Last month in Kabul, a man posing as a Taliban peace emissary managed to pass checkpoints, iron gates, and security guards with explosives tucked away in the folds of his turban, on his way to meet former President Burhanuddin Rabbani in his home.
Mr. Rabbani, head of the High Peace Council in Afghanistan, offered his guest a welcoming hug and unsuspectingly triggered the deadly bomb. Similarly, in July, the mayor of Kandahar, Ghulam Haider Hamidi, and a few days earlier, a top religious leader in southern Afghanistan, were assassinated by bombs concealed in turbans. The latter detonated in a mosque.
It is as though life is imitating art and these terrorists are acting out the Danish cartoons that prompted violent, sometimes deadly riots in more than a dozen Islamic countries in 2006. At the heart of the violent fury was an offensive representation of the turban. Some of the 12 controversial cartoons conjoined the turban with the sword, or with its modern counterpart, the bomb. This was identified by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, then the Danish prime minister, as his country’s worst international crisis since World War II.
The turban, like the veil, predates Islam. Never mentioned in the Koran, it appears more than 20 times in the Old Testament as a symbol of prophecy among the Israelites. “He set the turban on his head, and on the turban, in front, he set the golden plate, the holy crown, as Yahweh commanded Moses” (Leviticus 8:9).
Putting on the turban, however, evolved into a synonym for conversion to Islam. It became the signal vestment of the Prophet Muhammad, who is frequently quoted in the hadith literature as saying, “My community shall not fall away so long as they wear the turban.”
For centuries, Muslims identified this headgear as a symbol of honor, dignity, piety and distinction. According to a number of authoritative Islamic narratives, all major religious figures, beginning with Adam, were turbaned. So were the angels. Islamic painting abounds in depictions of prophets, kings, and political dignitaries whose crowns of hair are fully covered. The turbans come in different fabrics, colors, shapes, styles and sizes. At times, they are works of art in themselves, with long or short trailing ends, adorned with jewelry, decorated with feathers, embroidered with peacocks and ostriches.
During the 1920s, reformist politicians in Iran and Turkey banned the turban. They viewed it as a sign of reactionary obscurantism, an obstacle to modernity. But many men, especially clerics, defiantly refused to remove their turbans. They viewed the prohibition as blasphemous and as irreverent as the unveiling of women. Some successfully resisted these decrees and ultimately received a dispensation from the government to continue wearing their turbans.
My grandfather was one such renegade. I vividly recall, as a toddler, hiding in the welcoming folds of his brown cloak every time he visited our home. Ever so gently, he would invite me out of my fortress, as he reached into the labyrinthine recesses of his black turban — his magician’s box — and produced not a bird, but a bird’s egg.
I had started talking late as a child, and when I finally did, it was an indecipherable mumbo-jumbo. Quail eggs, it was believed at the time, would help children who were late talkers reach their verbal milestones. My grandfather brought me those delicate and therapeutic eggs, nestled in his turban. It is there, in the fold of his turban, that my first words, like my first memories, were hatched.
It is painful to think of my grandfather’s turban as the headgear of choice for villains in popular books and films, like the blockbuster animated movie “Aladdin”; the educational children’s television program “The Electric Company”; or the international bestseller “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” And it is distressing to listen to people who call it “a diaper on the head,” or who view it as a marker of terrorism, a flag separating “us” from “them.” But it is most difficult to see Muslims use the life-affirming turban as a tool of destruction and death, desecrating that revered symbol, the treasure in my memory trove, the key to my locked tongue.
Farzaneh Milani, chairwoman of the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia and the author of, most recently of, Words, Not Swords: Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement.