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In Afghanistan, beards are the rule

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- Professional beard trimming is a clandestine business in Taliban-ruled Kabul, where shaving is a crime that can land you in jail or get you beaten.

Inside their homes, barbers trim the beards of the brave few who sneak a quick trim while getting a haircut.The ban on shaving was imposed by the Taliban army -- Islamic religious students turned guerrilla fighters -- after it took control of Kabul in September 1996 and imposed a strict version of Islamic law.

"It is not just women who have suffered under the Taliban . . . men have also borne the brunt," said Zulmair Khan, who was having his beard trimmed because, he said, "hairs come into my mouth when I eat."

His frustration exceeded his fear of punishment.

"The Taliban can punish me for this, but this long beard -- especially when it is untrimmed -- really makes my life miserable," he said.

The job was done quickly and only after the barber posted his 8-year-old son as a sentry to watch for patrolling Taliban soldiers.

"Don't fall asleep . . . warn us if you see them," said Zahir, who gave only one name.

He snipped briskly, worrying his young son's vigilance would wane.

"Some men really beg and implore me to shorten their beards . . . so I have to take the risk," Zahir said.

He said he wasn't worried Taliban authorities might be able to identify him from a news story, because his name is common in Afghanistan.

In Kabul, once a relatively sophisticated capital where European fashions were worn by the city's well-to-do, music has been banned by the Taliban along with most forms of light entertainment.

"Men miss even small things in life, which comes so normally everywhere else," Khan said while getting his beard trimmed.

The Taliban's no-shaving edict comes from their belief that Islam's prophet Mohammed ruled against shaving.

Barbers have been given strict orders to not even touch a beard with a pair of scissors because it is "un-Islamic."