‘As a teenager, I read a book by Richard Dawkins on atheism. I barely understood English and it took me years to finish, but when I did, I was convinced: there is no God.

I felt manipulated by Islam, which to me is a doctrine: work, marry, procreate, pray, and die. There is no prospect of a better future, only this mantra of lies and the promise of life after death. Most Muslim societies are extremely self-righteous, without any room for difference. I couldn’t tell anyone I was an atheist. It would have been suicidal. So I started rebelling in a quiet way. By listening to Jimmy Hendrix and Bob Dylan, who told me I could be free, and I secretly ate during Ramadan. I grew my Afro and my beard, both signs of rebellion. I didn’t want to be a slave anymore. People started to talk.

‘I couldn’t tell anyone I was an atheist. It would have been suicidal’

One night I fled. Because I didn’t have a visa, I went to Spain by boat, illegally. I risked my life to have a life. We capsized and I saw ten men drown. I was in the water for hours and finally managed to reach the shore. I ended up on Tarifa Beach, a nudist beach. I immediately took off my clothes so that the police would think I was a regular beachgoer. I asked an older woman for water, who laughed when I finished the whole bottle. I told her: “Last night when you were getting ready for the beach, I was getting ready to die.” She brought me to her villa, gave me clothes and treated me as her son. But it soon felt constricting and I left.

Image: Elvin Boer

My journey took me to Madrid, where I slept on the streets. I began to sell drugs and steal designer clothes from shops. I became a playboy, I went to clubs and fucked around. With my dreads and my stubble beard, I was a much-wanted stud. I loved the attention. For the first time in my life I felt seen. If the police had caught me, they would have deported me. But I felt free. Or at least, I thought I was free.

I fell in love with a girl, and I told her everything. That my life was a lie and everything I owned was stolen. She left me and I was heartbroken. I had gone to Spain to be free, but now I realised that I was still a slave. Not of Islam, but of my own desires. I was harming other people and myself, and it had to stop.

‘Having a beard is a way to be real and true to who I am’

Luck was on my side. A model talent scout spotted me, and I became a model for XD. I got a visa, a salary, and a place to live. After a few years I went back to Morocco for the holidays and met a girl from Germany called Anna. We married within a month and moved to Berlin.

Berlin is home. Here it is not about what you own but who you are. People do what they want to do here, they are themselves. There is art everywhere. Berlin is a place where you can grow older without growing old. I became spiritual, but without the dogmas. I went to an Ashram, got three diplomas, and became a meditation teacher, a jewellery maker, and a cameraman.

Nature doesn’t give you anything without a reason. Everything has a purpose. For me, having a beard is a way to be close to nature, to be real and true to who I am. It is no coincidence that holy men are always represented with a beard. In my wild days, my appearance was a way to stand out and get validation. Now I no longer need other people to see me, I see myself.’

Image: Elvin Boer