A person’s homeland is a fact in their life, just as their birth date is a fact. One’s encounter with one’s homeland begins at pre-school. One of the first things a child learns is the sentiment: My country is… And so begins the homeland briefing that lasts from the cradle to the grave. This briefing continues at school, through classes in the history, language and literature of the land. The poets tell you that the homeland is the land of our grandfathers, our home and our hearth, our native soil, amber waves of grain and eyes the colour of the sea, the prairies, mountains and valleys, oceans and plains, and other such things. From a broadly neo-liberal vantage point, these thousands of patriotic verses – particularly the ones which urge expropriating the native hills, rivers and plains (my prairies and my mountains) – can today be read as a list of real estate holdings which were acquired under suspicious circumstances. As proof of their right to this imaginary property, poets, of course, unfurl their direct ancestral line, claiming that the homeland is their mother, which is, from a gender perspective, discriminatory but easy to understand. Homelands are generally mothers for their sons. Poetically-inclined daughters seldom call their homeland mother.
The homeland and the state form an alloy, two concepts merged into one, a traditional marriage: the homeland – the female, emotional side; the state – the male, rational side. The alloy comes more clearly into focus after the first call up for military service and the first tax bill. A divorce between homeland and state is not permissible, and the notion that the homeland might be a Utopian project is out of the question. So it is, for instance, that the poem by Croatian poet S. S. Kranjčević (I have a homeland, I hold it in my heart, with all its hills and plains / Where will I spread out this Eden? In vain I ask the world, and swallow my pain) is interpreted in schools as a document confirming the exclusive Croatian copyright to hills, plains, pain and Eden.
I have had three such alloys: Yugoslavia, Croatia, and the Netherlands. A person needs to traverse a long and hard road on the way to figuring out how to relate to things, among them the homeland/state. Profound insights do not come falling out of the sky like the pancakes in fairy tales.
When I left my homeland of Croatia, formerly part of my Yugoslav homeland, and turned up here in the Netherlands, my feelings were at first confused. I didn’t know how to think about homeland. And then – some ten years later – I caught myself motivated by an odd urge. As soon as I turn up in a new country or city, the first thing I look for is – a hair salon! My hair grows slowly and I haven’t much to spare, so getting a haircut is not a high priority. When I go to the hairdresser’s I don’t get all the bells and whistles, I just have it cut. So my neurotic urge to have my hair cut would be difficult to classify as simple female vanity.
I will not list all the cities and countries where I’ve had my hair cut, but as evidence of my competence I can say with certainty that the cheapest haircut currently available in New York City is with the Uzbeks, no longer with the Russians the way it was a number of years ago. The Uzbeks will cut your hair in Brooklyn for ten dollars. You can’t get a cheaper haircut, not even in the Serbian town of Čačak.
I thought about what all this means and wondered whether my neurotic urge to get my hair cut in each new place I visit is a form of masochism or a ritual for an internal apology for something or other. In the Netherlands I long felt that I had been missing something. Yes, I had friends, a tax number, a tax accountant, my own dental hygienist, I had mastered many aspects of ordinary life, made my life more ordinary. Then, as a result of the deficit I mentioned earlier, I embarked on a period of painful introspection, until at last I experienced an epiphany: my biography suddenly emerged as a chronicle of all my haircuts. In Amsterdam I have changed many hairdressers, the fancy ones, the famous ones, and the cheapest ones at the barber shops run by Moroccans, but none of these felt like a comfortable shoe on a weary foot. And then Liesbeth took over the hair salon in my neighbourhood.
Liesbeth is a tall, large, young woman with a very pale complexion, who must have grown up on Dutch cheese and milk. Liesbeth has blue eyes, and a slightly melancholic look, perhaps from her porcelain complexion. All in all, she has a charming face, which looks diminutive next to her vast posterior. It is difficult not to notice Liesbeth’s behind, especially because she prefers tight pants. Liesbeth has a different hairdo and hair colour every time I see her. Sometimes she dyes her bangs platinum blue while the rest of her hair is black. Liesbeth knows that the hairdo of the proprietress is the best ad for a salon. She has a boyfriend every bit as large as she is, and the two of them are like young walruses, they adore each other, and together they adore a poodle. The poodle is the tiniest in the world, much like a squirrel except that it has a short tail. I have never heard the poodle bark, it is unusually docile and adorable. It spends most of its days in a little basket that Liesbeth set by the window so that the poodle won’t be bored. It is a little odd that Liesbeth’s salon is always empty. I call in advance to make an appointment for a haircut, and she invariably hesitates for a moment, consults her calendar, no, ten o’clock wouldn’t be so good, how about eleven? We go back and forth about the time, although I know that Liesbeth is free at ten and eleven, and at any other time I could suggest. Liesbeth’s salon is done in bright colours, the door is violet, the window frames light green, the walls pink. Whenever I cycle by Liesbeth’s empty street I can see her out on the grassy patch in front of the salon walking her poodle on a slender leash. Liesbeth is large, the poodle is small. She looks as if she is walking a mouse. She and I speak of nothing but the haircut, whether I want it this way or that, shorter or longer. The conversations are pointless because she cuts my hair exactly the same way each time, and each haircut is every bit as bad as all the others.
I don’t know why, but sometimes a fear gnaws at me that Liesbeth, with her shears and her poodle, might vanish one day like a soap bubble. The murky stab of fear drives me to dial her number.
‘When would you like. Eleven?’
‘What about twelve?’
‘Sorry, that won’t work. Twelve fifteen?’
With a sigh of relief I hang up.
As far as hair is concerned this is what I recently learned: in ancient cultures the act of cutting hair had the meaning of a symbolic sacrifice for the good of the people. Through history long hair was worn by martyrs, hermits, holy people, kings, warriors, aristocrats, dignitaries. The servants and the underclass had short hair. Cutting hair was a ritual of obedience, sacrifice, grief, disgrace, punishment and self-punishment.
After the long, painful and geographically diverse experience I acquired traipsing through hair salons, the very essence of the homeland/state finally became clear to me. Yes, I am the perfect subject! I am what every homeland-mother desires.
Photograph by Tysh