Already known the world over for its baths, coffee and sweet Turkish delights, Turkey is on the way to adding another item to its roster of specialities: the mustache.
Mustaches remain a highly sought-after symbol of masculinity in Turkey and the Middle East — to the point that the less hirsute are increasingly seeking out transplants at the hands of Turkish cosmetic surgeons.
Among them is Selahattin Tulunay, head of a thriving private practice that once specialized in hair transplants, but has been adapted to cater to the increasing demand for mustaches.
“I’ve been doing mustache implants for around three years now,” Tulunay said. “A lot of men have come to see me saying: ‘I’m 40 years old, I’m the head of a large company and no one takes me seriously abroad. I want people to see that I have hair.’”
Engin Koc, 30, had long despaired of his clean-shaven face before he opted to go under the knife seven months ago and get the upper lip of his dreams.
“I wanted to look like ancient Turks, like the Ottomans, and since I’m a nostalgic soul with an admiration for that era, I got the implants,” he said, calling the mustache “a symbol of Turkish virility.”
Mustaches have long been a serious matter in Turkey, where a popular saying states: “A man without a mustache is like a house without a balcony.”
The shape of the specimen even holds political meaning.
“The bushy style, like [Josef] Stalin’s, is more the prerogative of the left or of Kurds,” said anthropologist Benoit Fliche from the French Institute of Anatolian Studies in Istanbul. “When neater, like that of [Turkish] Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it becomes religious and conservative.”
“And when it shoots down on both sides of the mouth like fangs, it’s a mark of the extreme right,” he added.
Although the bewhiskered look is winning over fewer Turks from the big cities — who are drawn more toward Western fashion — a mustache and beard remain a must for men from Arab countries or the Turkic republics of Central Asia, who journey over to Istanbul to satisfy their need for hair.
“The Turkish television series broadcast in the Arab world wield a great influence,” Tulunay said, adding that “it’s upon seeing our actors that these patients called on us for the same beard or the same moustache.”
These clients constitute the core of the new market for facial hair. In Istanbul alone, about 250 practices are locked in fierce competition to sell their services.
The majority are linked to travel agencies and offer package deals that include the operation, a hotel stay and airport pick-up, with the most competitive offering package deals from US$2,700.
Hair tourism is in full swing, fueled by a constant uptick in the number of foreigners visiting Turkey, with more than 35 million visits estimated last year.
“Every week, we welcome 50 to 60 patients for a hair transplant and five to six for a moustache transplant,” Istanbul Hair Center surgeon Meral Tala said. “And as our results are now much better than before, we expect a large rise in demand.”
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