So I was in Egypt last weekend, and it was pretty dang incredible. Not only did I have the best travel buddy in life, the Pyramids were awesome, al-Azhar awe-inspiring, Tahrir eerie and fascinating, Khan al-Khalili marvelously chaotic, the people incredibly warm and welcoming, the food delectable…etc…more on all that later.
This trip to Egypt piqued my interest on a range of things, from the soci-political to the Egyptologist. However, the topic that truly gripped me, and gripped me hard, was that of the mustache.
I saw them everywhere–not only on people, but also in depictions of people from ancient Egypt. Mustaches factored prominently in the serene statues, etchings in stone, and paintings on pottery pieces throughout the Egyptian Museum, Saqqara Museum, and other places (sorry there are no visual aides for this from our trip…we dutifully obeyed all museum rules and checked our cameras at the door). As we left the Egyptian Museum with aching feet from the endless wandering and tired eyes from reading endless plaques, a band of mustachioed older-ish men wandered by, hollering “eeeey ya mooza!” at Trish and I. I got to thinking about this institution of the mustache and the special place it has occupied throughout the ages. Apparently it was a hotly contested style in ancient Egypt that has persisted until modern times and has come to occupy a really hilarious place in modern hipster culture. How is something that was once seen as a symbol of ultimate masculinity and virility now worn ironically by first world kids sporting artfully faded skinny jeans (and Toms…and probably an Invisible Children bracelet…or 5). I decided to do a little poking around.
I turned first to The Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History: “mustache” or “moustache;” refers to hair growth above a man’s upper lip. No mention is made of hair growth on women’s upper lips—I suppose that would be uncouth. Men (and women, largely inadvertently) have sported mustaches since prehistoric times. Wearing a mustache could symbolize one’s membership in a particular military order, monastic order, or occupation. Oftentimes, the mustache was worn by military men, and the size and style were determined by one’s rank. Facial hair could also be worn for practical reasons; it could protect the face from harsh elements such as strong wind or precipitation.
Men may show their conformity or unwillingness to conform to the prevailing style of the day by choosing to wear a mustache. The latter is well-demonstrated by the rise of such phenomena as Movember (for some ardent celebrators of Movember, there is a certain cultish reverence revolving around this holiday…check out this Shanghai expat’s enthusiasm last November: http://www.cityweekend.com.cn/shanghai/articles/blogs-shanghai/expat-affairs/movember-update-brief-history-mustache/ …but isn’t it a little insensitive to launch a festivity celebrating facial hair growth in a place where…well, it’s a little tough for the natives to participate?
But I digress. In ancient Egypt, it was customary to shave all the body hair, including the hair on one’s head. During the early Old Kingdom (2650 2152), however, depictions of men with thin mustaches started appearing. I must have seen a LOT of Old Kingdom antiquities, because it felt like they were everywhere…which piqued my interest in the inception and endurance of this style in the first place. I was surprised to learn that the institution of the mustache in ancient Egypt was actually the subject of some feisty debate and even legal action. Around 1800 BCE, Pharaoh Teqikencola issued a royal edict outlawing mustaches.
The mustache has been many things—but nothing fascinates me more than its function as a tool for attracting the opposite sex. For reasons that for me continue to remain unclear, women throughout the ages have found mustaches irresistibly sexy. Let us look at our own Abraham Lincoln: when he was campaigning for office in the fall of 1860, Lincoln received a letter from eleven-year-old Grace Bedell urging him to grow out his facial hair, informing him that “you would look a great deal better because your face is so thin,” adding that “All the ladies like whiskers.”
George Cooper and Stephen Foster wrote a song in 1864 entitled “If You’ve Only Got a Mustache”( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezUb7__xuXk http://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/stephen-foster/012636.HTM)…the principal message conveyed by the song is that even if a man lacks many desirable attributes, he has only to grow a mustache to attract women. The song makes a pretty compelling case, I must say.
After digesting all this newfound information, I found that I still thirsted for knowledge about the mighty mustache. I asked my colleagues—teachers at a high school here in Amman—about their thoughts on mustaches. The prevailing sentiment was this: the mustache identifies you as Arab (people sort of grumbled incoherently when I suggested that the mustache was worn non-ironically as a sort of cultural identifier in a number of different countries, such as India), and functions as a sign of manhood and masculinity. My innocent probing also prompted a rather fiery debate amongst the teachers in the department (as my questions are often wont to do): whether the mustache was permitted within Islam and, if so, how it should be sported. Our department was divided into two camps: supporters of the ‘stache and those who vehemently opposed it. Each cited Hadiths in support of their arguments.
I did a little poking around online, and it appears that Prophet Muhammad did have some fairly specific stipulations about mustaches and how they should be worn. According to the Sunna (sayings of the Prophet), the mustache should be light.
“Trim closely the moustache, and let the beard flow (Grow).” Hadith no. 498
“Trim the moustache closely and spare the beard” says Ibn Umar, Hadith no. 449
“Act against contrary to the polytheists, trim closely the moustache and grow the beard.”
Hadith no. 500
I gotta say, it’s really pretty amazing the stuff you turn up when you Google “Arabs Mustaches.”
However, in my quest for quippy mustache material, I came across something that kind of brought my light-hearted and sort of vague musings about mustaches back to reality…and also reinforced my friend colleagues’ assertion that the mustache is something that identifies a man as uniquely Arab. I read this piece by Etgar Keret entitled “A Mustache For My Son” in the Sunday New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/26/magazine/a-mustache-for-my-son.html?_r=1). Keret writes about how he grows a mustache at the somewhat odd request of his son, Lev, for his sixth birthday. Keret goes on to marvel at how his newfound tuft of upper lip hair changed his interactions with people; instead of inquiring about his family or asking about his well-being—the usual conversation starters—they would say, “What’s with the mustache?” He also found that people were also eager to share their own mustache stories—he shares one mustache-centric conversation he has with his acupuncturist. A former IDF soldier, the acupuncturist tells Keret how he was part of an elite military unit during one of several Israeli invasions of Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War. In order to blend in with the Arabs, the Israeli soldiers would paint on mustaches in order to blend in more with the Arab population. “It sounds like a joke,” the acupuncturist said, “but we went on an undercover operation once, disguised as Arabs, and they told us the two most important things were the mustache and the shoes. If you have a respectable mustache and believable shoes, people will take you for an Arab even if your parents are from Poland.” He then goes on to describe an operation in which he and his fellow IDFers, sporting their painted-on ‘staches, almost shot and killed an Arab carrying a large umbrella because they thought it was a Kalashnikov. Keret ends the article resolving to shave off his mustache, musing over “The story of a kid with a scribble that looked like a mustache, who almost killed a man with an umbrella that looked like a rifle, on a covert operation that looked like a war. Maybe I’ll shave this mustache off after all. Reality here is confusing enough as it is.”
For me, I find the notion of elite IDP soldiers with painted-on mustaches conducting covert operation milling amongst Arabs at once totally absurd and entirely chilling.
I then perused article in Mondoweiss (http://mondoweiss.net/2012/02/edgar-keret-in-the-ny-times-magazine-trys-on-orientalism-with-an-iconic-arab-look.html ), an online newspaper that I’ve only just now come across that seeks to cover the “war of ideas on the Middle East” from a “progressive Jewish perspective.” The article attacks Keret pretty heatedly for his “A Mustache for my Son.” Entitled “Etgar Keret in the ‘NY Times Magazine’ tries on orientalism with an iconic ‘Arab’ look,” the piece is overly feisty and rife with misplaced indignance. The author blasts Keret for not even mentioning “Palestinians” by name in his piece and thereby failing to capitalize upon a crucial “teaching moment”…a point that is breathtakingly dumb, as the story Keret relates took place in Lebanon. The author continues to rail against Keret’s “dominant Ashkenazi narrative” and “orientalizing the Arab Other” by using the term “Arab” (this sort of stuff gets so wearying sometimes). However, if you have the patience to wade through the author’s sass, though, I think it’s sort of interesting to muse on the mustache being utilized to the end of camouflaging IDF soldiers amongst Arabs and how the mustache, for these IDF guys, was closely associated with Arabs, and by extension, for these IDF guys, terrorism. This speaks to the fact that perhaps the mustache, in addition to its prominent cultural role throughout the ages, also carries some interesting socio-political weight.
Hmmm…food for some mustachioed thought.