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The Storytellers

Moustache brings fame and danger to Pakistani

Malik Afridi has cultivated his moustache to the grand proportions of 76 centimeters (30 inches) end-to-end. His hobby has brought him more than fame: Extremist threats have taken him within a whisker of death.

All eyes are on Malik Mohammad Khan Afridi as he roams around the market near his home in Faisalabad, Pakistan. Or rather, all eyes are on his impressive moustache, which he has been growing for 21 years and will not allow to be trimmed.

But the roots of what he calls his hobby don't lie in vanity. He was first inspired to grow such a moustache by a politician whom he still admires. Now Afridi shares more than a very similar name with local leader Malik Amir Muhammad Khan of Kalabagh.

"I was very impressed by his moustache and decided to get a moustache like that for myself," he told DW. "He was a brave man and the governor of our province as well. I could not do all that he did, but I did manage to get a bigger moustache than his!"

Taking care of his prized feature is time-consuming and costly. Afridi washes it twice a day, applying specially made almond oil and imported German gel, blowing it dry and balancing it to ensure that both sides match. Styling alone takes half an hour each morning and night, while Afridi spends over $150 (108 euros) a month on keeping his whiskers in shape.

Risky hobby

"Taking care of my moustache is a difficult thing to do, but it's my passion," Afridi explains.

But Islamists believe trimming one's facial hair goes against Sharia practice. Local extremists confronted Afridi in 2009 and demanded he pay $400 a month in protection money. When he refused to pay - or alter his moustache to satisfy them - the group kidnapped him.

He was spirited away to a cave and spent days in custody before he finally gave in and cut his elaborate moustache ends.

The experience drove Afridi and his family to flee to Peshawar, where he began growing his moustache again, only to receive further threats in this new town. Afridi fled again, this time to Faisalabad.

At the site of a bomb blast targeting a market selling CDs and DVDs in Peshawar, a man tries to clear his ruined stall and stock (Photo: Arshad Arbab)

Barbers and other businesses, like this shop selling CDs and DVDs, have been targeted by extremists

He is not the only one who has been attacked over facial hair. Barber shops have also become targets.

"The Taliban believe that shaving off a beard is anti-Islamic," said a barber in Afridi's home region, where barbers shops have received threatening letters warning them to stop shaving Muslims' beards. "Some shops have even been targeted and bombed," the man added.

Fans abroad

The threat of extremism is still too strong for Afridi to feel he can return home. But elsewhere he revels in the reactions his moustache provokes elsewhere.

"People treat me with a lot of respect. They shake my hand. They ask me to take pictures with them. People feel good that they have met the guy with the longest moustache, shaken hands with him and got pictures with him."

Afridi particularly enjoys the attention he attracts on trips abroad. He's garnered fans in Afghanistan, where he's recognized by people from his own region.

"When I go to Kabul, people who are Pathans like me feel happy [when they see me]. They take pictures or make videos. They treat me with respect." Afridi has cashed in on his hobby on trips to Dubai, collecting hundreds of dollars from people who wanted to take photos with him.

"But I was really happy when I visited China," he says. "Only one percent of people have moustaches there, and when people saw my moustache they laughed so much!"

Keen to compete

After cultivating his moustache for so long, Afridi sees his moustache as more than just a hobby: It's part of what makes him who he is. Indeed, the dangers he has faced have made him all the more resolute to keep growing. They have also made his family and friends come to appreciate that Afridi's moustache is not only a source of personal pride but a display of strength.

And he wants to take it beyond its current breadth. Afridi says he could grow his whiskers even longer - if he had support from Pakistan's government. He's keen to represent Pakistan around the world at competitions for unusual facial hair and says it would benefit his country if he could attract a worldwide audience.

"When there are competitions for such things in other countries, I can go and participate and bring fame to my country," he says. "If they would just grant me the visa, I would even go at my own expense."

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