WHAT’S UNDERNEATH THAT TURBAN?

March 31, 2010

Though I have been a fighter pilot and carry an iPod, I also wear a turban. When I visit my children and grandchildren in North America, I am often stopped by people who ask if I am a Muslim.

Group Captain Tejwant Singh in the uniform of the Indian Air ForceIt’s my turban that they notice, not my business suit or my perfect English. Why is the turban such a flash point for Americans? Perhaps it’s because Nostradamus’s vision of the Anti-Christ features a man in a blue turban. “Out of the country of Greater Arabia shall be born a strong master of Mohammad. He will enter Europe wearing a blue turban. He will be the terror of mankind.”

The American assumption that all turban wearers are Muslim terrorists is wrong. You can identify a man’s religion and country of origin by his turban but you will see that what is important is not what you see, but what you don’t see. The next time you pass a man in a turban, ask yourself, “What is under his turban?”

Under the turban of a Sikh from North India is very long hair because Sikhs never cut their hair. They coil it and then wrap it up with a strip of cloth. Hindus from South India, on the other hand, shave their heads before wrapping it up in a turban. Indians from both the North and the South usually wind the cloth anew for each wearing.

Underneath a Muslim’s turban, the hair can be of any length. First the Muslim puts on a skullcap, called in Arabic tarboosh or in Farsi kullah. Then he wraps the cloth around it to hold it in place.

Drawing of Iranian man in black turbanA Taliban Afghani's TurbanIn Iran, the turban, called a dulband, is either black or white. In Afghanistan, many  leave a length of fabric hanging down from the turban so that they can shield themselves from sand blowing in their faces.

Scholars from many religions have traditionally worn turbans over their skullcaps. The white turban is worn by the most pious Muslims, and the green turban identifies a hajii, a pilgrim who has been to Mecca.

In Judaism the turban marks a Torah scholar. Even today the  daily prayer recited by observant Jews includes a benediction praising God “Who crowns Israel with glory,” originally recited as one was wrapping the turban around his head.

The Sikhs will wear turbans forever, but the future of the turban elsewhere is uncertain. As it is worn less in Asia and Africa, it is seen more and more on supermodels, on Iranian clerics and Afghan sheikhs in the news, and in the spring collections of Miucca Prada, H& M and Ralph Lauren. Perhaps an ancient tradition will be made new again.

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