town, has a Sephardi background. They are Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin, usually poor, who have long been discriminated against by Israel's Ashkenazi (European) elite, and who form the backbone of the increasingly powerful Shas party.

Two days after the election, Michael Bouhadana, a council official whose family came from Morocco, was savouring the triumph as he sat in his dingy office. "I think for the Sephardi people of Israel this is a new phase, a great step forward in the socialisation of these people," he told me. "It is the top job."

Jews of Iranian origin, he observed happily, now hold the presidency and chief-of-staff's job in the Israeli military. "Equality is coming."

There is a long way to go, especially for the citizens of Kiryat Malachi. Their blue-collar town is light years from the wealth of Tel Aviv, only 30 miles away, let alone the glittering glass towers of Herzliya, the centre of Israel's hugely lucrative hi-tech industry, a few miles up the coast.

Just making a living is tough, as Artiom Abramov and Rafi Zuriyev - both 21, and Sephardim from the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan - testify. Rafi's father is in prison, leaving his mother to care for eight children; Artiom was thrown out of school, became a part-time welder, and now can't get a place on a computer course partly because of his lousy educational record and partly because his father, a shoemaker, can't afford it.

Lounging on a bench in the town square, they express indifference to Mr Katzav's success and are sceptical about any big change in the future. "Look," says Artiom, heatedly, "Israel has everything. But you have to have money if you want to succeed. If you have money, you are a person. If you haven't, you are nobody. And nobody will help you out."

In a tough little town such as this, you have to seize any opportunity you can. Just like Abigail.

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