Çigdem Sungur, manageress of the brand new SuB Hotel in the design district of Karaköy, explains how the tradition survives in 21st century Istanbul. ‘Even modern Turks like my male family and friends get a ritual shave before their wedding night.’
Sungur explains that decades ago the ceremony was even more exacting. The bride would send the groom an embroidered apron and towels. His boisterous friends would then escort him into the barbershop, ‘while everyone pulls jokes about married life.’
To prove her point, Sungur escorts me to her local hairdresser. Here master barber Vahit Bey has clipped the Sungur family’s hair for decades. ‘[Getting a pre-marriage shave] is still very common, regardless of age or status,’ claims Vahit, whose storefront is bookended by Karaköy’s hip boutiques and bars.
‘All my friends got a shave at a barber prior to their weddings. It’s like getting your hair done for a woman. Or having a henna party the night before.’
Sadly, in downtown Istanbul the shaving ceremony is not the party it once was. According to Vahit, busy lives mean that just ‘two or four men’ accompany the groom for a cut-throat shave. ‘But in Anatolian towns it’s a much larger affair. The groom sits outside so that all the men of the village can joke around him. And there’s still a saying that when someone is shaved exceptionally well it’s a damat trası, or ‘groom’s shave’.”
Is there any symbolism still associated with the shave in downtown Istanbul? Vahit thinks not, so Sungur has the final word. ‘For the modern Istanbullu the only eminent reason is that the groom wants to be soft around the face prior to his first intimate encounter with the bride… assuming there was no previous encounter!’
They’re interesting points. And ones that may draw dividing opinions among Turkey’s 76 million residents, spread over an area the size of Germany, Italy and Greece combined. Three young men in Eastern Turkey have a clear opinion when it comes to discussing tradition, betrothal and dating technique.
Emre Acar, a 23-year-old from Rize on the Black Sea says: ‘Shaving symbolises the groom’s transition from teenager to real manhood.’
Unlike earlier comments in Istanbul, Acar responds with certainty when asked if there is any physical relationship between a bride and groom prior to marriage. ‘Certainly not!’ he exclaims. At least not in Rize. ‘That’s only for European people, famous people and free-living people.’
Next up is Mehmet Bagcı, also 23. An ethnic Kurd from Turkey’s Lake Van region, his local village shaving ceremony was far more colourful than those found in Istanbul.
‘On the wedding day I left my fiancée at the hairdresser. She gave me a bag containing an ornate towel, smock and cologne, then packed me off with my friends. They sat me on a chair in the middle of the town square and then made jokes about marriage – “eat your final kebab now”, “escape while you can” – things like that.’
Bagcı describes a common wedding day trick in Eastern Turkey. ‘The barber used the dull side of the blade, saying his razor was too blunt to shave me. “Please shave him,” shouted my friends. And he finally did, after demanding more money.’
Serdar Öztürk from Elazıg, a town in the dead centre of Turkey, speaks of a slightly different ceremony that hasn’t changed for centuries. The 24-year-old explains that drums and horns accompany the local alfresco shave, ‘and these musicians demand money too!’
It’s worth remembering that the modern state of Turkey is barely a century old. Tens of thousands of Turks migrated from as far afield as Macedonia and Iraq in the 1920s as the Ottoman Empire collapsed.
According to Can Karadag, an expatriate academic who lectures on Turkish social issues, ‘pre-marriage expressions and timings are the same across modern Turkey. You are still shaved a few hours before tying the knot. But the shaving ceremony itself differs from region to region.’
In Karadag’s home city of Mersin on the Mediterranean, it’s a liberal affair. ‘Our henna nights, for example, are mixed,’ claims Karadag. ‘They are not only for girls.’ He explains that southern Turkish traditions are ‘mixed with Yörük [otherwise known as Turcoman]. So it is expected that the best man is also shaved, while the other friends dance and sing songs.’
Is there any symbolism associated with the southern close shave? Getting ‘a fresh start for a new life is one point,’ continues Karadag. As in the rest of Turkey, it’s a family affair.
‘My friend’s shave was hilarious. The male members of the family took him to a traditional town barber who has cut the groom’s hair since he was a child.’ Gags were made, tea was drunk, wedding night tips were proffered in jest.
Alas, says Karadag, the groom’s wallet gets snipped too. ‘The barber wet-shaves the groom twice, a process known as sinek kaydi, or “the fly slipped,”’ which refers to the smoothness of the skin. ‘And that barber demands a good tip.’
There’s one final silver lining to the custom. In many parts of the country, the shaving ceremony is also an occasion to present gifts to the groom, usually in the form of gold coins. This financial bonus surely makes up for such a close shave.