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John Herlihy

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Scenes from a Tribal Barbershop
By John Herlihy
Posted: Saturday, March 06, 2004
Last edited: Saturday, March 06, 2004
This short story is rated "G" by the Author.

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Recent stories by John Herlihy
· The Spirituality of the Desert
· Sketches of Life in a Pathan Village
· Breakfast in Madinah, the City of Light
· A Rare Visit to Makkah in Saudi Arabia
· Demystifying Acupuncture
· The Mystery and Miracle of Ayurveda
· Inside Pathan Country
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A Pathan child's first haircut in a traditional tribal barbershop.

Pathan tribesman maintain the tradition of not cutting the child's hair until he reaches his first birthday when the head is summarily shaved of its curly locks. This is the story of little Wajahat's first haircut, who in keeping faith with an age-old tradition of his Pathan tribe also came to witness the social traditions of the tribal barbershop.


This little excursion to the barbershop is going to spell trouble, I thought to myself, as we piled into the olive green Nissan Maxima for the drive to the barbershop. Today was Wajahat’s first birthday and according to age old traditions of the Pathan people, a day to be reckoned with. "Get ready for a nightmare," I said jokingly to my Pathan friend Farmana as he settled his great hulk into the seat next to me.  "This is Pathan child," he said gravely, as though affixing to the child and the moment a noble insignia foreshadowing bravery and courage. "I doesn't cry my first haircut and Wajahat not cry his first haircut. You see." Indeed, I thought, what charming bravado set against the richly-textured backcloth of culture and tradition.

     I had met Farmana, a Pathan tribesman from a village outside of Peshawar in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, many years ago while coming out of a local mosque in the UAE where we were both working. I worked as an English lecturer at a local university and he worked as the foreman of a small Irrigation company in Al Ain, the university town outside of Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates affectionately named by the local people the "Father of the Antelope", a small island off the coast in the Arabian Gulf that has become a futuristic metropolis thanks to the oil economy of the world. Apparently, my Pathan friend was intrigued in his noble heart by the sight of a white bearded American Muslim searching hopefully through a welter of footwear outside the mosque for his sandals. That I was a foreigner and some kind of alien being there was no doubt; but true to the traditions of his tribe, Farmana was a fearless soul and full of curiosity.

Now, after many years of close friendship, I had been taken into the remote and intimate world of the Pathan people whose origins date back millennia in the mountainous regions of northern Afghanistan and Pakistan. To be taken into this close tribal society and anointed as the symbolic grandfather was a rare honor indeed attributed to the fact that I have been a Muslim and living in the Middle East for several decades. Our friendship has endured throughout the years and survived the onslaught brought about by the politics of terrorism that now dominates the ambiance of our world, becoming a cultural artifact and prevailing tradition of our time in its own sinister way.

The two girls sat submissively in the back seat of the car without uttering a sound. They both had dark black eyes and a mop of black hair. Najma, the little star according to her name, was intelligent and helpful, lifting the chubby Wajahat up and away from the street and depositing him like a cumbersome bundle on her lap. Zahra, the little monkey according to her abu (father), experimented in trouble like other children invested in natural innocence. She looked out onto the world as if she wanted to interrogate it for its faults or blame it for its troubles, her black eyes giving off the sharp light of a wild thing in the forest. For now, she sat quiet and attentive to my admonition not to touch and disturb anything in my precious car or else. They had grown up with me as a familiar member of the family and had come to learn of my stern ways and strong sense of discipline. They referred to their father as abu, while they referred to me as Papa, in deference to my white beard and grandfatherly status.

     Like many aspects of social life and behavior in the Arab and Islamic world, the ambiance of the barbershop was far different from what you would expect to find in a Western barbershop. Granted the large red-and-white swivel chairs and cacophony of reflective mirrors are the same as one would expect anywhere; there are the usual condiments of cheap cologne, scented powder and bushy face brush that you might find in an American shop, together with the sterilization tray with straight-edged razors and a cavalcade of gleaming scissors, but that is the extent of the similarity. Otherwise, the Middle Eastern experience of the barbershop has all the components of a traditional social gathering, complete with one’s most favored barber, a complement of friends, and an ever moving stream of passers-by and well wishers who come and go from the shop greeting the barbers and their customers with equal sincerity and aplomb.

     As we entered the barbershop aglitter with reflected neon light and smelling of cheap eau de cologne and stale cigarette smoke, our little entourage included my friend Farmana and his little son Wajahat who was tucked in the niche of the arm of this Pathan mountain man like a gnome in a tree trunk where he sat sleepily surveying the alien environment, the two girls and myself as the grand patriarch taking up the protective flank. We were ceremoniously greeted by both the barbers and customers inside the shop like long lost relatives who had suddenly appeared from nowhere. Everyone “salaamed” each other in their traditional Islamic greeting of “salam aleykum” (peace be on you) and the traditional reply “wa alaykum as-salam” (and on you likewise peace), sent back and forth in a manner that lent a formal, almost Quranic quality to the proceedings, in keeping with the tradition of the Quran as a living presence in the daily lives of the people. We were warmly embraced and kissed on each cheek, the children were patted and teased until they managed to escape behind the refuge of my billowing pantaloons and flowing shirt, a light weight cotton Pakistani suit that I wore for comfort’s sake.

     Wajahat, which means the ‘esteemed one’, was merrily ensconced with much fanfare onto the special children’s board astride the swiveling barber chair to mark the completion of the first year of his life and the maturing of a full hair’s dark growth with a ceremonial hair cutting, shaving the head completely with a straight-edged razor. The barbers and customers were abuzz with interest at the ceremony that was about to take place. I took up my position as protector and village elder next to the somber child sitting astride a special board running across the arms of the chair. I now awaited the kind of spontaneous outrage and indignation that infant children are unashamedly capable of in fulfillment of my prophecy at the outset of our little excursion; but I was soon to be disappointed. An unexpected revelation awaited my worldly-wise mind.

Wajahat sat there in the chair in solemn introspection, as if he understood the moment and was fully prepared to meet it. He seemed to belong there and didn’t want to be anywhere else. As he settled himself into the oversized chair far beyond his means, he looked out unconcernedly at the world around him as if he had already taken possession of it. He then looked at himself in the mirror with a self awareness that lacked all curiosity, as if the human image he saw there held no mystery he did not already know. There he sat, noble and content with his lot, as if he had brought from his mother’s womb a knowledge of his own unity, as if the mystery of God’s creative hand was still near at hand and he was still one with the Spirit of God.

     In the detached gaze of an infant child, the wisdom of the world that I thought I possessed was wiped clean. It made me think just how fragile the experience of a lifetime is, and just how powerful a knowledge and a truth can be when it is perceived by a pure mind untouched by the burdens of the world. Watching the child at rest and free of care as he sat there taking in the world around him, I began to realize it is not what a person sees, but the way he sees it that marks the difference between a pure, virgin mentality and the corrupted, over-worldly veneer that envelopes the adult mind weighted down as it is by the experience of the world. In fact, what does the child see but the same world as we do; but in a manner infinitely different in which everything is at first new and strange, inexpressibly rare and delightful and beautiful.

     The infant child is a little stranger unto himself, but his entrance into the world is compensated by the world saluting him and surrounding him with innumerable joys. He knows nothing of transgression and drudgery, illness or government laws. He does not dream of poverty, contention or vice. Everything seems at rest, free of sorrow and having an immortal quality. He knows nothing of sickness or death, rents or other testaments to the contingencies of this world. All things abide now and forever as if they are in their proper place. Within the virgin wilderness of the child’s mind, everything was manifest in the light of day and behind ever created thing something mysterious and infinite lay in waiting. Time for the child is not lateral movement but an expression of the eternal now, the universe itself is an Eden, and the world that he is beginning to experience makes him heir to the mysteries which the books of the learned never unfold. The proud father stood behind the child and look at him with tender affection, his thick, strong hands resting protectively on the infant’s shoulders like gorilla paws, just below the forest of curls that were soon to become part of the historic lore of Pathan tribal history.

    I have never had children of my own, but that does not preclude my special interest and fascination with them and their manner of being and acting. Contrary to the sober reaction of little Wajahat sitting politely in the barber chair, I still held the secret desire to hear the screams and cries of the child reacting in defiance to this strange, invasive encounter, but it was not meant to happen. The children led me back to the scruffy, worn out armchairs in the rear of the shop where customers and their friends could while away the empty hours waiting for service or just socializing with friends. Indeed the area was full, but several men quickly deferred to my age and foreign aura in spite of my traditional clothing and offered me one of the engulfing chairs which I promptly sat in and got lost in. There was a coffee table strewn with Bollywood star magazines and the alien Arabic/Urdu script of the Pakistani newspapers. Tea and dates were immediately served and I settled back for an evening of social accommodation to this new world of custom and tradition so alien to my own experience in the West where people can be distant and almost unsociable, more practical and matter of fact.

The Middle Eastern barbershop serves as a kind of sanctum sanctorum for men of all ages, a respite from all the cares in the world, a refuge from domestic problems, ranging from nagging wives to familial misunderstandings. Entering this inner sanctum of collegial friendship and bonding amounts to entering a world of camaraderie and companionship that one does not always find at home or in the street. In this part of the world, everyone respect s and loves his barber, and the barber in return values and show consideration to his customers by massaging and pampering the beloved crown of the head, the supporting shelf of the shoulders, and the sturdy and faithful pillar of the neck that faithfully keeps the weighty head afloat the body. There was tea and cigarettes and friendship there, someone to cut and style your hair, trim your beard, shave your street-worm, emotion-swept face and wipe it clean of all care.

     When I go to a Middle Eastern barbershop, I know that there is nothing finer than the hot towels laid over the face, the broad strokes of the razor, and the deft shears of the experienced barber, his fingers expertly working pomade through to the scalp, the final whisk of the powered brush against the back of the neck. I am greeted like an old friend and they do not forget my name when I return. Three brothers run this particular shop and day after day, hour after hour, beard after beard and head after head, they never seem to tire and always accord everyone their due treatment. I consider myself an educated man and have lived and work in many different countries. I have written books on education, religion and philosophy and have lectured in countries across three continents. Yet these simple people have something to teach me. As I watch them work, I have learned from them what it means to be patient, how to be friendly in the face a routine monotony and how to remain devoted and concentrated to the work at hand. Would that I could come to my intellectual and critical thinking tasks with as much fortitude, sensibility, and attention to detail as they seem to do day after day. They shake my hand, kiss and hug me as if I were a long lost brother. The barbershop becomes a weekly appointment I am reluctant to miss. If I don’t show up because of a holiday or an unexpected lapse in my routine, I am missed in return and greeted with added effulgence when I finally come back.

However, as soon as the Pathan child Wajahat was astride the board on the oversized chair and bundled up with protective paper napkins secured with a silken polyester bib snugly tied around his neck against any wayward and offending hairs, his older sisters rushed to his aid to attend to his every need. In addition to making sure that he was comfortable and well positioned on his alien perch, they were ready to provide the in-house entertainment and any diversionary tactics required to assure a smooth and uncompromising investiture into the world of the monthly haircut. Najma, the little star, began to chirp an aria of bird songs, while Zahra, the little monkey, began to climb the barber chair and leer into the little boy’s face with grimaces of doom. His head was bedecked with a year’s growth of curly black hairs soon to become mixed with the other shorn detritus on the barber’s floor. The king was ensconced on his throne, attendants alert to his every need, as he began to nod off into the netherworld of dreams, oblivious to the ceremonious tradition of his first haircut about to happen.

Amid the whir of overhead fans and the constant chatter of the multiple languages and dialects of the subcontinent including Pashtu, Urdu, Hindi, Farsi and Arabic, a number of people were already being attended by the busy barbers in various stages of cosmetic enhancement of the unruly growths of hair on head and visage. One fellow was having his head completely shaved, not an uncommon custom in the Middle East where temperatures sometimes soar to 50 degrees centigrade and where in a traditional environment such as this a shaved head is considered a blessing as well as a means of pious self-effacement. I detected a look of introspection and satisfaction on the face of the sleeping customer, arousing in my mind the inquiring insight as to why people always give themselves up to the ministrations of the barber and tend to float away into oblivion in the barber’s chair, as if cast away onto the shores of some remote landscape of dreams by a magic wand.

Another fellow was having his faced scraped in an elaborate ritual of skin purification in which the barber manipulates a fine thread through this teeth and fingers that virtually relieves the facial skin of unwanted hairs, dead skin and any blackheads that may lie in route of the swathe of the swift moving thread. There seemed to be no end to the arcane rituals being enacted upon the customers as though the mysteries of a secret cult. One of the barbers prepared a cotton ball at the end of a long pair of tweezers that was steeped in alcohol that he alighted in flame. He waved this flaming torch in close proximity to each ear as a way of effectively scorching away any offending hairs on the ears. Meanwhile, the unsuspecting customer slept on in bliss unaware of the assault on his extremities.

Two other men sat in nearby chairs and had come for regular maintenance of their beards. Now it needs to be understood that beards in the Middle East take on a symbolic and sacred quality. To don a beard is not only a sign of manliness and dignity, it is considered the practice or Sunnah of the Prophet, and any imitation of the beloved Prophet brings with it its own corresponding blessing. Trim the mustache and leave the beard uncut was the advice of the Prophet. Out of deference to his words, many Muslims grow elaborate beards that over the years take on a kind of “personality” of their own. Although they are never actually cut, many people have high maintenance programs in which the beards are trimmed and shaped for a certain effect.

The first fellow, asleep in complete repose of course and therefore oblivious of the skilled craftsmanship being effected on his facial hairs, had grown what I call a manicured beard. This beard over the years had taken on the quality of a finely nurtured and well manicured garden, thick, rich, and lush with foliage in a densely and well-developed pack of facial curls. One recalls in mock terror perhaps the close proximity of the straight-edge to the throat and the unyielding theoretical power of life and death the barber wields as he works his way across the path of the jugular, recalling the verse of the Quran that proclaims Allah to be nearer to you than your jugular vein (al-hab lil-wareed). The barber seems a close second to the position of the Divinity.

The other fellow, fully awake and critically surveying every individual snip of the scissors with a weary eye lest some untoward accident might occur, monitors the actions of the barber with careful scrutiny through the reflective mirrors as the barber meticulously moves across the field of the beard snipping away the wayward hairs one by one. This beard has a classic, sculptured look, boxy and full, with a kind of descending shelf that is densely packed with tufts of hair and uncompromising in the statement of its mission.  Over the years, this beard has taken on the bearing of a work of art, to the extent that the beard seems to take precedence over the man and actually wears him, rather than the man wearing the beard. The barber hovers anxiously over this man and snips away hair by hair any offending growths that over time have actually begun to destroy the symmetry and perfection of this facial work of art.

These observations and the sight of the attended customers sprawled in repose lead me to recall the somnolent effect the pampering attentions of the barber can have on the shop clients and to speculate upon my own experience in the barber’s chair. Certainly the fact that one is remembered, greeted like a long lost friend no matter how often you attend the shop, are pampered and pummeled with all the artistry of an experienced and dedicated sculptor, creates an ambiance of satisfaction and trust that is conducive to the total relaxation that leads to sleep. It is the only explanation I can come up with why I always dose off in the barber’s chair, no matter what time of day I go there. Then the trussing of the head and neck begins. My neck is wrapped in protective tissue, while the entire upper torso is covered from neck to knees in an elaborate bib and tied securely across this tissue at the neck. To complete the bundling, a towel is placed across the shoulders to dry the fingers of the barber and to periodically whip clear the head, neck and ears from excess water and hair.

Once the hair is dampened down and the head is thoroughly massaged, I feel my head loll back on my shoulders as the initial sign of my dozing off. With this kind of treatment, does anyone need to stay alert to the contingencies of this world? One enters a kind of netherworld of the spirit, half in and half out of the experience of this world. My beard could be characterized as manicured, meaning that areas including the checks and at the base of the neckline, and a more profound styling of cut under the lips and over the horizon of the mustache needs more serious attention. The barber applies a shaving jell to their areas which he proceeds to massage into the skin to facilitate the movement of the straight-edge. By now, I am well on the edge of eternity, fully receptive to otherworldly insights as well as the attentions of the barber.

The close proximity of the straight edge to my neck and throat draws me briefly back into the real world of cutting and snipping. First the throat, the checks and under the nose get this raw razor treatment, in some instances hair by hair. Once finished, the barber moves on to cutting the hairs inside the nose, in itself a hair-raising experience. Then the mustache at the lips are trimmed, hoping that the lips remain intact and unbled after being pricked several times by the sharp point of the wayward scissors. Finally, the bushy eyebrows are given their due, ever fearful that the scissors and/or the attention of the barber may slip for a second while in such close proximity to the eye. But all’s well that ends well. Just as I am about to slumber off again into the netherworld of sweet dreams, the barber sprays my entire face with ice cold water from a spray can to the point that I think I will lose my breath, whence he pats down and dries with meticulous care every parameter of my countenance, including the pouches under the eyes and the remote crevices of the nose.

This has got to serve as the climax of the entire experience I thought. However, I am well aware of what’s coming as denouement to this icy facial spray amid a lingering reluctance to leave the sweet embrace of the barber’s chair. The face was now ripe for the final barber-ic indulgence. First, the barber doused his hand with a medicinal smelling cologne and rubbed the alcohol based spirit deep into the sensitized pores with stinging results. This was followed by the soothing nourishment of a sweet smelling facial cream which the barber proceeded to work into the raw skin of the face and neck with the rhythmic massage strokes of a pro. The final touch of the barber comes with the evocative smell of a smooth power to soothe and comfort the age old visage. On that note and having paid my fee of 5 dirhams ($1.25), the friendly brothers send me on my way with a handshake and a smile, while the echo of the traditional, blessed salutation salam alaykum follows me out the door of the shop.

I leave this mesmerizing reverie of past grooming to return to the scene of the traditional first hair cutting of the infant Wajahat, half expecting a howl of outrage by the infant at the sight of his shorn tresses.  Surely, the infant was not ready to internalize the splendor of this meditative experience as I was. On the contrary, the complacent child sat comfortably perched on his wooden throne astride the red and white barber’s chair and gazed serenely at the world around him as the barber swiveled the great chair around several times for effect nearing the end of the head-shaving ceremony. In my mind’s eye, he momentarily resembled a Red Indian, shaved on both sides clean to the skin with a swath of thick black hair running from the base of the neck to his forehead. I caught his attention for a second with a smile and a wink, but he had no inclination to disturb the serenity of this first haircutting because of the antics of a dotting grandfather. He seemed to be thriving on the intrusive scraping of the unsuspecting hair by the razor-sharp straight edge blade, lulling him into a deeper world of somnolent experience far beyond the vanity of this world. He was even dozing off beyond the world of care, and thus giving the lie to my prediction of trouble earlier in the day. Alas, with a few more deft strokes of the straight-edge, the job was done. The beloved urchin bedecked with a head full of black curls was now stripped clear of his year-long growth of baby fur at the summit of his being. He resembled nothing less than a Buddhist monk in miniature or a Red Indian in cameo, ascetic in outward form to complement the nobility of his true Pathan nature and the sweetness of his infant heart.

I went over to retrieve the courageous infant from the barber’s chair. Having suffered the close attention and scrutiny of all the rough comrades of the Pashtu tribe who pinched and prodded, squeezed and kissed him as they came and went from the shop, he gladly retired from the field of observation and fell into the anonymity of my arms where he could now rest in peace. His mountain man father, my friend Farmana, grunted in satisfaction. “Just like his father with no word of complaint. This is Pathan style,” he affirmed with pride, as I witnessed yet another example of the incredible tenacity Farmana and the close companions of his village exhibit in holding to their traditions and the sincerity with which they preserve and fulfill their obligations to themselves and their society. When my friend took his leave of the brothers and shook their hands, he discreetly deposited a 20 dirham note unsuspectingly into the hand of the barber with a quick thank you. The barber initially protested the exaggerated payment, but quick succumbed with a broad grin. This was four times the usual payment for a haircut, in keeping with the traditions of the tribe to amply reward the barber for the first ceremonial hair cutting with an appropriate traditional compensation.

As the little entourage of my Pathan family left the camaraderie of the traditional barbershop, I began to sing lightly the traditional German lullaby Guten Abend, Guten Nacht to the street-weary child resting on my shoulder as though he were at home wrapped in his own familiar blanket.. The busy Afghans and Pashtus making their rounds of the bustling Pathan suk (marketplace) stopped in their tracks and stared at the unexpected scene before them, enchanted at the sight of a Westerner dressed in Pathan cloth singing a lullaby in the busy suk to the bald-headed infant Pathan. As I glanced down at Wajahat, I thought:  invested in the sweet repose of the child lies the secret mystery of an profound trust between infancy and age that is as true and as real as any truth or reality could be. Hidden within the slumber of the child and the melodious 19th century German lullaby lies a communion of souls that transcends distance and time and cuts across the horizon of the world to reveal a oneness and a unity at the heart of all true experience. In that sleeping infant frame lay a bridge strong enough to cross the distance of age, custom and tribal origin to create a meeting of two hearts, at one with each other in the heart of an Arabian marketplace.


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Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado 3/6/2004
Delightful and entertaining read! Enjoyed~ :D

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