The Beard Divide

Great insights into life in the Middle East here:

The Beard Divide

I have a blond, shaggy beard, with short, prickly hair that doesn't always lay in the position I would like. Occasionally I wish it was thicker--the hair is a bit patchy in some spots--but it is thick enough to be the subject of much interest with many people I come across here. This is because facial hair has great symbolic value in this part of the world, as for many Muslims, big, shaggy beards are seen as a sign of religiosity. As a result of this, Muslims I meet routinely ask me--because of my beard--if I am a Muslim. From taxi drivers, kids on the street, or strangers in a shop, the question is the same: "Inta (are you a) Muslim?"

The beard is such a symbol of religiosity that sometimes people even ask me if I am a "sheik"--a Muslim religious leader. Occasionally people will skip past asking me if I am a Muslim and go straight to "Inta (are you a) sheik?" Also, every so often someone will refer to me as "sheik." Once on the street I heard a group of young boys chatting enthusiastically about me, wondering amongst themselves if indeed I was a sheik.

Here in this culture, then, my shaggy--at times unkempt--beard is generally a positive thing. Even when I tell people I am a Christian, I have the sense that the beard still provides me with some sort of religious credibility--and religion is very important here--since it makes me look, in a general sense, religious. A person may not know anything about me--nothing about how I live my life or how I treat others--but they see I have a beard and they think I must be a pious, religious person. Okay, I may not be a Muslim, but to many, the beard means that I am still someone to be respected in the religious sense.

Recently, however, I discovered for the first time a kind of beard divide here in Jordan, a divide I noticed when we visited a small Christian village with a friend last week. This village--located in the Karak region about two hours south of Amman--has a population of about 2000 people. It is the only purely Christian village in Jordan; there are two churches there, and no mosques.

I was warned beforehand that the people of this village might have a slightly different attitude towards my beard than most of the people in Amman. Since they too saw bushy beards as Islamic symbols, they might--I was told--look at me with a bit of suspicion instead of immediate respect. As it happened, this warning was right on target. Not long after our arrival I had to answer the nervous questions of a little boy who wondered if I was a Muslim. When we went out to two wedding parties later in the evening--in stark contrast to Amman--I saw mustaches, but no beards. Clean shaves seemed to be a priority, and I felt a little self-conscious about my facial hair. Finally, right before we were about to leave, we stopped to visit one last family that our friend knew. When we entered the home, the family greeted us, and as our friend chatted with them, their little boy of maybe three years old pointed at my face and said "Mamnuuwa," which means "prohibited" or "not allowed." He said it twice more before we left.

Wherever we go here, it seems my beard engenders much discussion. I wonder what people are saying about my long hair.

Comments

Robert Sievers said…
That was a good article on stereotypes. I think you should keep your beard. The next time someone asks you if you are Muslim, perhaps you should answer, "No, I worship God".
Abu Daoud said…
I will pass on the remark to the author. I did have a rather robust beard for a while too and I noticed many if the differences he mentioned.
Anonymous said…
@Robert Sievers
The next time someone asks you if you are Muslim, perhaps you should answer, "No, I worship God".

Because you believe Islam is a pagan religion whose followers worship a black box in the desert? Shows how ignorant you are, and yet you comment on stereotypes.

The word Allah translates to God, so much so that the Arabic version of the Bible also uses this word for God. In fact, if you wanted to use a word for the God, that has no gender (god vs. goddess) and no plural (gods), the word Allah is more of a fit than God. Even more interesting is the fact that more people on earth, be they Muslims or Christians, use the word Allah than do the word God.

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