BAGHDAD -- In a country where people are killed because their names mark them as Shi'ites or Sunnis, having the wrong haircut can be lethal, too. So for barber Abu Saif, staying in business requires keeping up with the latest religious edicts.
"Being completely clean-shaven is not right," Mr. Saif explains as he draws his razor down a customer's cheek, then sweeps it back up toward his upper lip. He takes time over the cut -- a perfect upside-down question mark shave around the cheek that is most popular with Baghdad's religious Shi'ites.
"The 'Marine' cut, or shaven head, is forbidden. It is considered to be something of the foreigners," said Mr. Saif, 52, who has been cutting hair and shaving beards in his small Mansour barber shop since he was a boy of 12.
Above all, he said, Iraqi barbers have given up "threading" -- a practice common in the Middle East and Asia that involves removing facial hair with two threads tied together, rather than with a razor.
For some, the punishment for doing so was death.
"I put a poster in the window of my shop, that I apologized for threading and I said we were not doing that anymore," Mr. Saif said. "This is terrorism. One day they attack bakers, the next day they attack barbers."
The shape of a beard or haircut often marks its wearer as Shi'ite or Sunni, ensuring support in some neighborhoods but putting him at risk in others.
Religious Sunnis, for example, do not remove any neck hair, and fundamental Wahhabis never shave or trim their beards, but will cut down their mustaches to almost nothing -- "zero to one" on the razor notch, Mr. Saif said.
The customer in his chair, a Shi'ite named Abu Sara, wears his hair short and has his beard trimmed every three weeks to a tight one-week growth.
A few people have changed their cuts to match ethnicities or religious leanings other than their own, he said. Mr. Saif dismisses them as cowards: "I know some are doing that, but as Shi'ites we don't need that 1 percent."
Young men who are not religiously minded have their own models.
"They get their ideas from actors on television, or some famous Iraqi singers or Brazilian soccer players," said Mr. Saif, who has about 20 customers a day. "Some cut most of their hair short then leave it long in front. Others wear their hair long but slicked back with a lot of gel."
Even boys come into the barber shop asking for specific cuts, he said, sometimes adding gel and perfume.
Weddings are big days at the local barber shops. A "wedding cut" includes a facial massage, eyebrow thinning, a good haircut, an extra-fine trimming of the beard and removal of unsightly ear hair.
"When I got married, I had curly hair, so I used a heating iron to straighten it out. After the wedding, my hair went back to normal and my wife was so surprised," Mr. Saif said with a laugh.
But the war and constant conflict have taken a toll on the typical barber-shop banter, he said. Customers still comment on social and political matters, and still ask for marriage advice, but politics have become a dangerous topic.
Mr. Saif recalls an argument with one of his customers over Saddam Hussein's trial, and said one of his clients took offense to another's comments after one of Baghdad's daily bombings.
"One of the customers informed on him, and then one of his friends came over and warned him not to speak like that anymore," he said.
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