This short story originally appeared in our CRIME issue, and we re-run it this August as part of Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth):
Hair or no Hair
By Raghad Qasim
Translated by Zeena Faulk
I witnessed the birth of their first, or at least we think it was their first. At the time, I was still a student in the Department of Obstetrics at the Higher Institute of Medicine in Baghdad. I was just two months short of my nineteenth birthday when we began training in the maternity ward at Baghdad University Hospital. I was one of the first to hold a no-hair baby. We didn’t think it was an extraordinary occurrence, since many newborns have very little hair at birth. Nothing concerning about it at all. But worry began to seep in after children completed their first year with no sign of hair— and I mean not one single hair—on their heads. Over the next five years, there were only about thirty cases of no-hair children all across Iraq. But that number has since changed steadily. Today, sixty years later, you cannot find ten children in the whole country who were born with hair on their heads. In a few rare cases, newborns may come out with some hair, but it vanishes before they turn ten.
The no-hair phenomenon certainly has a backstory. They say that the Iraqi people suffered such dreadful circumstances in the past century that they lost their hair. You could not find a single Iraqi man pushing forty with hair left on the head. Neither were the women spared—to the point that they spent their entire salaries on hair-strengthening treatments. They even fell for patchiness-covering tresses, and finally to wigs. The doctors who examined the men and women who experienced hair loss suggested that the condition was caused by worry and stress, not least because of the frequent wars and psychological stressors of that time. And on people went, continuing to spend all their wages on hair products. That’s what I remember from my childhood and youth.
These days, hair products are simply unsaleable stock. No one falls for such scams any more. In fact, the import of these products has ceased altogether. It is easier for those with a small quantity of hair to simply shave it off. Women are no longer coerced into wearing headscarves as long as they shave the remaining strands from their heads, a development that rendered some of my friends exceptionally content. But not me!
For some damn reason, I refused to let go of my hair, a decision that shocked me before it did other people. Nonetheless, I insisted and loudly vowed that I would keep my hair. And this is why the gates of hell have opened wide before me.
But on the afternoon of that day—when I was on the birthing ward—my hair was short. I had it always cut like a boy to please my mother. Fearing the looks of the covetous would jinx me, she urged me to put on a headcover, but I declined. The no-hair progression had not yet laid its hand on me, and my hair looked healthy and grew like weeds. Yes, it grew crazily, as quickly as other people’s hair fell away. It was rare, I should add, that I lost a single hair.
I was first to see that hairless newborn and to carry him to the nurse whose job it was to look him over. I felt he was odd, with his relentless, angry staring at my face from the moment he emerged from his mother’s womb. That frightened me. I felt he was particularly fixated on only me, of all the medical professionals in the birthing room—staring intently at my hair with such anger that I felt like a pitiless felon. This little oddball did not loosen his gaze from my hair as long as I held him. He looked downright wrathful as he whimpered with fright. This newborn was already judging me, even before the mess of afterbirth had been wiped from his body.
One year later, the child’s mother brought him back. He was still giving me that bizarre look, a prolonged stare straight at my hair. He tried to reach out an arm to touch my hair—maybe to uproot it all by himself. That day, I was standing next to the doctor who examined him in order to record his medical data. His poor mother wailed nonstop. She whispered to the doctor that the boy gave her the creeps and was always shooting her angry looks. She was concerned about how early he had begun to speak and about his no-hair head, the gleam of which hurt the eye. The mother wanted the doctor to prescribe some drug that could help seed some hair on his head. The doctor explained that she was unable to give anything to a child of his age and condition. As long as the child’s health was in good shape, she continued, there was no need to be concerned. However, the doctor prescribed an antidepressant for the mother and, after they left, informed me that the mother was suffering from a classic case of postpartum depression.
I did not agree with the doctor. I could see clearly why the mother was concerned, and since that day, I never again had my hair cut. It did not matter what people said about me or what rules the country followed. Nothing in the world could persuade me to cut my hair. And now, after all these years, I drag behind my tall figure thick white hair that sweeps the floor. I feel as if I am a tree and my locks are my deep, thrusting roots. The only difference is that I have a bit more freedom than a tree to move around in my own spot. That’s all.
When I hit forty, I was forced to retire, after I had refused to shave my head, which was a violation of the country’s new laws. I was even accused of discriminating against people who had pale, hairless heads. My charges were read to me in court and they included—alongside those mentioned earlier—unambiguous lack of sympathy towards others, a lack that robbed me of the desire to give up on this filth that we called “hair.” The charges also alluded to my obvious failure to understand the extent of oppression that no-hair people had experienced throughout our history. By growing my hair, maintaining it uncut, and spending large sums of money on its upkeep, I helped nobody except those with capitalistic interests, who transformed people into avid consumers—consumers who would waste wealth on goods that enriched no one and did not feed the poor. Against this logical backdrop, my determination to keep any hair that did not fall from my head was in violation of the rights of the no-hair advocates among the men and women of my country. I was seen as immoral and, at the same time, a threat to civic peace. I stood as a catalyst that gradually and persistently weakened the constitution of society.
In response to the charges, I explained that I washed my hair solely with water and that I did not waste any sort of fortune on its maintenance. I explained that I, like everyone else, hated capitalism and consumerism, and that I had been wearing the same shoes now for many years. And thus one person turned to accuse me of wasting water at a time when the nation was suffering from drought. I realized then that I would fail to convince them no matter what I said. As a punishment, I was forced to retire and made to pay a high fine.
Five years later, I was summoned to court as, once again, another party filed a lawsuit against my hair. The judge decided I had only two options: either I shaved off my hair or I covered it completely, because of how greatly it disturbed the city’s residents. I showed the judge the receipt for the fine I had paid five years earlier, which gave me the right to keep my hair. The judge decided, however, that the fine was not high enough. I decided then to cover my hair and, from that day, I went outside only sporadically. Shortly before the trial, I lost my husband and my only daughter in a car accident, which made the judge show me a little compassion. I was told that his sentences were usually more severe.
Ironically, another judge came to preside over the courthouse in my city, and my case was re-opened, set for a new trial. My trial, and those of a few “hairy” women like me, were broadcast live. Calls from angry people were also live, and they cursed us directly on air. When the judge saw my hair, he asked only one question:
Judge: Will you shave your head?
I answered his question calmly.
The judge immediately ordered an end to my retirement and put me under house arrest until death. He also appointed a female guard to give me food and make sure I did not leave the house for any reason. I tried to appeal the sentence, but there was no attorney willing to defend my case. Every lawyer I spoke to said I was lucky to be jailed in my own home and not in a prison cell.
They were right, I thought. To be imprisoned inside a house was much better than being in one of what I called the “white houses” of the government apparatus. Every month, I was dragged out of my home for only one night, for a night-time interrogation with my female guard. The interview was as simple as one question: “Why don’t you shave your head?” Then, blood and hair samples were obtained from me, although for what purpose I do not know. The white houses were truly horrifying—coated inside and out in bright white. It was a strange, bright whiteness that would actually harm the vision. Everything was white: the walls, the ceilings, the floors, the chairs, the outfits of the workers, the color-correcting eyeglasses that they wore to avoid blindness due to the excessive whiteness of everything.
By now, there is nobody left with hair in the entire city, outside myself and a few old women who I occasionally see when I am taken to these interrogation sessions. It feels like it is impossible for us simply to die. We continue to be a burden on the state as long as we refuse to shave our heads. They put us under house arrest so we would not scare the young with our animal-like appearances. The authorities claim that the evolution of mankind began only after humans lost the hair on their bodies. And here is our species, once again evolving by losing the hair on our heads. Who am I to go against evolution? Yet I could not let go of my hair, no matter how hard I tried to be one of the “no-hair people,” as they called themselves. I had often listened to my family—particularly my mother, my husband, and my daughter, who endured bullying at school—and agreed to cut it. But I always went back on my word at the very last minute.
I have been living under house arrest for the past fifteen years. I am not allowed to pop my head out, not even from the main gate. I am not allowed to turn on the television, nor to use the internet. I spend my day weaving my hair into long, thin braids. I weave all day long until the day ends. The next day, I go back and undo all the thin braids, and then re-weave them again until nightfall. There used to be books around here, until they were banned. I cannot say that I miss them because I never was a good reader.
The female guard continues to watch me all day, and she gives me three small meals every day. But they are not enough to fill me. They are cold, colorless, and devoid of all taste. The guard also gives me summer and winter garments obtained at second-hand stores, free of charge. All this is for free, following the judge’s order to end my retirement benefits. I do not understand why judges care more about my hair than about the grave issues facing the nation. Today, I have no idea what is going on in the outside world. But I have no doubt that tomorrow will be more miserable than today. It is no longer possible to hear the noise that people make on the streets. You cannot even hear music, as it was banned long ago. And that is a problem; when music stops, life comes to a standstill. Young children used to peek through the windows to take a look at the “evil witch,” as they called me. They have now forgotten my existence. The guard herself appears more exhausted than I do as time passes. With her dimming no-hair head, she continues to sit at the threshold of the gate, gazing into the emptiness. Meanwhile, I hum old songs that I remember from the past and weave or unweave my hair without any boredom.
Sha’ar Aswad..Sha’ar Abiyadh was the original title of this story that Raghad Qasim wrote in 2019. Qasim works as a medical laboratory technician in Baghdad; the story is based on her observations of increasing hair loss among the patients.
Raghad Qasim is an Iraqi medical technician, writer, and translator.
Zeena Faulk is an Iraqi-American literary translator and a PhD candidate in Translation Studies at the University of Warwick. She was recently shortlisted for the Gabo Prize in Literary Translation and her translated works have appeared in Banipal, ArabLit Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, Passa Porta, among others. Her previous work includes managing editor and translator positions with the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic. She also works as an on-site interpreter for criminal courts and medical clinics throughout the United States.