PESHAWAR: Pakistani businessman Malik Amir Mohammad Khan Afridi has been kidnapped, threatened with death, forcibly displaced and lives apart from his family: all because of his enormous moustache.
Impeccably trimmed to 30 inches, Afridi spends 30 minutes a day washing, combing, oiling and twirling his facial hair into two arches that reach to his forehead, defying gravity.
“People give me a lot of respect. It’s my identity” said the 48-year-old grandfather in the northwestern city of Peshawar, when asked why he was prepared to risk everything for his whiskers.
“I feel happy. When it’s ordinary, no one gives me any attention. I got used to all the attention and I like it a lot”.
For centuries, a luxuriant moustache has been a sign of virility and authority on the Indian sub-continent.
But in Pakistan, Islamist militants try to enforce religious doctrine that a moustache must be trimmed, if not shaved off.
So Afridi went from celebrity to prisoner of Lashkar-e-Islam, then a rival and now an ally of the Taliban in the tribal district of Khyber on the Afghan border.
First the group demanded protection money of $500 a month. When he refused, four gunmen turned up at his house in 2009.
He says they held him prisoner for a month in a cave and only released him when he agreed to cut it off.
“I was scared they would kill me, so that’s why I sacrificed my moustache,”he said.
He fled to relative safety in Peshawar. But he grew his facial hair back and in 2012 the threats started again: telephone calls from people threatening to slit his throat.
So he left the Taliban-hit northwest altogether, moving to the Punjabi city of Faisalabad and returning to Peshawar to visit his family only once or twice a month.
“I’m still scared,” he says. “I’m in Peshawar to spend Ramadan with my family but most of the time I stay at home and tell people I’m in Faisalabad if they want to meet me,” he says.
His only concession is the holy Muslim fasting month, when a free-standing moustache interferes with his daily ablutions and he keeps it smoothed across his face and tucked behind his ears.
It costs $150 a month to maintain – more than a Pakistani teacher can earn, although he gets a moustache bursary of $50 from the home district in the lawless tribal belt he was forced to flee.
The Khyber administration pays anything from $10 to $60 a month to men with particularly eye-catching moustaches as a symbolic gesture of appreciation for the bravery and virility traditionally associated with such facial hair.
Both tribesmen and members of the security forces can qualify for the sum, which is handed out at the discretion of the chief administrator.
Afridi has a hair dryer, bars of soap, shampoo, an alleged German oil from Dubai whose label he has ripped off so no one knows its alchemy, a mirror and an old bottle of homemade coconut oil.
Then there are towels and a hair brush.
He massages the secret oil into his whiskers, twiddles and twirls them in front of the mirror and dries them to stand on end, before striding around a shopping mall, quickly attracting a crowd.
An opinion piece published in Pakistan’s Daily Times newspaper last year drew parallels between power and a luxuriant moustache, although current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the only man in the country to win a third term in office, is clean shaven.
It also had a word of advice for elected leaders, who three times in the past have been deposed by military coups… led by the only three generals in the country with moustaches.
“Never appoint a moustachioed chief of the army staff or a chief justice if you wish to govern in peace,” it warned.
Richard McCallum, the author of “Hair India – A Guide to the Bizarre Beards and Magnificent Moustaches of Hindustan,” says moustaches are also popular in the Indian military and the police.
“Men with moustaches seem to be considered to command more respect, are considered more virile, more manly and a little bit older,” he told AFP.
“When you get away from metro areas, India is still a patriarchal place.
Men are men and the men like to show off and preen.”But Afridi’s wife and 10 children are less keen.
“Sometimes my family tell me ‘cut it, it would be better if you lived with us.’ I can leave my family, I can leave Pakistan, but I can never cut my moustache again,” he said.
So his dream is to find political asylum or represent Pakistan at an international competition, if only he can get a visa.
But he has a way to go.
An Indian holds the record for the world’s longest moustache at 4.29 metres.
Ram Singh Chauhan has even appeared in Bollywood films and had a cameo in the 1983 James Bond film “Octopussy.”
”I’m trying to move my family abroad. To America, Canada, Britain or even to Dubai but I need asylum,” Afridi told AFP.
“I don’t like smoking. I’m not fond of snuff, or drinking. This is the only choice in my life. I’d even sacrifice food, but not the moustache. It’s my life. It’s not part of my life. It is my life.”