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     Volume 5 Issue 97 | June 2, 2006|

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View from the Bottom

Bearded Truths

Shahnoor Wahid

Beards continue to generate mixed emotions in the minds of the keepers and beholders alike, just as it did in bygone days. People look with either dispassion or admiration or hilarity at the various cuts and shapes of beard that men prefer to wear on their faces.

In our country, in the past, a young man suddenly seen growing a beard, untidy stubble rather, was subjected to close scrutiny by friends, parents and strangers, all for different reasons. Friends used to search for letters in blue envelops in shirt pockets or dried rose-petals inside textbooks. Parents used to feel relieved thinking that their bad boy had come to the path of piety at last. And strangers avoided him thinking he was on his way to a certain place in Hemayetpur!

But today it is not easy to take the decision whether you will grow a beard or not, especially with all those beautiful girls on the billboards seen caressing a smoothly shaven face of a man. Also there is this uncomfortable reality that a special brand of politics, an altogether different lifestyle, a different philosophy has gotten enmeshed with beards.

Thus, sporting a wrongly designed beard may create a good deal of commotion if one is not careful where one is going. For example, on the roads beggars first target me seeing my beard. Possibly they interpret it as a beggar-friendly beard! Then taxi drivers call me 'chacha' and ask for an extra twenty taka! And foreigners, especially westerners, on first encounter, gauge my beard first to discern what 'type' of a person I am before starting a conversation. If I cannot convince them that my beard is indeed innocuous, they only nod and smile sweetly and try to get out as fast they can.

So what was the position of beards in novels or in history? One cannot imagine the three Musketeers without their beards and swords. And the great Parisian poet, writer, swordsman and incorrigibly romantic lover Cyrano de Bergerac would really look like a sissy without his beard under the chin. The French-cut beard was the in-thing those days. Even Englishmen fashioned their beards to give it the desired look and shape though they despised calling them 'French cuts'.

I am sure many of you know that while the Talibans would cane you for not growing a beard, the medieval English church actually considered growing a beard a rebellion against the church!

On the other hand, in the ancient Greek societies, a healthy flowing beard was a sign of wisdom and knowledge. But, unconfirmed historical sources claim that it was Alexander the Great who forced his soldiers to shave for fear that their enemies would defeat them by pulling them by the beard in close combat. On the other hand, most Roman kings and generals are seen in paintings or marble statues as clean-shaven. Cleopatra fell in love with a clean-shaven Antonio and not one with a stubble, didn't she? Among the Mughals only Emperor Akbar is seen in paintings without a beard.

In Russia, during the reign of Peter-I, those wishing to keep beards had to pay a tax as high as 100 rubles each year - as well as carry around a medal proclaiming, "Beards are a ridiculous ornament." But, much later, Rasputin the monk went about sporting a chest-long beard. Lucifer the Prince of darkness is always painted with a goatee.

In England, priests kept their faces clean-shaven as a sign of their celibacy. But the Protestant priests in the 16th century grew their beards in protest of the Roman Catholics. This gave the opportunity to Queen Elizabeth-I to tax men with beards just as Henry-VIII did, though he himself sported a beard!

One will not find any medieval painting of a Persian poet or scribe without a beard. Would you like to see a clean-shaven Omar Khayam reciting poetry to a damsel in a date-palm garden?

But, like everything else that can cause boredom after a while, even your very own beard may become a source of boredom. I call it beardom. Looking at your bearded face on the mirror for years together you may get extremely bored. You may feel the constant urge to do something about your beard. "I want to cut it off. No, I must not cut it off." You are in a perpetual dilemma. 'To beard or not to beard that is the dilemma.'

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