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Wednesday, June 17, 1998 Published at 06:25 GMT 07:25 UK

World: From Our Own Correspondent

Moustaches under threat

Love them or loathe them, it is difficult to avoid moustaches when you live in Turkey. They are a national institution. But as our Ankara correspondent Chris Morris discovered, the future of the Turkish moustache could be under threat.

Since I arrived in Turkey last year, I've had a few hairy moments, most of them involving wild-eyed lorry drivers with an obvious death wish.

But I've not yet had THE hairy moment - the sudden realisation, which apparently comes to most Turkish men, that I simply must grow a moustache.

There are several good reasons for that. It wouldn't suit me, and my wife would find it hard to stop laughing.

But I am a little worried about the reaction of the average Turkish male - the nagging feeling that you're not a real man around here unless you're sprouting from the top lip.

Make no mistake, facial hair is a serious business. And this isn't an extended national version of the Revolutionary Command Council in Iraq, where everyone is apparently trying to look like Saddam Hussein.

Far from it. In Turkey, the moustache is a distinct part of your own personality.

To any discerning Turk, the shape and style of what you have sitting beneath your nose says a lot more about you than most outsiders might think.

That's because you don't wear your politics on your sleeve here. There's no need. It's right slap bang in the middle of your face.

[ image: The brush moustache as worn by former PM Necmettin Erbakan]
The brush moustache as worn by former PM Necmettin Erbakan
Take the full-grown moustache, for example, with down-turned ends at the corner of the mouth. The owner is definitely a right wing nationalist.

Then there's the classic small brush moustache, apparently struggling to survive on the lip. It has to belong to a follower of political Islam, like the former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, who's now been banned from politics.

The goatee, as you might expect, is reserved for intellectuals, while a longer moustache, drooping over the upper lip to touch the lower one, well, that's the sure sign of an old-fashioned leftist.

There's even an urban moustache, "Istanbul-style", which barely touches in the middle, while twirly ends are usually a mark of nostalgia, and a yearning for the Ottoman past.

Until recently Mehmet Fedakar from Kahramanmaras claimed to have the longest moustache in the country, stretching for more than one and a half metres.

But when he quarrelled with some of his relatives, they knew how to take the cruellest revenge - a pair of scissors in the night and it was gone.

But size isn't everything, and even an inch of hair here and there can make all the difference. That's good news for Turkish barbers, who have to shape these furry political statements.

Ozgun is a young barber in Ankara struggling to grow a moustache worthy of the name. He admits that he's got some way to go, and he's prepared to be patient.

"Not everyone has one", he says as he trims a regular customer, "I just happen to like it".

But all is not well in the world of men and moustaches. Its becoming a hard habit to sustain these days, as Turkey's very own version of political correctness moves into high gear.

Strict secular dress codes, designed to quell any rise in Islamic sentiment, have been extended to cover the lips and chin.

Civil servants have been issued with clear instructions about the type of moustache they're allowed to sport.

A recent directive sent to government offices specifies the exact length and shape of the bureaucratic brush - it has to be clipped straight, and it must end above the upper lip.

But if civil servants think they're being hard done by, spare a thought for Turkey's university students.

From next year they'll be forbidden from growing a beard altogether. It's just too Islamic.

Thousands of people have protested at Istanbul University against the ban on beards, prompting the education authorities to produce their trump card - a ban on student demonstrations as well.

And anyone turning up next term with bristles will be turned away at the gates.

It's all too much for some long-standing aficionados.

Hasan Yildirim shrugs his shoulders as he sits in Ozgun's barber shop. His walrus-like moustache gives his left wing politics away immediately.

"You can always tell a man's connections by his moustache", he says, "it's part of our tradition. Now the state is trying to take that right away from us too. It's ridiculous".

A large splash of shaving foam soon put an early end to our conversation. But when it comes to the prickly subject of the Turkish top lip, I fear it may soon be a case of hair today gone tomorrow.

As for myself, I'm happy to continue avoiding that hairy moment. I'll take a close shave any day.

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