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Culture Shock In Cairo: I Watched A 5-Year-Old Boy Get A Tattoo

In a quiet, dusty alleyway in Coptic Cairo, a toddler, barely 3, cries mercilessly as he was forced to get a tattoo.

A toddler cries in pain as his father holds him down and a young man tattoos his wrist

A toddler cries in pain as his father holds him steady and a young man tattoos his wrist

His cries are painful, his shrieks pleading as he got the Coptic Cross tattooed on his wrist from a makeshift tattoo stall hidden in the alleyway. Tears roll down his cheeks and dissolve into his snot. His father lovingly holds him down, gently but forcefully. Around him, his mother and siblings, are beaming proudly at his rite of passage. It is a proud day for the family, all of them have the same blurry cross inked on their wrist, a testament to their loyalty to Coptic Christianity. And now, it is the youngest’s turn.

A church in Coptic Cairo

One of the many breathtaking churches nestled in Cairo’s conservative Coptic community

Theirs is a minority religion in Egypt, one that has been the victim of church bombings by religious zealots. But the attacks have not stopped them from practising and displaying their cherished faith.

The Coptic Cross displayed in a church

The Coptic Cross displayed in a church, the same one that is tatooed on their wrists

They wear their iconic crosses proudly, around their necks and in their skin.

Family members crowd around the baby boy as the tattooing and the crying continues

Family members crowd around the baby boy as the tattooing and the crying continues

The tattoo artist inking the toddler is still going through puberty himself. The teenager holds the toddler’s arm firmly to make sure it doesn’t move too much as the toddler struggles. A steady hand, both the tattoo artist’s and the toddler’s, is crucial for a good tattoo. The teen looks like he knows what he is doing, this is not his first ‘Baby’s First Cross’.

An adult man getting a picture of Virgin Mary tattooed on his arm at the roadside tattoo stall

Men queueing for their turn at the roadside tattoo stall

Next to him, a chain-smoking old man tattoos an elaborate portrait of Virgin Mary on the forearm of a handsome man in pain. The handsome man cringes with every piercing of the needle, his sunglasses covering the wince in his eyes. He too, sports the same blurry cross that he got as a baby on his wrist.

The tattoo artists smokes a cigarette as he tattoos a customer

The chainsmoking tattoo artists does not let his addiction gets into the way of his work

Hot, grey ash dangle dangerously from a cigarette lightly perched between the chain-smoking old man’s lips. He is now on to his second customer. He looks at his new canvas with full concentration, slowly filling in one line at a time.The cigarette ash and smoke dance dangerously close to the red, hot, skin still raw and tender from the tattoo.  Behind him, a murmur of Arabic, the cooing consolation from the toddler’s family, and the mechanical buzzing of the tattoo pen break the silence of the alleyway.

The tattoo stall in Coptic Cairo is located in an open alleyway and is exposed to the sun and dust

Exposed to the sun, sand and dust

I stare incredulously at the normalcy of a roadside tattoo ‘parlour’, at the normalcy of a toddler getting inked. Around me, a group of men waits patiently for their turn to wear their religion on their arms. This is one scene is one that will forever be tattooed in my mind.

Read more from Egypt:

Egypt: The Rich, The Poor, And The Resilient
Egypt Is An Onion And Other Backpacking Tips
23 Curious Things To Notice When Travelling Egypt

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