The Beardby Brandon Edmonds / 19.01.2010
We drew. The Basil D trophy is where it should be. Strauss is ‘jaded’ and has foregone the captaincy, Smith made a stump mic fart, Trott & Pietersen seemed ambivalent being ‘home’, and the work-horse Ntini has finally been shown the thanks-but-you’re-done door. It was a good summer Test series, without ever being a great one. Your mind wandered in the heat. Slow over rates and injured show bowlers meant long patches of not much of anything really. The highlight for me was that Dale Steyn fifty in Durban. Kid can bat yo! Oh I also noticed, in one of those languid heat-wrung reveries induced by the five-day game, Hashim Amla at silly mid-off quite a bit. He took Strauss early I think. An unmistakeable figure up close, thanks to that beard.
A beard that puts him in a highly visible category: the ‘good Muslim’. His beard shows deference to the apparently bearded Prophet Mohammed. It is fist-long in length in accordance with the dictates of Islamic customary law. The beard professes Amla to be a believer. As does his behaviour on the field. Amla is one of a diminishing league of gentlemen who will walk well before the diktat of an umpire’s finger. His conduct is immaculate, his nightlife irreproachable. Everything Andrew Symonds and Herschelle Gibbs are not.
The ‘good Muslim’ is an increasingly urgent figure in contemporary media. We have a surplus of ‘bad Muslims’ from Taliban ‘insurgents’ and Yemeni Shi’a ‘rebels’ to militants, separatists, and outright terrorists. You can be sure the image onscreen being relayed by an unmanned US fighter drone in rural Pakistan to a classified command bunker in Michigan, say, is of a ‘bad Muslim’ deemed worthy of liquidation by Oom Sam. We know only 10% of Guantanamo inmates are remotely ‘high value’ in the parlance of US intelligence agencies, the rest rounded up under suspicion of ‘Al Qaeda affiliations’ and, no doubt, tell-tale Amla beards. The uproar over commentator Dean Jones’ aside, thinking he was off-air, in Sri Lanka, in 2006, calling blameless Hashim ‘a terrorist’, points, besides everything else, to the goodwill Amla enjoys as the embodiment of a ‘good Muslim’. So that’s the geo-political dimension of his facial adornment, what are its resonances closer to home?
Well, I’d like to take us back to the 1950s.
Rock Hudson had a beard. Her name was Phyllis. He married her to seem hetero. It was a business decision. She was his ‘beard’, a term, meaning, in gay sub-culture, someone who stands-in for the lover you cannot reveal thanks to an unenlightened public, someone whose appearance lies to keep a secret. Cruel rumour suggests Katie is Tom’s beard, as is Oprah’s Stedman. We might expand the notion and call Jeremy Cronin a ‘beard’ for the SACP – providing a semblance of left-wing integrity when really the party has long broken with genuinely progressive social currents in our society in return for crumbs from the ruling ANC. Vavi is a Cosatu beard, covering for rampant co-option and a miserably bereft reserve army of labour. Malema a ‘beard’ for the ‘unproductive’ moral transfer of a smidgeon of white wealth into black hands, coughing up ‘black diamonds’, splintering the powerful unity of Apartheid era dissent, and so on.
Try it, it’s fun.
Where were we? Amla! Yes, he has suffered the stigma of the quota system. The quota system makes ‘beards’ of raced players. They are made to answer for questions of history and inequality that go far beyond the trajectory of their individual careers or native talents. That Amla has transcended this burden with such a light touch and belief intact (beard righteously unruffled) is a testament again to his positive status as a highly visible ‘good Muslim’. His ‘otherness’ is quite marginal, given our African majority, and his presence and popularity help show a way out of the xenophobia our working class communities, hungry for services, desperate for jobs, sadly turn to for quick-fix answers to marginalisation. Xenophobia all too often violently played out on the bodies of Somali Muslims, who are shopkeepers and merchants in townships.
Finally, given the pressing social importance of Amla’s signifying power as a ‘good Muslim’, what the hell is he doing at silly mid-off? The position demeans him. It traditionally goes to the youngest member of the team, the guy with the shortest track-record; it’s a rite of passage position suggesting ‘outsider status’. You have to pay your dues up close, take your knocks, and prove your grit.
Only then can you migrate to the relative idyllic quiet of the boundary. Silly mid-off is a position that short-circuits the individual talent of the player simply due to the vicious temporality of proximity – in other words, you’re so close to the bat all you can do is react and hope the ball ‘sticks’. The silliness of the position lies in its relying on ‘good hands’. This is cricket-speak for instinct. Instinct overrides skill in this position. What is this avowedly white, born-again Christian team revealing about itself, putting its ‘good Muslim’ there?