Travel And The Azerbaijani Unibrow

The unibrow is the face of travel.

Let me explain. I recently took a trip to Azerbaijan. I strolled the streets of Baku, which are flanked by plus-sized Beaux Arts palaces, the ground floors of which usually house a designer shop. I ate enough grilled meat to keep a slaughterhouse in business. And I sat in smoky bars nursing Turkish beer. It was all very nice. But what struck me the most about the country was the unibrow. I first saw it on Rashid, a 30-year-old computer programmer I met through a friend. It was like a black cat had rested its tale across his forehead. Furry and thick and stretching from temple to temple, his unibrow was the most prominent aspect of his round face.

The unibrow (or monobrow), which scientifically is called a synophrys, is an embarrassment in modern, Western society and culture. People get made fun of, laughed and pointed at. It’s even worse for women, who have to landscape their brows on a regular basis. People will go through great labor to ensure they have not one but two eye brows.

But in other parts of the world, things are different.I cleared my throat and broached the subject with Rashid.

It turned out, Rashid was proud of his unibrow. “It’s a symbol of bravery and strength,” he said. Rashid explained that in Azeri culture, the unibrow is a traditional look, one that unfortunately is fading away.

“And for women, it is a symbol of virginity and purity,” he told me. “Women will have this unibrow, as you call it, until they are married. When she comes out for the wedding ceremony, it will be the first time she is without it.”

I spent the next few days unibrow spotting. I noticed it on people walking down the street. I noticed it on waiters. I even saw a mannequin that had a unibrow drawn into its forehead with a black marker, an attempt to give it some local flavor, I guess.

And so what does this have to do with travel? Everything. That central, oft-pondered question – why do we travel? What inspires us to get off the couch, put one foot in front of the other, lock our front doors, and go? – can be answered thanks to the unibrow.

Finding the “exotic,” a subjective and problematic term, is becoming harder and harder these days. The world is coalescing into one giant miasma of sameness – at least in some ways. I went to Belarus on a magazine assignment. The goal? To drench myself in an anachronistic post-communist culture that I thought had faded away in other places decades ago. Minsk, the capital, seemed frozen somewhere in 1959. You can stand on the corner of Marx and Engels Streets. You can sit in the shadow of a gargantuan Lenin statue. You can convince yourself that the KGB is following you (because they probably are) and you can try to spot the mustached dictator running the place. But the people I met in Minsk were as clued into things as anywhere else in the world. I heard M.I.A. and Radiohead songs in bars. I talked about American foreign policy with people in cafes. And I noticed a lack of bad teeth and mullets. Belarus, it turns out, is not just babushkas and bread lines.

But they had their own cultural signifiers and that’s what I dove into while I was there – just as I did in Azerbaijan. The unibrow is a proud local tradition and one that physically separates us. It shows the gulf between me and Rashid. And that’s a good thing. It reminds me of why I travel: to see those differences and to relish in them. And while the unibrow stands out, there are other variations on the theme of hair that intrigue me. When I’m traveling I always brake for a mullet (and especially the holy grail: the mullet/mustache combo).

What the unibrow (or the mullet, for that matter) becomes is not just a symbol of otherness or travel or a resistance to the homogenization of that steamroller known as 21st-century globalization; it is a symbol of happiness.

[Unibrow photos by David Farley]