I arrive in Dhaka with my two-month-old beard. ‘‘Didn’t they (immigration) stop challenging you an extremist?’’ jokes my wife. Being away from my family for three months in Britain, now back in Dhaka, my four-year-old son barely recognizes me. He mistakes me as his mama (maternal uncle) instead of his father.
In the evening, I visit a barbershop. By the main road the tiny barbershop, five feet by eight feet, can house only two chairs; though generally it serves one customer at a time. Not long ago the shop came out of the womb of an ageing building.
The building, back then, was a shabby, old three story house. After some renovation overnight, the place ended up having a virgin look. With glossy rustic tiles on the front of the building and a large reflective stainless steel main gate, the place stood across the road like a seducing concubine. And it would blink at the passing passersby. Soon, a media office, a new daily started by the local parliament minister, took up the first and second floor of the space. Also, some shops were let on the ground floor. The barbershop happened to be one of them.
This barbershop, like many others across the capital, is a great place to ‘take ten’ for some individuals. As I hit the shop I find one religious soul inside, reclining in a chair. Legs sticking out of that chair, his feet touching the second chair in the room, in which the barber man was folding himself around it.
Ungreeted upon my arrival, I answer the barber to his questioning eyes—the reason of my entering. Beard shave, I announce.
Is there a reason you want to do it? The barber, though unbearded, asks in hesitation. You know… we do not shave off the beard that is kept.
I look at him, startled. What he means is he (they) doesn’t like to remove the beard that are kept for religious purpose. I kept it for no reason, I assure him.
The barber exchanges a glance with the reclining man, and unhurriedly, uninterestedly stands up. I approach his chair to take in. The religious man, quite reluctantly, moves his legs, straightens and unstretches. A topi cap on his head is sitting idly. He is wearing an off white Panjabi over a traditional lungi. His beard, dyed with henna, has the colour of grey squirrels.
The barber tries to convince me. He says that I have lovely full beard. If I shorten it nicely, I will look incredibly handsome. I disregard his advice. He sighs, begins to bury my face behind snow white shaving foam, and he keeps on talking to himself. Bushy beard like this, he says with breaks and pauses, they seldom shave off. The religious man speaks, too. He vocalizes his encounters with young minds nowadays. Young hearts are craze-filled, he asserts, feverishly change their decisions. They start going to the mosque, pray regularly, and then quit suddenly. They grow their beard, keep it for months, and shave off soon afterward.
By the time my beard is gone and my cheeks are clean as cut away forests, the small hair salon, for a while, plunges into a full silence. I realize four eyes, and mine as well, are fixed on my fresh look. That moment, my thoughts stumble into a famous line from a Bengali novel Lalsalu (Tree without Roots by Syed Waliullah): ‘‘Where’s your beard, man?’’
The asker of the question ‘‘Where’s your beard, man?’’ was fraudulent Majid in the novel. One day he’d appeared in the village from nowhere and claimed a broken tomb to be the grave of a great holy man. He covered the tomb by a red fabric and started living beside it. The poor, uneducated and superstitious peoples, in that backward Bengal village, believed him. Gradually, Majid became a religious leader and all powerful, too.
Later in years when one progressive youth wanted to set up a school in the hamlet, to spread modern education against madrassa education, Majid saw it as a threat for his profession. The young guy, Akkas, was called for a salish arbitration among villagers. Majid, at the very outset, bawled him over with an utterly different question: ‘‘Where’s your beard, man?’’
It was the question that threw off Akkas in the pit of an embarrassing situation. Majid knew how to prejudice the poor peasants. A clean shaven man can’t be a proper Muslim, Majid implied. He used the invincible celestial medicine ‘religion’ to show Akkas as an unreligious mind to the eye of the villagers. And thus the plan to start a school would be nothing but to be ungodly.
Dismissing Akkas’ proposition for a school, where English would be taught, Majid cleverly maneuvered the arbitration topic to a new direction. There is no concrete mosque in the village, he moaned. Since this year the villagers have got a good crop, it is the high time to build one now, he suggested. Aye, aye, all the heads in the salish subscribed to Majid’s holy plan. They would build such a majestic mosque that this village would become an envy to other localities.
I sigh, slide out of the salon chair, pay the barber and walk out of the shop without a word. I plod down a spit spattered street in Dhaka and remember my Ohio days in the United States. On the MA Tesol program at the University of Findlay, half of my classmates were from Saudi Arabia. In fact, a large portion of international students in that university were from Saudi Arabia.
There I saw, with wonder, that Saudi males do not have long beards. Some were even clean shaven. And most of them keep their beard pretty short—comparable to stubble that shouldn’t be more than two or three weeks’ growth. It amazed me, had me meditating on the big, bushy beard style of the practicing Bangladeshi Muslims.
Majority Bangladeshi men are clean shaven, but the ones who are overly religious and the ones who have madrassa background wear long, scraggly beards. The older generation normally keep the length of beards size similar to the supreme religious leaders of Iran.
During the 8th and 9th centuries, as Islam began to arrive in the Bengal region, Sufi missionaries from Persia, Iraq, Turkey, Arabia travelled to South Asia to preach Islam. These preachers, also known as Pirs, Fakirs and saints, converted a good number of population into Islam. Bengali Muslims are still largely influenced by this Islamic mysticism tradition—Sufism. It is said that the number of mazars, shrines of saints across Bangladesh would be no less than mosques.
Syed Waliullah’s classic novel Tree without Roots recounts how some people make the mazars as business, as source of income, exploiting religion. This practice still continues in Bangladesh.
The Sufi missionaries or the Pirs, Fakirs and saints have a tendency to keep big, bushy beards. Many assume that the Bengal Muslims, following these religious leaders, grew fond of keeping long beards.
Although there is nothing written in the Quran about facial hair, keeping beards has long been an emblem of Islam from the Prophet Muhammad’s period. Like many Muslims across the globe, my countrymen intend to follow Saudi Arabia in every way. I wonder why Bangladeshi men do not emulate the facial hair style of Saudi men.
In old Dhaka, where I grew up, the bulk of the barbers were Hindus, while in the neighbourhoods of Mirpur the majority are Urdu-speaking Bihari Muslims, known as the stranded Pakistanis since the country’s birth in 1971. The reason the barber was unwilling to shave my beard was that he considered this task as a sort of sin.
One of my friends in London wears stubble beard. He said to me that touching razor on cheeks is prohibited since the Prophet didn’t do it. But trimming is okay.
In 2016, police in Tajikistan shaved off beards of nearly 13,000 men in part of an effort to battle what authorities deem ‘radicalisation’. This was a move as part of the country’s fight against what it called ‘foreign’ influences.
During the President Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, government officials were forbidden sporting beards.
It is however conceivable that Muslims with beards are conservative and without are liberal. To my experience, liberal Muslims are far better than the conservative.
I recall reading one New York Times article on religious beards, where a man coming back from a trip to Pakistan had a realisation: The longer the beard, the bigger the crook is. He actually imagined people with big beards would be honest, but he kept meeting people there lying to him.
Rahad Abir is a writer from Bangladesh. He is the 2017-18 Charles Pick Fellow at the University of East Anglia. He is finishing a novel and is currently seeking representation.