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In tribal Pakistan, a shave may cost your life

In the tribal areas of Pakistan, a shave may cost your life.

"The government is unable to protect us so we will abide by what the Taliban tells us to do and stop shaving beards," said Niamat, a barber in Khar, the headquarters of the Bajaur tribal agency along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

And the Taliban mean business, On Sunday night, bombs destroyed two barber shops and three others suffered partial damage after the owners refused to follow the orders.

"I am a Muslim and I know that no one can force me to shave or not to shave. This should be my decision," said Nasir, a regular customer, wearing a green turtleneck sweater and jeans. "But I was threatened. They asked if I will obey the new laws; I will obey because I am afraid."

Mushtaq Yusufzai / NBC News
A barber shop in the tribal region where the Taliban have banned shaves.

A couple of weeks earlier, in the middle of the night, someone slipped leaflets under barbershop doors throughout the Bajaur Tribal Agency. The warning was hand-written in Pashto, the language of the Pashtun tribes who inhabit the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.


The customers panicked and the barbers panicked too. In almost every barber shop the owners put up signs begging their customers not to force them to give a shave.

Slow 'Talibanization' of tribal areas
A shave costs less than 2 cents -- but the Taliban edict forbidding barbers to shave or even trim beards will cause severe economic hardship, and put many of the 200 barbers in Bajaur out of business.

"Barbers are poor people, they have no other business," said Ikram, another regular customer. "If they can't give shaves, they will not be able to feed their children."

A group of barbers told NBC News that their business had declined by 70 percent since the Taliban issued the edict.


VIDEO: Watch scenes from a barber shop in tribal Pakistan.

 But that's not all.

This latest threat by local Taliban militants comes on the heels of an announced ban on music -- music that is sold in CD shops or even played in somebody's car. If the Taliban are to be believed, this is one more sin against Islam and a crime punishable by death. It's one more alarming sign of the so-called Talibanization of Pakistan's tribal areas.

Tribal area a sanctuary for Taliban

Bajaur is the smallest and perhaps the most inaccessible of Pakistan's seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The tribal areas or agencies, as they are called, are semi-autonomous and have always been just outside the laws of the government of Pakistan. This is a holdover from the British Raj; the empire that separated British-run India from Afghanistan before Pakistan was created.

The colonial British decided it was better to allow the fiercely independent Pashtun tribes that inhabit the tribal areas to run their own affairs, according to their own tribal customs and laws. And the Pakistanis continued this arrangement.

But it is this tribal culture and this "laissez-faire" policy of successive Pakistani governments that has nurtured sympathy for the Taliban and allowed these isolated border areas to become sanctuaries for the Taliban and al-Qaida militants.

It is rumored that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two man in al-Qaida, comes and goes as he pleases in Banjaur. In fact up until 2005, when the Pakistanis raided it, al-Qaida had its winter headquarters in Bajaur, inside the high-walled mud compound of a local cleric about eight miles from the Afghan border.

Fear of the consequences

Meantime, a few customers are still demanding a shave.

"I am clean-shaven and I will remain so," said Ikram, from behind the long wooly beige scarf covering his face." He insisted the scarf protected him from the bitter cold weather and not from the Taliban threat. "All the barbers refuse to shave me now, so I do it myself at home," he said.

One of Ikram's like-minded friends even broke down the store-front glass window of a barber shop recently, and then threatened to break all the mirrors inside, when the barber, a man named Zareenullah, refused to even trim his small neat chin beard. But Zareenullah wouldn't budge.

"If we don't follow they will kill us," said Zareenullah, "What can we do?"

"I offer to give them haircuts," he said. "Haircuts are allowed."