Wednesday, July 29, 2009

on the misrecognitions bestowed by facial hair

And we're back! ... rather sheepishly, having bid such a grandiose farewell (refer last post, from eight months ago).

Well, the mind is a change-able thing, and there is much left to say.

Here's something I wrote for Time Out Delhi maybe six months ago; the last thing I wrote for them --

“Alhamdullilah” says the man pan-handling in the subway as I give him a dollar. It's Harlem. He's black. I'm brown and have a beard.

“Salaam Aleikum.”Another day, another man trying to catch my eye, hustling on 125th Street. “W'alaikum Salaam,” I mutter, and move on. It only happens in Harlem, this taking me for Muslim in New York. South of Harlem, and north of it, people speak to me in Spanish. Sometimes friendly, sometimes pissoff, like the WASP bartender somewhere Midtown, who counts out my change Un Dos Tres...

I've had a beard for over five years now. It's mostly short, never more than a few weeks growth. Occasionally I shave it off altogether. Sometimes I sculpt and trim it, what in traditional nai and hajjam speak is called “qat nikalna” and which I've also had to ask for as 'Sanjay Dutt' style in Delhi. While Sanjay Dutt's beard (from forgettable films from a couple of years ago) was actually mimicking Latino/Black “ghetto” styles from New York that you see on the subways all the time; to an Israeli acquaintance, I look like a member of Hamas. I don't get harassed at airports though (I haven't been to Israel yet), maybe because it would be too obvious a case of racial profiling, maybe because my facial hair and my and passport send such contradictory messages (and push comes to shove the passport wins).

Apart from the occasional relative, no one in Delhi thinks I look like a terrorist, or even Muslim. Not even the cops. To the more progressive among my azeez from Delhi University, I (sometimes) look like Fidel Castro. Despite all my intellectual pretensions, the circles I hang out in (and the fact that I went to film-school), no one ever mistakes me for a documentary film-maker, the male of which species are often marked by their genteel hirsuteness. According to my sister, I look like a Punjabi taxi driver. Which probably explains my general, easy anonymity in the city. In most parts of the city, I'm your everyday cut-surd/mauna sardar. Strange to think that the ubiquity of the “cut surd” taxi driver in Delhi might be a direct legacy of '84; when a lot of Sikhs needed to mask their identities and make them ambiguous.

The only place in the city I've not been asked, “Aap sardar hain?” is Turkman Gate. I was taking a friends' wedding guests for a walk through Old Delhi last January. Since they were mostly academics, I strayed off the beaten tourist path, and took them south of the Jama Masjid into Dujana House and Turkman Gate – the places in the old city hit worst by the Emergency. Here were tourists/firangs are rarely seen, the hustling and wheedling of the Jama Masjid touts gave way to a humorous, hospitable curiosity. At a tea shop where we stopped to ask for directions, I was asked who we were, and I explained. They were trying to figure us, figure me out. Ten foreigners and one bearded Indian, who insisted he wasn't a guide but a gharati, spoke decent Urdu, wasn't from the area but had brought foreigners to a place where they are almost never brought. The mix of intimacy and strangeness (and skin pale from a New York winter) makes the question seem inevitable, in retrospect – “Are you Kashmiri?”

I am taken for Muslim in Turkman Gate and Harlem. You tell me what that says. Khuda Hafiz.

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