Kazim has the largest beard I’ve ever seen. It’s so big an ISIS consultant would say, “Brother, for modesty’s sake, give it a trim.” I could fit my hand, my head, and even half a leg in there. A decade ago there was a special moment when East London hipsters and certain young Muslim men had an agreement. They’d share the beard. Hipsters wanted the beard to signal just how serious they were about their fixies – covered in bike lube, their beard hair catching in the chains. With their sleeves rolled up, you could see the tattoos. Green and red ink, maternal love and a gauche obsession with Goethe’s skull. Of course, they reconstituted masculinity with vinyl and John Lenon. And the Muslims wanted the beard to show, well, 9/11 came and left, Iraq happened and then didn’t. They wanted to say, look Islam took Aristotle out of the Dark Ages. We’re the original Europeans because we’re the direct Greek descendants. They were tired of talking about fasting in their workplaces. Hiding their religion like an anonymous package from an online sex shop. They didn’t want to explain every time they’d need 5 minutes, not for a rollie, but for a quickie prayer. They had disposable income from corporate jobs, unattainable a generation ago. So the beard became a symbol of their purchasing capital. They’d wear bright socks with tweed jackets, twirl their moustaches, go to curated Muslim supper clubs and read Rumi’s Masnavi in speciality printed folio editions while listening to Erica Badu and drinking kombucha. The sneaky Muslim drink, with trace amounts of alcohol. The moral grey area. God’s not going to punish you if your gut bacteria desperately needs kombucha.
Then there were the barbershops in Hackney and Dalston, where East London hipsters and Muslim men briefly intersected, and for a moment, walking down the street and looking through the windows, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Yet, there is a crucial difference. The Muslim man dressed up, fashioning himself on a GQ model, a renaissance man. He’d show his career aspirations and his marriage eligibility with tortoiseshell glasses and embroidered lapels. The hipster dressed down, with white T-shirts and ripped jeans, revealing a neo-coal-mine aesthetic, which declared, I might as well do some real labour. Together, they shared shoes, patent leather, polish, and an unhealthy fixation with the cutthroat razor. Together, they felt completely misunderstood.
All this is necessary to understand the genealogy of Kazim’s beard because while it is large, it is also unmanicured. Another generational difference. Because while the hipsters and the Muslim men took great pains to landscape their beards with speciality oils and combs, without realising that what they were doing was exactly what the Colonial English did so well – shape their gardens, exercise complete control over nature in an unnatural way. The colonisation of their faces by this strangely shaped unshapely hedge was continuing a ritual of homoerotic manliness. I have a confession, in 2014, I grew a beard as well. And I soon learned, it was universally disliked by every person I spoke to about it.
Reason 1: Extended close contact with the beard causes rash.
Reason 2: Too big a beard says a guy wants to be big.
Reason 3: Can’t grow a beard, jealousy, Freud isn’t dead.
I’m not an authority. Not on East London hipsters that moved into former matchbox warehouses. Nor on Muslim men, who purchased 1-bed flats in Canary Wharf with views of the Thames and hookahs ordered from Morocco.
It wasn’t long before I shaved the beard, after sampling the experience of male bonding through grooming.
Now there’s Kazim. It’s 2022 and I’m sitting in a pub in Dalston with Jane and in 10 minutes there’s an open mic. I’m drinking a Peroni because it’s the only beer I recognise from the tyranny of IPAs and Pale Ales. Kazim walks on stage, omg, the style. Man’s wearing a hoodie and tracks and all I can see is his enormous beard and the contrast with the rest of his body. Skinny legs, bony jaw. The beard is propping him up, holding him. It’s 2022, and even the Muslim men have reverted to the queer moustache, but now there’s Kazim. This is a large beard, a beard that says you actually don’t care anymore. A depression beard. A beard that you take to a TikTok transformation video and an influencer pays for your haircut, hotel room, new suit, and you go on staged interviews as you try to pull your life out of yourself.
He holds the mic like it’s the first physical contact he’s had in months.
Test. 1. 2. 3. Paakistaan.
Oh. no. It’s going to be one of those poets. Pakistani in England. PakLand and so on. But his voice – it grizzles like stubble. He’s likely never left the combination of streets, shops, and millennial discs that he grew up on. His voice says I’m going to kill you good, or I have to kill to say these words.
You’re thinking what’s a guy like me doing up here
With a beard and your ex’s leftover clothes
The self-reflection. Immediate. Spectacular. I turn to Jane, but I can see she’s also in it. We didn’t come for the poetry, it was an accident. Jane’s my best friend. We met at a writing workshop in Stoke-on-Trent. Jane would normally never go to Stoke. But it was a prestige writers’ workshop, affiliated with Iowa so she came for Iowa in Stoke. None of us but Jane could write, and that pissed her off. Not that she couldn’t write, but that she was in a group of people that weren’t as good as her. She liked the feeling of being the underdog, and of barriers that people told her she couldn’t cross. Then there was us. We wrote with the grammar of foreign language students. The stylistic choices of people still reading 19th-century novels. But Jane was different. She’d been holding in her words for so long, they were now like bullets, finely understood, precisely delivered. Jane liked me because of how I tried and failed to write as she did. I think there was something she respected in hard work and disappointment. All this is about Jane, but through Jane I realised my imposter syndrome – how I was always on the lookout for the next best thing.
Jane mumbles, “He’s good.”
I ask, “Do you think he’s gay?”
“Just shut up and listen.”
“But what he’s doing to those words.”
She doesn’t say anything, but I do listen. He’d be more attractive if at least he trimmed the beard, so it didn’t attack his upper face. But the poems. They draw from Nickolodean culture, pop references, working-class pain, interracial relationships, and Muslim inside jokes.
At intermission, I turn to Jane again,
“I want to write like that.”
“You write fine as you are.”
After our sessions, we’d go on walks around bruised canals. We’d tiptoe around ultra-nationalists, and Jane would adopt this maternalising tone, comforting me in the way she needed for herself. But I much preferred the criticism she stored for others. I thought I deserved that. But Jane’s quiet now, hushed over Kazim. His words are rumbling inside her.
“How does he do it?”
“I think this is a case of performance-based self-esteem.”
Jane’s theory of constructing sentences is the following: create a sentence, then hammer it over and over again, wait until the heat cools and then next.
I look at Kazim. Then at Jane. More than his poems, more than her persistence, I want the ability to disappear. Into fictions. Like a complete beard, a total landscape – an ideology spreading, removing the last stroke of individualism. Like a culture – bringing men who want to be minor gods and men who worship gods together in barbershops that smell of Dettol and too many mirrors.
After we leave Jane tells me to keep my chin up. I drink so much that I feel better about giving up on God.
I spend the next week researching Kazim online, looking for anything problematic. Some lurking misogyny, some curated darkness that isn’t entirely visible. But he’s spotless, I can’t see anything glaringly wrong with his way of looking at the world. Even his poems, balance real vulnerability with comedy and self-awareness. They aren’t hetero poems about metaphysics and desire. They aren’t about look-at-me singing my song, but about a deep alienation that’s actually in service for others. He gives shape to his pain, wrangling it into something beautiful. And the beard. That’s an honest beard. That’s a beard that says I’m too busy living my life to think about what you think of me.
I want to ask Kazim, how do you do it? Is it the beard?
Soon I realise my life isn’t a poem. In my every day, there’s no quietly specific emotional language making jokes. There’s no part of me that’s like a beard, curled like a secret web. There’s just quiet. So I fill my head with music and podcasts. So I can hear other people singing and talking, so there is no confrontation with myself.
After a few weeks, I’ve got a new beard, a new writing workshop, and up on stage, I don’t want to say this too loud, but religion.