Monday, August 27, 2007

Dictators of the world, unite: the un-Iranian haircuts and un-Soviet pins.

"A Russian Jew and and Iranian Jew, they are brothers," - an Iranian Jew cheerfully told my father while we were waiting in line for something in the refugee camp in Vienna. "And Gorbachev and Khomeini, they are also brothers," - he added, a lot more grimly.

The idea of the brotherhood of dictators was nothing new to me. The descriptions of the pre-war Nazi Germany sounded pretty close to home, and the rarely-read and rarely-seen (in Russia) descriptions of the Chinese cultural revolution sounded a lot like my grandparents' stories from the Soviet history.

Nevertheless every once in a while some moronocracy manages to do something that awakens the sweet memories of my youth way too strongly, and makes me feel the same things I used to feel as a young girl. Like the desire to beat someone over the head with a shovel. Until they are dead. And then a little bit more, just to let off the steam.

When I was young in Russia, and quite for a while before that, it was unadvisable to look different from the crowd in any way. And by "unadvisable" I don't just mean that this was a social faux pas, although it was that as well, but that it could get you in real trouble with police, school and concerned citizenry.

Looking ethnically different from the rest of the population was somewhat disapproved of, but at least the police and the teachers generally realized that one can't help it, and unless they had something against the ethnic group in question did not harass the person beyond making sure that he or she is not in the front row anywhere where it matters.

All other differences invited a lot more hostility. I think it is somewhat in the nature of young children to try to harass anyone who looks a bit different, but I firmly believe that by the time one has gotten a university degree in education one should already know better, and I have never noticed any differences between my fellow students and our teachers in that respect.

God, how much I hated this... And I wasn't even a particularly different-looking person.

It probably wouldn't have pissed me off quite as much if it were only the question of clothes, which you can at least change when you get home. Unfortunately this also concerned much more permanent parts of one's looks. Breasts, for example. I had D cups in the 7th grade, which did admittedly stand out in the crowd. Our class teacher once told me that it was unappropriate to wear breasts like that to school. I told her, very politely and in a most respectful manner, that sanity, on the other hand, should never be left home all by itself (ok, it was more along the lines of "what drug are you on?", but that was about as polite as I could manage under the circumstances).

Some teachers would see a different-looking person and spend the whole 45 minutes of a lesson screaming at them, and the annoying thing was that there were no rules, written or otherwise, and you never knew when you were about to get in trouble. Two memorable events (memorable meaning that the teacher was screaming so loudly and became so red that there was a least some hope she'd die of stroke) were a girl who got a haircut that I found only mildly unusual - the normal 80's long hair with bangs thing, except that the bangs were a bit wider and shorter than most - and another girl whose skirt ripped at the seam and who used a pin to keep it together, and failed to convince a teacher that the pin was a necessary functional thing to prevent her ass from being visible, and not a sinister sign of some secret organization.

In general our teachers tended to assume that any unusual look meant a membership in a sinister secret organization. I never really understood the point. I mean, an organization cannot be too secret if all its members have the same silly-looking bangs, can it?

The police, at least in my time and in Leningrad, were a lot more lenient. You had to look really different in order to be harassed by them. Like, be a guy and wear an earring or something. Or look like you'd listen to heavy metal.

Things were worse before. In the fifties, groups of police and other Powers that Be used to hunt men with unusual haircuts and cut off the bits they found superfluous. In the sixties, when my parents were teenagers, the hunt was on men in wide trousers, and the hunters actually cut the trousers apart.

In the late seventies and early eighties the street hunt eased up, and in the mid-eighties it started again after being outsourced to the "informal youth groups" of the kind that support the government and hunt anyone who looks different.

Anyway - in case you haven't noticed, I really, really, really hate that shit. A government that hunts its critics is something that I can understand, even though I highly disapprove of it. A government that hunts the citizens who tweeze their eyebrows is something that invokes a raw emotional response that involves shovels and heads, or, occasionally, shovels and asses. (And yeah, before anyone asks: if our government ever decides to forbid Muslim beards, that will be the day you'd see me in a Muslim demonstration on their side, in spite of my lack of fondness of both Muslims and beards.)

In any case, the reason I am writing about all this right now is that Mad Jad, Iran's First Thug, is having a crackdown on men sporting Western haircuts (which, I bet, are not really defined anywhere) much in the style of the 1950s USSR. There is one new twist, however: the Iranians also force those men to identify their barbers. The Russians somehow never thought of that.

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