In a quiet, dusty alleyway in Coptic Cairo, a toddler, barely 3, cries mercilessly as he was forced to get a tattoo.
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.
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.
They wear their iconic crosses proudly, around their necks and in their skin.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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