He risks death to keep his moustache

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.

Impeccably trimmed to 76cm, Mr Afridi spends 30 minutes daily washing, combing, oiling and twirling his facial hair into two gravity-defying arches that reach to his forehead.

"People give me a lot of respect. It's my identity," said the 48-year-old grandfather in the north-western city of Peshawar, when asked why he was prepared to risk his life 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 told AFP.

Sign of virility

For centuries, a luxuriant moustache has been a sign of virility and authority on the Indian subcontinent.

But in Pakistan, Islamist militants try to enforce religious doctrine that a moustache must be trimmed, if not shaved off.

So Mr Afridi went from celebrity to prisoner of Lashkar-e-Islam, an ally of the Taleban, in the tribal district of Khyber on the Afghan border.

First, the group demanded protection money of US$500 (S$630) a month. When he refused, four gunmen turned up at his house in 2009.

He said 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. He grew his facial hair back and last year the threats started again: Telephone calls from people threatening to slit his throat. So he left the Taleban-hit north-west altogether, moving to the city of Faisalabad and returning to Peshawar to visit his family only once or twice a month.

"I'm still scared," he said.

It costs about 15,300 Pakistan rupees (S$189) a month to maintain his moustache - more than a Pakistani teacher can earn. But he gets a moustache bursary of 5,000 Pakistan rupees from the home district in the lawless tribal belt he was forced to flee.

The Khyber administration pays anything from 1,000 to 6,100 Pakistan rupees 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.

Both tribesmen and members of the security forces can qualify for the sum, which is handed out at the discretion of the chief administrator.

Mr Afridi, a father of 10 children, has a hair dryer, bars of soap, shampoo, a German oil whose label he has ripped off so no one knows its alchemy, a mirror and an old bottle of homemade coconut oil. Then there are towels and a hair brush.

He massages the secret oil into his whiskers, twiddles and twirls them in front of the mirror and dries them to stand on end, before striding around a shopping mall, quickly attracting a crowd.

He said: "Sometimes my family tell me 'cut it, it would be better if you lived with us'. I can leave my family, I can leave Pakistan, but I can never cut my moustache again."

So his dream is to find political asylum or represent Pakistan at an international competition, if only he can get a visa. But he has a way to go.

An Indian holds the record for the world's longest moustache at 4.29m.

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