Brunner is a freelance writer who lives in Istanbul. He is the
author of various books of literary nonfiction and, most recently,
The Art of Lying Down - A Guide to Horizontal Living.
He is currently working on a novella set in Turkey. Hair originally
appeared in The
Smart Set. For more of Bernd, visit his website.
can be sexy, but let’s be frank, only in certain cases.
Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Kingsley, or fashion model
Tyson Beckford are positive examples. Perceptions may vary,
of course, but for the most part a bald head makes a man less
attractive, especially if he’s overweight or stocky. And
men know it. They experience baldness as a loss of more than
just their hair and are aware of it with every look in the mirror.
coming to Istanbul I never really thought about the fact that
somebody could want to invest time and a couple of thousand
euros in new hair. I knew that the ‘combover’ --
to cover otherwise obvious baldness -- was no longer the latest
in hair fashion and a toupee was completely out of the question,
but hair transplants never really crossed my mind. Hair loss
is not a marginal phenomenon: Two thirds of all men lose some
hair as they get older, and one third of these become completely
the downtown area on the European side of Istanbul, all around
Taksim square (just a few steps from Gezi Park where nationwide
protests took place) it is almost impossible not to see men
wearing black bandages after a hair transplant operation. They
are a constant. If you look closely, you can see the rosy shine
on the treated areas at the front of their scalps, and if you
look even closer, you can see the actual stitches from the operation.
These men, often still in their late twenties or early thirties,
sometimes show up in groups, and sometimes they are followed
by their wives and children. The women are often completely
veiled, suggesting that they are not from Istanbul (where a
veiled woman is a rather rare sight). In fact, most of these
‘medical tourists’ come from wealthy Arab countries.
Here, in the foreign Turkish environment, they can transition
from being bald to having some hair in relative privacy: Hardly
anybody recognizes them as they stroll the luxury shopping centers
or enjoy some amazing Turkish food. We don’t know how
they are going to explain what happened to their heads when
they return home -- if anyone even asks them. In any case, they
have to wait another half a year or so until the full result
can be seen. Reputable clinics offer a warranty. According to
some estimates, 100 such operations are performed every day
at Istanbul’s clinics and practices, which offer packages
covering patients’ travel, operation, and hotel stay.
The fierce competition among them help make Istanbul one of
the most attractive destinations for all those who need a hair-related
change and don’t want to pay the higher prices at home.
Cihantimur, a handsome, cleanly shaven Turkish man in his early
forties, had to go to Dubai to understand the real significance
of hair among the elite male populace of the affluent Gulf states:
“Full hair and a finely trimmed moustache or beard are
a matter of manliness and respect, a real must.” As he
explains further, this is related to the concept of sünnet
(a Turkish word with Arabic roots). Sünnet refers
to circumcision, but also implies following the rules and mimicking
the behaviour of the prophet Mohammed, who is said to have sported
a beard and full hair. Mr. Cihantimur is the manager of Estetik
International and now knows better what the customers from the
country and neighbouring Qatar, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Saudi
Arabia, who make up the majority of his clients in his clinic
in Istanbul, expect. Over the years, men from other countries
have also been among his patients, but they remain the exception.
For example, he relates that one Korean man insisted on having
500 hair roots for implantation on his forehead taken from his
face rather than from the back of his head. Interestingly, hardly
any Turkish men undergo this kind of procedure, suggesting that
hair may have a different significance in Turkish vis-à-vis
Arabic culture. I met Mr. Cihantimur and his colleagues in his
office on the Asian side of the city, in a booming business
district with various mid-sized glass-clad buildings -- one
of those neighbourhoods that could be almost anywhere in the
developed world. He briefly introduced me to two employees from
Syria (who speak Arabic, a language otherwise little spoken
in Turkey) and man a hotline for recruiting customers and assisting
with questions. Many Arab businessmen come because of word-of-mouth.
When I ask the doctor about his own receding hairline, he surprises
me by answering that his appointment for a hair transplant is
just ten days away. I don’t ask him, though, if he is
taking this step to feel more comfortable or to be able to sell
his product even better, or both.
the full procedure, patients have to stay in Istanbul for three
or four days, which they usually combine with some sightseeing.
I can’t stand the sight of blood, so please forgive me
for not basing my report on this procedure on my personal observations
in the operating room. The surgeon removes a narrow strip from
the fringe of hair at the back of the man’s head. The
hair from this part of a man’s head is genetically programmed
for a longer growing life. This strip of hair is separated and
divided into several groups of tiny hair follicles, called follicular
units. In the next step, they are planted in the areas affected
by the hair loss, where they continue to grow. Setting these
grafts -- they usually number about 2,000 -- is done with the
help of a tiny robot. Local anesthesia ensures the patient doesn’t
feel any pain. In any case, all this requires good planning
and a sense for what is realistic for a man at a certain age.
“We need some hair to start with; unfortunately I cannot
help somebody who is completely bald,” says Cihantimur.
There are some possible pitfalls -- a hair transplant on a mature
man may have an artificial look. Remember Silvio Berlusconi?
hair transplants involving the scalp have been around for decades,
the insertion of hair follicles to shape a beard where before
there was no or too little hair is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Even five years ago, beard transplants were not popular at Istanbul’s
clinics, and in retrospect it’s not really clear if the
offer created the demand for it or the other way around. In
any case, it doesn’t seem to be purely a matter of chance
that Turkey is a hotbed of surgically aided beard perfection:
there is a reason for it, or even several.
a way, a beard gives a man a new face. It makes him look older
and, if properly taken care of, lends him an air of maturity.
In addition, there is a Turkish saying that “a man without
a mustache is like a house without a balcony.” On the
other hand, someone who has little facial hair but tries to
highlight it can easily appear ridiculous: A pencil thin beard
does not a jaw-line make. It is quite fascinating to observe
the diligence of the many barber shops of Istanbul, a few of
which operate almost around the clock.
men are known to have sported beards for a long time. And there
is hardly a country in the world that has so many rules regarding
approved grooming styles, or the resulting awareness of this
aspect of the face. Fashion and ideology are inextricably enmeshed.
You will hardly find a bank employee or a teacher with a full
beard. According to Hüsamettin Arslan, a professor of sociology
at the university of Bursa, the strict rules regarding beards
can be traced back to the middle of the 19th century, when the
Ottoman Empire undertook many efforts to modernize the country.
conservative Turks favor the badem (almond) style mustache,
which is rather small and neatly trimmed. Prime minister Tayyip
Recep Erdogan, who belongs to the conservative Justice and Development
Party (in Turkish: AKP), is the most prominent example. In the
mustache typically worn by nationalists, in turn, the two ends
extend downwards, as in a horseshoe. And a rather bushy mustache
is very popular among Turkish-Kurdish men. Many urban, Western-oriented
men from cities like Istanbul or Izmir prefer to be clean-shaven.
recent decision to lift the ban on headscarves in public office
caused somewhat of a controversy because the issue is the fault
line for a long-standing rivalry in Turkish society between
religious conservatives and their secular opponents. But few
noticed that it was accompanied by new rules about men’s
facial hair, with the result that beards for certain professionals
in public office are no longer off limits. However, the ban
remains active for judges, prosecutors, police and military
personnel. “These restrictions violate the right to work,
the freedom of thought and belief,” said Erdogan about
the restrictions. Beards are seen as signs of Muslim piety,
and this small move is in accordance with current political
developments: towards Islam and away from Kemalist principles
or ideology. Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish
Republic, banned scarves and beards for people in public office.
However, a certain degree of confusion remains about beards
in Turkey today, and in many cases it’s the combination
of beard, hair, clothing and attitude that allows for a clearer
idea of the political inclinations of a particular man in the
street. Someone may have a ‘walrus’ mustache and,
contrary to expectation, a conservative political attitude.
And a leftist may wear the badem mustache usually associated
with conservatism. Members of the conservative Gülen movement
(named for Fetullah Gülen, who has been living in the United
States since 1999 but, as can be seen during the current political
turmoil, still exercises a lot of political influence in Turkey)
usually shave, especially the younger ones. On the other hand,
a long, full beard can be the sign of a particularly strong
religious affiliation. Also, during the haji, the Muslim pilgrimage
to the holy city of Mecca, men let their beards grow.
free flow of signs represents an important difference from the
Gulf states, because the Arabs streaming to the Turkish clinics
want either a mustache, a neatly trimmed goatee, or a finely
contoured full beard -- nothing else will do. In Arab business
circles, a beard amounts to a must.
mustaches have been a cliché for decades, if not centuries,
but the more recent popularity of beards throughout the Near
East may also be related to the populartiy of Turkish TV series
in the Arabic-speaking world. They feature actors such as Kivanç
Tatlitug, sometimes called ‘the Brad Pitt of the East,’
or the dark-haired Kenan Imirzalioglu -- both of whom are mostly
seen with beards these days, in one shape or another. And the
fact that the life of the Sultans, material for endless fantasies
and projections, has been resurrected in these neo-Ottoman times
could contribute to this trend. Muhtesem Yüzyil
(the magnificent century), an opulent TV series about the 16th
century’s Süleyman the Magnificent, has enjoyed enormous
success. It has been sold to more than 40 countries in the area
of the former Ottoman Empire and even beyond. It goes without
saying that all the male characters in this series sport full