Saturday, March 28, 2015

On Saving Humanity.

{If you find yourself ‘fitting’ a description in my story below, don’t assume it’s you, I have nothing against you, whoever or wherever you are}

After successfully reading several books in 2012 that I am proud to say have changed my life, I decided not to be socially active. By socially active, I mean tweeting, posting on Instagram and chatting on BBM/Whatsapp platforms. I am not going to mention Facebook, because I haven’t been active on it for many years now.

After I left Egypt (I moved to Dubai in March 2014), and I blame my wife (then fiancée), who got me an iPhone before I travel so I can be ‘connected’ again. As much as it felt good to be one click away from her, my family and friends, this freedom I was given, or in other words, power and curiosity, led me to realise that Egypt is in a sad state. In other words…Egypt is lost.

No, not due to Sisi or Ikhwan, or Om Mahmoud, or even Nola Cupcakes that opened beside my house last summer in Mohandesseen (not sure if it still exists).

In one of Chris de Burgh’s songs, he says, ‘Jerusalem is lost…Jerusalem is lost,’ and you can actually hear his sorrow, like he’s crying. This is how I felt to my beloved Egypt, and that’s why I am writing this. I feel it’s my duty.

The below are random conversations that took place on regular basis in my life:

In the late 80’s/early 90’s:
Me: What’s that?
An Egyptian Citizen: A tattoo
Me: What is it? What’s a tattoo?
An Egyptian Citizen: When people go to jail, they get a tattoo by force so people can identify them when they finish their time.
Me: Then why is this guy on the pool, clearly Egyptian, has one?
An Egyptian Citizen: For sure he’s Christian.

Mid 90’s:

Me: Wow that guy has a tattoo and he’s a Muslim, how come?!
An Egyptian Citizen: He’s gay, man. Everyone knows.

Late 90’s:
Me: Look at that guy with the tattoo. He’s a Muslim and he’s not gay! How come?
An Egyptian Citizen: Don’t you know? That guy lived most of his life in the States, so it was normal for him to get one there.

The previous conversations, took place in different shapes and forms throughout my teen years. I am sure many of you had the same ones with their friends and families. As a kid growing up, listening to rock, heavy metal and even rap, hip hop/pop, I was influenced by them all. Who didn’t want to play the guitar like ‘Slash’ from ‘Gn’R’? Who didn’t want to have a tattoo with ‘Metallica’ on their back with the M and A stretching on both sides? Even girls at the time pondered the thought of getting one of those cute TLC’s tattoos on their shoulders.
I have to admit that back then, throughout my teen life, I desperately wanted a tattoo, but I would never get one. In other words, let me put it that way, I could have never gotten one. Our parents told us it’s forbidden. That was the end to it. We knew many things were forbidden, like smoking, drugs and alcohol, but we could still consume them, get hooked on them and quit later on, all this without our parents finding out (and even when they did find out, it was always the usual fights or discussions that end up with you promising not to do it again). But how could you get away with a tattoo? Also, even if you could have gone away with it…the idea of getting one was just larger-than-life. The feelings one had back then, were out of respect and fear due to religion. Get a tattoo and live with it for the rest of my life, wow, how will God Forgive me? The act in itself to go and get a tattoo felt more of a challenge, or a dare if I am using the right word.

And who would want to challenge the Creator?

During high school and university years (96-2002), a handful of people here and there started getting tattoos. Either they had it done abroad, or at this place in Maadi, some random foreign dude, called Mike or Chuck, or maybe even Frank, I can’t remember. Also, those people were easily identified. They were either:

1-      Open minded Christians
2-      Muslims who lived abroad then moved to Egypt
3-      Gays/Bi-sexuals/Weirdos/Rebels
4-      Those who were half Egyptian and half European/Canadian/American
5-      They had gone to one of those schools CAC, AIS, BISC, DEO and Lycee Francais
6-      Finally and most importantly, 99% of them were males (the reason I’m saying 99% is because during that time frame I have only met one girl who had a tattoo, and this was during my university days (and she fits point 2 above). I believe I am in a position to say that back then I knew lots of people and lots of groups (shellal in Arabic) including many from the list of schools mentioned. Out of all those people who I knew, personally (and virtually), around only 10 Egyptians had tattoos, and they were all guys.

After we graduated from university, we ventured into our own worlds. Some of us traveled to do their masters or pursue a career. Others like my friends and I ended up taking the corporate world by storm, trying to find out where we best fit. Replacing our sneakers and jeans with suits (except those who worked in advertising), and suddenly it hits you; after sitting for hours staring at girls’ butts at the Gucci corner (AUC people would relate), or the chicks at Building G (MSA people will relate) – I’m sorry if AAST and Cairo University grads feel left out, but guys, you were left out, it’s the truth. Now we were at work, in a suit, dealing with people older than us by 5 to 20 years and ones who came from different backgrounds, environments, with other norms and beliefs. We are no longer dealing with people we knew, grew up with or from within our social level. The workplace is probably the biggest transition people encounter, and that’s why, many people keep changing jobs trying to find a place where they can ‘fit’ in without problems. And others, who failed and ended up tanning by the pool in Gezira Club. If you don’t believe me, try going to the club on a work day at 11 am. Go to the pool and you will find it packed. Go again at 2 pm, it will be even more packed. I have seen people without a job for years and they are happy sitting there, in their comfort zone.

As a kid, like all the other kids, I wanted a tattoo. I was never going to get one though. There are things that you do and get away with, sin and repent, etc. but getting a tattoo was something that you will have to stick with. To me, it was always the mother of all sins, worse than drinking, consuming drugs or even premarital sex. It was up there with being shagged by some dude. I never looked at the few people I knew in university who got tattoos as brave ones, or people who had guts, because not getting inked wasn’t a lack of courage from my side, on the contrary it was a strong belief towards a cause. Whenever the topic got discussed amongst my friends in our endless ahwa nights, I used to always say, ‘I want one, but I’m never doing it.’ – So getting a tattoo was something I thought I wanted, but it wasn’t even on the back of my mind. You know, it’s like craving a chocolate. I am the type of guy who never craves chocolate, but at the same time I love Bounty. If I am in a supermarket and I see a Bounty, I would say, ‘I want one’ but on most of the times, I would leave the place without buying it, not because I’m on a diet, but mainly because I had forgot I wanted one as I delved to buy the other stuff I am supposed to get; only remembering when I’m paying at the cashier or after leaving. And I never went back in for it, not a single time.

I have to admit that in the past couple of years before moving to Dubai, my perception on tattoos changed. I used to go for a swim in the club (Gezira) or when I’m at the North Coast and suddenly, it’s like I had visited Las Vegas. Either I was too much consumed with work and had no life or that everyone had a dream the night before of the ‘Pied Piper of Hamelin’ telling everyone to get a tattoo but apparently that funky piper missed out on me! Everyone had tattoos at the pool or beach but me.

Getting to see tattoos obviously then, anywhere and everywhere, made me realize that even if I didn’t believe it’s ‘haram’, I would never get one. I reached the point that every time I see one, I want to throw up. And the trend keeps on evolving. Just like owning a pug a few years back became a fad, tattoos are now the new fad. You find more places now in Egypt that are doing it. Zamalek of course has the biggest share. There is also one in Shoubra, and no, I didn’t find that out from the not-so-clever 19TwentyThree article that I came across last year (and totally against), but through a guy I worked with who went to that place in 2012. He inked his daughter’s name on his arm which also coincides with the name of his mother. Not to mention that he has his wife’s name is tattooed on his shoulder, something he had done during their honeymoon. I wonder where his dad and future children will fit next.

The problem is not right or wrong, ‘haram’ or ‘halal’ - because I truly and utterly believe it is haram. The problem in my eyes lies within the fact that we are at a time where one has no boundaries. What are your boundaries? Drinking alcohol is forbidden in all religions yet probably most of the people you know are actively drinking, same goes for smoking, premarital sex, etc. the world we’re living in now has been evolving and people have altered the do’s and don’ts according to the culture they are living in. A close friend of mine once raised a question some 13 years ago (during our ahwa nights), ‘why is it forbidden for a guy to pierce his ears?’ – Apart from the fact that in my circle of friends, we label guys with piercings as gays, we couldn’t find an answer to his question except saying that our religion forbids, because this is only an act women would do. My friend then countered with another clever question, ‘So if you’re living abroad, is it ok to have a piercing, given that it is acceptable culturally?’ – we were dumbstruck.  

Now, I know for a fact that piercings will never be an acceptable thing in Egypt. Whoever gets pierced will get harassed, and it will never be culturally acceptable. There were several guys, who throughout high school pierced their ears, tongue and eyebrows. They used to only wear it on a Thursday night when they go hang out in the renowned ‘Pergola’ in the club (Gezira), or while attending a party at ‘Queen Boat’ or ‘Le Garage’. Eventually they removed it, because they couldn’t cope with the heat back then, and they were all cowards when it came to going to a public place. (Try going to renew your car license with that earring, and if you come out with the new one, I am going to be your minion for your life). In Upper Egypt, back in the old days, at a time when it was a shame for a woman to give birth to a girl, mothers would pierce their sons’ ears for a brief period after delivering so that other women wouldn’t envy them (i.e. Adel Imam in the famous ‘Al Mouled’ movie). We also find the odd Christian here and there with a small ‘Cross’ on their wrist. Out of all the Christians I grew up with and know, I only know one with that tattoo which was forced on him by his family when he was a kid. It is an act many Christian families do, especially in Upper Egypt, because sadly they have been discriminated throughout history and it is some sort of alliance between them (rewind 15 years back and you will see cars in Egypt, driven by Christians, with a bumper sticker of a fish. It lasted for a year or two but then people got over it).

Back to our topic; since we were kids, we all got told not to drink or smoke, even the people telling us not to do so were doing it themselves. There was always the, ‘It’s bad for your health,’ ‘You’re still young,’ etc. Now my question is what happens now when all the cool people in Egypt with tattoos have kids. How will they respond when their kids ask them about tattoos? How will they respond when their kids come back from school and say that they learned today that tattoos are ‘haram’? I had friends who used to go home ask their parents who drink alcohol, why are they doing it when it’s forbidden and their parents started talking about how they used to be addicts and now they’ve cut down, or that it’s socially acceptable, or even told them in their face, ‘I’m a bad seed, don’t be like me.’ Now, what happens when your kid asks you about wanting to get a tattoo? According to the statistics, the majority of kids who grow up in a smoking environment tend to try smoking, therefore, what would stop a kid getting a tattoo when one of his parents (or even both) are already inked? What will you tell your kid? You’re too young for one? Just like smoking and drinking, there is a legal age for getting a tattoo in the USA/Europe, which is 18 years of age. Funny ha? Especially when you see people like Justin Beiber the ‘King of Pop’ as we speak, getting his first tattoo at the age of 16. But just like people smoke before they hit that ‘legal age’, the same thing is happening with tattoos now around the world. How will you be able to tell your kids that what they stand for and believe in at 13 or 25 is very different than 35 or 60? Sometimes I wonder, did people with tattoos ever think before getting inked? I mean if you stand for one thing in life and it never changed, then we could all have ‘life script’ tattoos (and face boredom on a regular basis).

Even worse, how many kids tried smoking and drinking at a young age and never tried again? Millions.

Now, what happens when a kid tries getting tattooed? It’s there for life.

Moving on, what are the boundaries of the tattoo itself? Let’s put religion aside for a second. What will you do if your kid wants to get a big fat one covering his entire body? What will you say then? Can you stop them? What if he decides to go the Mike Tyson way and do one around his eyes and face? If you’re getting a tattoo, then you might as well pick whatever part of your body you may please, right? I mean this is your tattoo, so if you want to have it on your butt or on your nose, it is your call.

It’s really a sad state in time. I never would have thought all this will happen. You might think I am over-exaggerating, but I am not. Think of it that way, in the past we used to see the foreign stars with tattoos. Now, we grow up to see our own stars in Egypt with tattoos and not to mention, everyone around us too. First it was Amr Diab who shockingly got tattoos all over his body. Now Ahmed El Fishawy thinks he is Edward Norton back in American History X, with a tattoo on his boob, another on his shoulder and a 3rd on his back. There might be more but I wouldn’t know. Menna Shalaby got a tattoo of ‘Allah’ on her arm (It’s funny how Menna could be at a cocktail party holding an alcoholic drink in her hands while ‘Allah’ is inked on her arms. It’s even worse than the guys you see at Cairo Jazz Club drinking the night away while wearing necklaces with ‘Ayat Al Kursi’ on. What’s even funnier is that I know 3 different people with ‘Allah’ tattoos, and they probably only pray in Ramadan (if they do). They are alcoholics and I can’t find the logic of it, really). Hend Sabry has got ‘Surrender’ on her feet, something that I find totally gay, but it’s not the first time I find Hend Sabry weird (people who witnessed my debate with her on Twitter four years ago will relate). Last but not least, yes, you know it’s coming…CAIROKEE!

The sad thing is that I had utter respect to all the people I mentioned above. I always rated Fishawy and Hend. Always ranked Cairokee as extremely talented individuals and I even worked with some members closely during my brief time working for the advertising agency that handles Coca-Cola ads. Amir Eid thinks he’s the new Che Guevara, or let’s say Emiliano Zapata (a Mexican revolutionary figure), and inked Zapata’s famous quote on his arm saying, ‘I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees’ (in Arabic of course – and he event translated it wrongly). I mean, c’mon, how is sick is that? Is he some sort of political figure now just because the Jan 25 song they did? Sherif El Hawary who is probably one of the best guitarists Egypt ever witnessed got two tattoos on both his arms and one dude asked him over Twitter last year, what do they resemble, and he answered saying, ‘I am fond of the Native American culture.’ Seriously, man? I am fond of history too, should I have a tattoo of Gamal Abd El Nasser on my back or maybe a quote or two from the Treaty of Versailles? 
The evolution of tattoos as well is odd. In the past, people used to have those dragons, snakes, skulls, or flames on their upper shoulder or back. Then it was those tattoos of the ‘Superman’ logo or ones that consist of Chinese characters. After that we had those lower back tattoos that were some sort of design of lines intersecting together. Moving on they started inking their necks, legs and feet. Now you have people having full quotes on their back or on their chest beside their boob, or from inside the arm under their armpits. Today, every part of your body is tattooable! You will see girls having those birds and butterflies or stars and guys having half and full sleeve tattoos of anything and everything, not to mention names on their wrists, maybe even a wedding band on their ring finger, it never stops. I remember in 2002 when someone I know got into a car accident and went through a coma for a few months, his parents realised he had a tattoo on his back/butt, something they had never known. In the past, even those who inked their bodies had some shame, you would only notice it if they went for a dip in the pool/sea, but now, it’s all about showing it off to the world. It’s like, ‘HEY! CHECK OUT MY TATTOO!!’  

Back to our topic, so yes, those places (tattoo parlours as they like to be called) keep promoting their work, each one claiming they have the best artists working for them. What do you mean by a best artist? How can there be a best artist? The fact that it’s called body art is laughable to say the least. How many tattoo artists are there in the world? Millions probably! I mean, if I am getting a tattoo, I would want the best artist in the world to do it for me. Who assured you that this place in Zamalek or Maadi or Shoubra, or the one in Vegas or Chile is any good? There will always be better, and you will always ask yourself questions like, ‘Why did I do it here when I could have done it there? ‘

And that takes us to the second point.

Tattoos are addictive! If you ask anyone with a tattoo if they would get another one (given they only have one), 8 out of 10 the answer will be yes. So if you are one of those dudes who say, I am going to get one now, the chances of getting a second or third later are high. Just like the weird guy I worked with or the people I mentioned above. Just like most of the people I know. First they got one, then they got another, and the vicious circle continues. It’s like some sort of statement to get a second one. It’s a case of once they’d got started, and knew the pain and what their bodies could stand, they say, ‘Where’s the harm in more? Like you’ve crossed a threshold so there’s nothing to stop you.

This takes me to another point, which is, people are judgmental. I work in the field of public relations and communication, and as much as I disagree with this, but people will always judge you on how you look. If I walk in a meeting wearing a slim fit suit and an Omega watch around my wrist, people will say I have class. If I walk with a regular fit suit and a Rolex watch, they will say I am rich. If I walk in with no watch at all, which is usually my case; people will say I am a stuck-up. We are all in the business of PR without knowing. I have been wearing a ‘Livestrong’ wristband for years now, only because I believed in a cause. I recently stopped wearing it, because I realised that there are many people out there who are wearing the same wristband just because it’s yellow or because they think it’s cool. One may argue and ask me, what if a group of drug addicts are wearing the same shoes as yours? Will you stop wearing them so people don’t think you are a drug addict? Of course not, because the two cases are different. When a cause intercepts with a trend, it loses its essence. When people first introduced ‘Movember’, it was for a cause. Now people all over the world are just doing it to be associated with the trend, the same goes for beards which is literally everywhere. Everyone now has a beard, it’s really baffling. So to get to my point, having a tattoo will automatically let people label you. No matter where you are, you will still be labeled and positioned in a certain way.

You wanna know what is also funny? Tattoos are not for fat people. Look around you. How many fat people do you know? I personally know a lot. How many of those have tattoos? Almost zero. You will always find the people with tattoos whether they are girls or boys, are the very fit ones, or the skinny ones, i.e. most of them are those who care about their image. I am not saying here that fat people don’t care about themselves, because I am a fat person myself and I do take proper care of how I look, but it is the fat people who are not bothered much by the latest trends. I do know quite a few fat women and men with tattoos, but they are all the sort of rebels who think they are cooler than the rest. You know, those people who think that working out and eating healthy are bad for your health? The ones who are agnostic and must debate for the sake of telling the world they exist. And this takes us to the social media part. You know all those groups of ‘Cross Fit,’ ‘TFA,’ ‘Be Fit,’ etc. in Egypt? I used to work out with them religiously. Check the people there around you, many of them are with tattoos, and when a teenage kid or someone who is looking for motivation to exercise checks their Instagram profile or Facebook page and see THAT guy/girl who’s very fit with a tattoo, the poor person will associate the sport with the ink, just like we kids associated heavy metal and rock music with smoking and drinking. The media (social media in that case) gives you the whole package. We all went through the stages; you want to be a great guitarist like Slash then you must have a cigarette in your mouth, you will never understand Pink Floyd’s music if you don’t get high, if you want to look cool for your school prom or at a wedding then you must have a big fat cigar, etc. And now, as it stands, if you want to go to the gym or join one of those group based exercises, then your body will only look better if you also get a tattoo.

In the past, getting a tattoo was some sort of statement, and probably that’s why I wanted one. To be cool. We all heard stories that tattoos were only for prisoners in the past, so that the public can spot them later when they are released. This was true. In other places, even the US included, it was for gangs, bikers and there was even a time when basketball players had none, YES NONE! It was less than 20 years ago when Allen Iverson and Dennis Rodman had visible tattoos and back then people found it weird, can you believe it? Now all the NBA players are inked. All the football players are inked. I remember a time when I used to watch the WWE as a kid and would rarely find someone with a tattoo. I remember a time when the metal bands from the 80s had one or two tattoos between them - and these were the rock stars at the time.

Do you know that the Brazil team who won the World Cup in 1994 and the one that reached the 98 World Cup Finals had no tattoos (at least at the time itself)? The team that won the World Cup in 2002 had 6 players with tattoos (out of a squad that consists of 23 players). Now the team that we all watched in last year’s World Cup all had tattoos except 6.

David Beckham, who had more hairstyles than Lady Gaga, and at almost 40 years old, still advertising for underwear, has definitely helped in the popularity of tattoos. Last month, Zlatan Ibrahimovic decided to ink 50 names on his body for the UN Food Programme and everyone praised him. The brainwashing continues. There are now annual tattoo conventions and world conferences. It is like. ‘Hey, let’s gather for our annual business meeting!’ Maybe a World Tattoo day will follow, you never know.

At a time where people are communicating via the internet rather than face-to-face, bodies are now communicating through their tattoos. Our bodies have become the refrigerator magnets of quotes, sayings and reminders. In spite of my total stand against it, tattoos are growing in popularity and there are no signs for it to stop soon. But a time that all is bleak, there is still some hope. At a time when Johnny Depp comes out in an interview and says that his body is his journal and the tattoos he inks are his story, we have Mark Wahlberg who decided to remove all the tattoos on his body a few years back to set a good example for his kids.

Who do you want to be like? An aging skinny troubled Johnny who looks as if he’s carrying all the HIV viruses in the world or a fit and healthy Mark who can act, sing and also rap?

My intelligent yet witty colleague at work (who is also against tattoos) once said, ‘If you have a Ferrari, would you put a bumper sticker on it?’

We live in a fickle world where just like you will find people out there driving Ferraris and others with Hyundai Accents, there are also people who will look to the ceiling and open drawers in a hotel room the moment they check in to find where the ‘Qibla’ sign is so they can pray, and others who, upon checking in, will open the mini bar, to inspect the types of alcohol available.

But hey, you don’t need to drive. You can always take the metro. Just make sure you get off at the right station.


*I started writing this in May 2014 at Dubai International Airport after attending a Boyzone concert. Apart from already developing the idea in my head, seeing Shane Lynch (Boyzone member) that night with tattoos all over his skin just made me feel gross. I went home after the concert, took a shower and headed to the airport with my laptop four hours before my wife’s flight (then fiancée) arrived. I sat down at Starbucks and ordered my Caramel Macchiato (which I no longer drink) and began writing down my thoughts. Since that night in the airport I decided that maybe I shouldn’t write about this, because I do know many people with tattoos, and I don’t want to offend them. Throughout the past 10 months, I have sat down with people who asked me on what I think of tattoos, and when I told them my reasoning, most of them agreed and liked my ideology. However, I still thought I wouldn’t write about it. Last month, my beloved sister, called ‘Dar El Iftaa’ and asked about their opinion on getting a tattoo. I was shocked. I know my sister would never get one because she believes it’s religiously forbidden as well, but the fact that her curiosity led her to call a religious entity to ask for their opinion left me astonished. Her obsession to have our late father’s name on her wrist is understandable given that he died and all she could see now are people with similar tattoos which triggered the thought. However, I hope that she realises, that our father, our hero, and the man we miss most, will always be alive in our eyes, and we definitely do not need a body ink to remind us of that fact. There are blind people in this world, there are also deaf people and all sorts of humans as well – the good, the bad, the saint and the villain, but what we all have in common is a heart and a mind, and in there, is where all our feelings and memories safely reside.

**I really don’t want to listen to arguments of people with tattoos or people who just want to debate for the sake of it. I am not really expecting someone with a tattoo to tell me I am spot on and that they regret doing it, because even if they do, it will be hard for them to admit. I have been attacked before for publishing a book telling people not to smoke. As much as my book helped people to quit, there were others who were like, ‘who do you think you are to tell us what to do,’ so I am really not interested to know if you think I am stupid or a hater or unintelligent or judgmental or whatever you want to label me.

***Those of you who got directed to this blogpost off Facebook and Twitter thinking I actually got inked, I am sorry to disappoint you. I just had to grab your attention. 

****If you like this post and would like to save humanity with me, please share it.

*****I removed the part about Tamer Hashem, Cairokee's Drummer, as his tattoo wasn't real. 

Yours Truly,
Sherif Zaki


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