Friday, June 30, 2006

Shave and a Haircut? You're Dead


Last month I wrote about West Point’s Islamic Imagery Project which, when you get right down to it, is about gang signs. The jihadis’ use of the bismillah, the rider on the horse, and the green flag of Islam are just slightly more sophisticated (narratively speaking) than the Crips’ and the Bloods’ bandana colors and other gang signals.

There’s another layer of gang signs and symbols present in Iraq today: hairstyles, as Sharon Behn demonstrates by interviewing an Iraqi barber in “Haircut, Shave Can Mean Life or Death in Baghdad”:

The shape of a beard or haircut often marks its wearer as Shi'ite or Sunni, ensuring support in some neighborhoods but putting him at risk in others.

Religious Sunnis, for example, do not remove any neck hair, and fundamental Wahhabis never shave or trim their beards, but will cut down their mustaches to almost nothing -- "zero to one" on the razor notch, Mr. [Abu] Saif said.

The customer in his chair, a Shi'ite named Abu Sara, wears his hair short and has his beard trimmed every three weeks to a tight one-week growth.

A few people have changed their cuts to match ethnicities or religious leanings other than their own, he said. Mr. Saif dismisses them as cowards: "I know some are doing that, but as Shi'ites we don't need that 1 percent."

Needless to say, it’s a bad idea to get the gang haircut of the occupying forces:

"The 'Marine' cut, or shaven head, is forbidden. It is considered to be something of the foreigners," said Mr. Saif, 52, who has been cutting hair and shaving beards in his small Mansour barber shop since he was a boy of 12.

That said, Behn writes, some Iraqis will get their hair cut like famous Iraqi singers or Brazilian soccer players. None of this appears in any textbook on the Middle East; it’s just one more facet of Iraqi society that U.S. forces and policymakers must have people on the ground—outside the Green Zone—to understand.

For more on the gangs/tribes phenomenon, David Ronfeldt writes at length about Al-Qa’ida’s attempt to recreate the paradigms of tribes, which are essentially family- or village-based gangs, at a global level in his recent “Al-Qa’ida and Its Affiliates: A Global Tribe Waging Segmental Warfare?” at

No comments:

Site Meter