"Others go and get their photographs taken, but I never asked someone to be photographed with them. Even the actors and artists, who have been my customers for decades," Mahmoud explains. "These pictures come by chance. I go for work and work alone."
In the 1960s, his first client from the inner circle of political power was President Gamal Abdel Nasser's teenage son Hakim. Nasser warned Mahmoud not to give the teenager sideburns -- the colonel wanted his son's hair cut like a soldier's -- but Mahmoud ignored the Egyptian strongman's advice. The barber knew Nasser would forget his own warning but that his son would never forgive him. Next came then Vice President Sadat's teenage son, whose hair Mahmoud still cuts today. Then Sadat came to sit in his barber's chair, and finally Mubarak, who started visiting the stylist after he became vice president.
Mahmoud still loves Sadat, calling him a "wise man" and "salt of the earth." He traveled the world with the flamboyant Egyptian leader -- including to the United States, for the Camp David Accords. Comparing his work on the Middle East peace process to a hair salon, Sadat told Mahmoud that if the Palestinians were hairstylists and lost their shop, and then were offered a seat back inside, they would be foolish not to take what was available to them.
Mahmoud brags that he never changed his ways for the powerful. "When I was first introduced to Sadat, I told him about all my flaws. That I am a hard drinker and a [marijuana] smoker, that I stay up late every night and so on. I told him all the bad things about me, so that if someone went to inform on me, he'd already know."
He muses that perhaps Mubarak thought he could learn the secrets of Sadat's court from the president's barber. "I knew nothing," Mahmoud chuckles.
When Mahmoud visited Mubarak at the military hospital in late August, it was the first time he had seen his friend in the flesh in two years. They kissed on the cheeks, hugged, and shook hands. He said Mubarak was physically weak but mentally as sharp as a tack. He says the former president continued to maintain a busy, organized schedule -- every inch the air force commander that he had been decades ago.
"You know how these airmen are. If he finds a strand of hair out of place, he'll tell me, 'Don't leave it,'" Mahmoud says admiringly. "Look: He is 85 and his hair looks as healthy as ever."
Mahmoud has watched Egypt struggle after Mubarak's downfall. First the Muslim Brotherhood, which he dreads, won the presidency. Then the country was thrust into chaos when the military deposed the Brotherhood and launched a far-reaching crackdown that has cost over 1,000 lives. Today, the Mubarak years look far better to many Egyptians, even if the ex-president is shunned like a wayward relative.
Taking a break from a client, Mahmoud smokes a Rothman and describes Mubarak's mindset since his release. "Perhaps on the inside he is happy that [the Muslim Brothers] have left, but that's all," he says. "He is unhappy about what has occurred. He wonders how much time will it take Egypt to mend things. He is worried for the country."
Mahmoud also styled the hair of Mubarak's two sons, watching them grow into dapperly attired men who joined their father in the stewardship of the country. When the sons were thrown in prison, Mahmoud urged the general prosecutor, another one of his clients, to let him keep cutting their hair. The prosecutor refused, however, leaving the sons' hair to the care of their prison staff.