Published: October 15, 2011 courtesy of THE NEW YORK TIMES.
“That made us so embarrassed, and it made me so sad,” he said. “I felt dishonored when the guard said,” he hesitated, as if even recalling the words made him upset, “ ‘undo your turban.’ ”
“I had wanted to see the president,” he added, “but after that search, I thought it would have been better if I had not come.”
The turban-searching rule at President Hamid Karzai’s presidential palace has been rigorously enforced since the assassination of the head of Afghanistan’s peace process, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was killed by a bomb hidden in the attacker’s turban. It was the third such killing in four months, leading youths in Kabul to coin the word “Turbanator” and American soldiers to invent the new acronym TBIED, for turban-borne improvised explosive device.
The other two instances were the killing in July of Kandahar’s senior cleric as he prayed in a mosque, and a few weeks later the killing of Kandahar’s mayor.
The searches are deeply disturbing for most Afghan men, as the turban here at once signifies one’s religious faith and is a national dress — not to mention being something of a fashion statement.
Turbans are worn across the Muslim world because the Prophet Muhammad was believed to have worn one, and they are especially favored by imams and mullahs. In Afghanistan, which is a deeply pious country, usage is broader, with dozens of styles and colors. There are ones made of synthetics from Pakistan that cost about $20, silk ones from Herat that cost twice as much and ones made of more luxuriant silks from the north of Afghanistan that cost still more.
The people of southeastern Afghanistan wind the cloth large and loose so it looks as if the whole structure might topple off; Kabul residents prefer a smaller, tighter look. Those in eastern Afghanistan tuck the last bit of cloth so it sticks up out of the turban like a cockscomb, known as a “shimla,” and its size has something to do, loosely, with a person’s view of his own standing. The Taliban were known for wearing turbans made of a very soft cotton that had especially long tails and were either black or white; the former signifies that the wearer’s family members are descendants of Muhammad.
However, most turbans in Afghanistan now — and in the pre-Taliban era — are subtle grays and charcoals, deep olive greens, lighter soft greens and browns.
“I have four or five turbans,” said Hajji Mohammad Zaman Ahmadi, a 57-year-old Kabul resident who was in a bazaar to buy a white skullcap for wearing at home but had his turban on for the workday. He had just gotten a miniature turban for his 2-year-old nephew, he said.
“It is made out of the softest of our country’s wool,” he said.
Mr. Ahmadi, like Mr. Niaz, believes that bombers who use their turbans to hide explosives are committing an offense not just against Islam, but against the nation. They are trying to “defame the Afghan turbans and chase the Afghans from their ancient traditions and try to scare them into not wearing their turbans,” he said.
On the back streets of Kabul’s central bazaar, where the turbans are sold neatly folded, thin as a pamphlet and wrapped in torn pages from old glossy magazines, many turban wearers are so angry about the situation that they blame the Americans. Before their arrival, intrusive searches were unknown.
“My father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, my prophet wore a turban, and that’s why I wear it,” said an older man, looking irritable at the question, adding: “Who brought these turban bombers and turban searchers? You did,” he said angrily, referring to Westerners, which many Afghans feel are agents of the decline of the society.
Many clerics take a more contemplative view. Faith transcends costume, and a man can pray in any outfit as long as the prayer comes from the heart, but it is an honor to God to dress properly, said Abdul Raouf Nafee, the mullah at the Herati mosque in central Kabul.
Sitting on a floor cushion as he read the Koran early one morning in a small room just off his mosque’s prayer hall, Mr. Nafee wore a simple white cap. His turban was neatly prepared and waiting on a couch for the midday prayer when he would don it. A man of both poetry and pragmatism, he views the turban as a link between the holy life and people’s physical needs.
The turban, like the traditional blanket or shawl worn by men and the chador worn by women, is practical as well as religious and cultural, he said. “You are covered to keep off the dust — and now the pollution,” he said. “If you are cold, you can wrap it around you for warmth, you can sit on it, you can use it to tie an animal, a sheep or a goat, and you can use the turban’s cap to carry water.”
There is also a darker view of turban attacks: that the bombers were so distraught that their turbans’ holiness no longer mattered, and that they were forced to use any means available to take revenge on the Americans.
“Is it wrong to respond to the killings of the civilians that you do with your drones, that shoot from the air and do not even have pilots?” asked Hajji Ahmad Farid, a mullah and a conservative member of Parliament from an insurgent-dominated area of Kapisa Province, near Kabul. “Think about why a man blows himself up: Some foreign soldiers go to his house and accuse him and tie his hands and dishonor him and search his wife and his daughters, and this poor man is just watching and can do nothing.
“When a man has lost his dignity, he does not care about his shawl or his turban.”