In Egypt, A Flourishing Culture Of Tattoos Tests Taboos

In Egypt, A Flourishing Culture Of Tattoos Tests Taboos

CAIRO â€" "Everyone wants a tattoo now in Egypt," says 23-year-old Kareem Shaheen as he sits on his bed sketching the outline of a flash of lightning.

Shaheen started to tattoo less than a year ago under the name "Monkey Tattoo," and hopes to open the first street tattoo studio in Cairo.

"People relate getting a tattoo to freedom," he says, "It’s something just for you."

Orne Gil arrived in Egypt in 2012 and has spent the last four years creating Nowhereland Tattoo Studio in Zamalek, contributing to a growing tattoo subculture in a country where this form of body art is taboo for some.

The practice has evolved, as is evident in the design choices Gil’s clients make. When she first started working in the country, she used to receive requests for small, simple tattoos â€" often a copy of a tattoo similar to that of someone famous â€" but now, she says, things are changing and people are more creative.

"People often come to their appointments either with a bad design, or with no ideas at all," says Shaheen, the former manager of Nowhereland.

"After talking to them and showing them books, pictures and ideas, they often choose differently," he says, adding that up until four years ago this kind of tattoo art was relatively unknown.

A type of tattooing has been widely used in the Christian Coptic community for years. The small black cross many Copts wear on their wrists is an indelible mark of their faith, an identifying symbol in a nation where they are a minority. With time, this Coptic tattoo tradition is also evolving, with many young people opting for bolder, less traditional designs.

Sherif, a 35-year-old lighting designer, just got his first tattoo. "People often stare at me in the streets," he says. "But lots of things are changing, from girls driving motorbikes or sitting in cafés smoking shisha, to the way we dress.""

"One day I was in the metro and a man grabbed my arm, twisting it strongly to check if my tattoo was real or not," says Shaheen. "I would like to have piercings and more tattoos, but I don’t know if I can handle the behaviour of people in the streets."

Gil started a tattoo convention in Cairo in 2014, bringing together a number of Egyptian tattoo artists on a small scale. A year later, she organized the Cairo International Tattoo Convention, held over two days in November and involving 18 tattoo artists from Chile, Spain, Turkey, Russia and Egypt.

Many places refused to hold the convention and people had little idea of what it would entail, she says, explaining that some attendees either wanted temporary tattoos or expected free body art as part of their entrance fee. One of her biggest concerns was security, she says, fearing police would shut down the event.

Gil says the convention was a huge success and beyond her expectations. "People had a chance to talk with the artists and choose their tattoos," she says.

"At this is no longer just about breaking taboos, whether religious or social. Younger generations are looking for something more," says Gil.

Esraa al-Mowafy, a 21-year-old student, sits in Nowhereland studios before getting her first tattoo despite being worried about the reaction from her parents. "Egyptian youth are, without a doubt, becoming more open," she says. "We have more understanding about other cultures. We are more rebellious regarding traditions and restrictions because we are trying to give ourselves a better chance to choose, to be ourselves and act freely."

*Some names have been changed at the request of those involved.

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Dutch Cities Have Been Secretly Probing Mosques Since 2013

Revelations of a nationally funded clandestine operation within 10 municipalities in the Netherlands to keep tabs on mosques and Muslim organizations after a rise in radicalization eight years ago.

The Nasser mosque in Veenendaal, one of the mosques reportedly surveilled

Meike Eijsberg

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Photo of people standing on prayer mats inside a Dutch mosque

Praying inside a Dutch mosque.


Broken trust in Islamic community

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talk to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

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