CHAMPAIGN – This is Christmas Eve, time for a story about Bethlehem. Not about a carpenter's son who grew up to be the Messiah, but an engineer's son who grew up to be a hair designer.
Fuad Handal was born in Bethlehem in May 1955. At that time, the city was part of Jordan.
"It was a great, nice, holy city" with a population between 10,000 and 20,000, Handal recalled. Most of the inhabitants then were Catholic, he said, and he went to the Catholic school associated with the Church of the Nativity – the church where his father was a server for Mass for 50 years.
Virtually all the men in Handal's family, including his father, were mechanical and electrical engineers.
"When I told them I wanted to be a hairdresser, they about died," Handal said.
His younger brother had died, and in an effort to keep 16-year-old Fuad at home, the family put him to work at the olivewood factory they owned. There he was in charge of the factory's eight employees, and he did finishing work on the faces and hair of Nativity figurines produced by the factory.
But Handal wasn't satisfied. He still wanted to be a hairdresser. Only his father supported him when he said he wanted to leave, he said.
After about a year at the olivewood factory, Handal went to Amman, Jordan, where his mother's father arranged for him to work for George Asfour at one of the city's top salons.
"He was the meanest boss on Earth," Handal said.
At least, that's how it seemed to the young man eager to learn hairstyling. Asfour made him sit and watch for the first two weeks.
"He thought I'd get bored and leave," Handal said.
After two weeks, Handal was finally given an assignment: sweeping the floors. But in time, he was allowed to cut and style hair.
Handal stayed in Amman about a year, traveling to Paris and Munich to sit in salons and observe top stylists at work. He then visited his sister in Kuwait and barbered there for a year.
In 1977, Handal returned to Jordan and considered opening a salon in Amman with a friend.
But those plans were derailed by a chance to go to the United States. Handal's uncles had lived in the United States since the 1950s, and when they came to visit in 1963, it became 8-year-old Fuad's dream to go there someday.
In 1978, Handal's sister, Diana Youakim, was living in Champaign, and Handal "came to visit to see what was going on."
He said he "fell in love" with what he found. As he recalls it, he saw the University of Illinois Quad, thought "Oh my God, this is America!" – and quickly made plans to stay.
Handal enrolled in the Beau Monde School of Beauty and took business and psychology classes at Parkland College. He took continuing education courses at Pivot Point International in Chicago, where he was encouraged to travel internationally because he was multilingual.
But Handal said no. He was more interested in "learning about and experiencing the country I'm living in."
He worked for stylist Carlos Quintera for six months at his salon, then went to work for Hair Performers in Champaign's Johnstowne Centre for four years. His second year there, he started working with the John Amico hair products organization and went to its training center in Oak Forest every Sunday to train and be trained.
In 1983, Handal decided to open his own salon at Fifth and Green streets in Champaign. During the next seven years, he went to many shows and competitions, traveling and training for the Joico hair products organization.
In 1990, Handal decided he needed a bigger location with more parking, so he moved Fuad's Creative Hair Designs to its current location at 503 S. First St., C, a little farther from campus. He cut back on the number of shows he did, appearing mainly at the bigger shows in Chicago, but continued to present demonstrations for the Danville Hairdressers affiliate.
Today, Fuad's has seven stylists. The business was recognized in the October 2006 issue of New Ideas for Hairstyling magazine as a top salon – the only one in Illinois so mentioned. The inclusion was based on hair demonstrations put on by Handal and his "stage team" of Michael Steen and Robin Lumpe.
In the early 1980s, Handal's parents moved to the United States. His father died in 1995, but his mother, Helen Handal, lives in Urbana, and another sister, Widad Handal, lives in Champaign. A third sister, Lily Carmi, lives in the Washington, D.C., area.
Handal said people react positively when they hear he's from Bethlehem.
"They like it a lot. They tell me, 'You're one of a kind, you're really blessed, I'm happy to know you,'" he said. "They touch me as if they were going to get blessed."
But Handal doesn't have plans to return to Bethlehem. He last visited in 1998, and "it was not the same place. ... I felt like a foreigner there."
In 1967, Israel took possession of Bethlehem as a result of the Six-Day War, and in 1995 the city came under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Christians are no longer the majority there.
"Where your heart sits is home, and my heart sits here," Handal said.