Sunday, October 3, 2010

My Beard and I

Ustalik beckoned me in with open arms and a thick well groomed moustache. His two-chaired barber’s salon was a cosy affair. Ferrari red leather seats, ample mirrors and an adequately sharpened tool kit occupied his domain. Salons like this are numerous in the sea-side town of Inebolu. Pide vendors, pastry sellers, cafes and barbers make up most of the commercial side of downtown. There are so many male grooming houses that the local gent must rarely have to lift his own razor. This is Turkey: secular, but strongly Islamic and yet another chapter in my beard’s journey from Mongolia.

I flicked through the pages of my Turkish-English dictionary attempting to explain the shaved scalp and trimmed beard look I desired. I needn’t have bothered. With a warm, weighted nod of understanding Ustalik conveyed that he knew exactly what I was after. For the first time this trip my hair felt in safe hands. In a Mongolian bathhouse I left the hairdresser with a patchy scalp. At an Almaty bazaar, the female attendant clippered off the best part of my beard and during our Swiss sojourn I put two ultra short racing stripes into the back of my head by mistake on the morning of my best friend’s wedding.

In societies across the world, the hair on a man’s face is more an ideological than fashion statement. In Muslim communities, a thick beard with a shaved upper lip is a symbol of piety. The connotations with both strongly devoted Muslims and those of a more ‘fundamentalist’ nature are well recognized. In both Kazakhstan and Tajikistan my links to a sinister organization were alluded to, all due to my carefully cultivated whiskers, although in jest. As the Tajik mother put it “Are you a tourist or terrorist?”.

However, where regimes are officially secular and Islam widespread, beards are sparse. Take Kazakhstan where a neat moustache seemed like the rule, yet I cannot remember spotting a hairy chin. In Uzbekistan, facial hair was banned for the military and police and strongly discouraged for other men owing to “matters of security”. Turkey embraces the moustache and the occasional older man can be found with a neat beard. However it is the younger generation, often sporting casual cool facial fuzz, that support the fact that Turkey is at both a cultural and geographical cross-roads.

After shaving, dusting and re-shaving my scalp Ustalik took his comb and scissors to my beard. This gentleman seemed to know my follicles more intimately than I. He gently tilted my head back and forth using all forms of scissor holding techniques to cut to perfection.

Orthodox Christian priests, like the Russian man leading the strange procession through a non-descript Siberian town we cycled through, sport beards in imitation of Jesus Christ. In Mongolia, a clean-shaved mug was the norm. As I watched a gent from Tariat, Mongolia, conduct his nightly pocket-knife shave I asked if he would consider growing a beard, it’s warm, easy to manage and looks great his English-speaking wife translated. He looked down on the scruffy traveler before him and shook his sleek face. No self respecting Mongolian nomad with Buddhist roots would sully himself with a beard. Buddhism traditionally supports a short hairdo, that should be shaved at least every two months or when the hair has grown to a length of two fingerbreadths. However, while beards are not to be grown long, they are not explicitly forbidden. I am yet to see a bearded Buddha.

A fresh blade was attached to the razor. A warm lather of soap dressed my neck. With surgical precision Ustalik gracefully cut down my stubble. It was a masterful display. As a call to prayer echoed through the Inebolu streets I exited the salon with a splash of aftershave and a large dollop of self-esteem. Ustalik hadn’t connected me any closer to any deities, but he had just given me the most pleasurable hair experience I’ve had to date.


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