Expertly manicured mustaches seem to be ubiquitous among Iraqi men, particularly those in Saddam Hussein’s inner circle. Is the hirsuteness a Saddam-mandated requirement or merely part of Iraqi tradition?
Mostly the latter. Iraqi men have taken tremendous pride in their mustaches since at least the 16th century, when the whisker-loving Ottomans ruled the region. The bushier the better is the general rule of thumb, as mustache thickness is believed to be directly proportional to masculinity. As Newsday correspondent Matthew McAllester noted in an Iraqi mustache primer last October, an impressive man is often complimented with the adage “an eagle could land on his mustache.”
Mustaches also serve as metaphors for personal honor. Iraqi men will swear on them, much as many Americans will swear on a Bible, and to tug a rival’s mustache is tantamount to a glove-slap in the face. Early Wednesday, in fact, at an Islamic summit in Doha, Qatar, an Iraqi official insulted a Kuwaiti heckler by shouting, “Curse be upon your mustache, you traitor!”
Saddam Hussein’s preference for a Stalin-esque mustache has only increased the look’s popularity, of course. During the Iran-Iraq War, young conscripts were urged to grow Saddam-like facial hair—partly in homage to their president and partly to differentiate themselves from the Iranian troops, who favored ayatollah-inspired beards. Given Saddam’s suspicion of nonconformists, not to mention his wild megalomania, soldiers are well-advised to mimic the dictator’s grooming habits—which reportedly include frequent dye jobs, to fight off unflattering gray.