‘Moustache-man’ Afridi flirting with death in Pakistan

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.

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," he said.

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 USD 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 USD 150 a month to maintain -- more than a Pakistani teacher can earn -- although he gets a moustache bursary of USD 50 from the home district in the lawless tribal belt he was forced to flee.

The Khyber administration pays anything from USD 10 to USD 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.

AFP