Breaking cultural Taboos at Egypt’s First Tattoo Convention


I had the privilege of spending around three weeks in Cairo last December working on the editorial desk and helping to plan television output for the day. It was the first time I was bound to a desk-job and I absolutely loved it, but I made a promise to myself to spend my weekends wisely figuring out places and people to photograph.

During my time there, tattoo artists in Egypt decided to meet and host the first Egyptian tattoo convention. In a country where tattoos are still quite taboo, surprisingly the parlors are quite loosely regulated. Tatoo artists have been operating since before the revolution, but now took the opportunity to bring the art form out into the open.

Many Muslims consider tattoos to be forbidden under Islamic law. Coptic Christians meanwhile, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population, have long had an association with the art.

Around 100 people turned out for the event, less than what the organizers had hoped for, although many saw it as a small step to raising awareness about the art form in a largely conservative society.

Eid Camping in Dibba

Dibba, a quaint little town on the eastern coast, attracts hundreds of visitors, mostly families, during Eid and National Day celebrations.

For many years UAE residents and Emiratis used to pitch their tents along the beach, waking up to salty fresh ocean air mixed with the familiar scents of cardamom, saffron and coffee brewing in tents.  In recent years, however, Dibba Municipality has banned tents on the beach because of excessive litter, and suggested that visitors camp instead in the open space near by.

Despite this new regulation, hundreds of local families flocked to the area for Eid, among them Yaqoub Al Jasmi, his wife Zahra Al Balooshi and their extended family. For the past three years the 16-strong family and six of their domestic staff have driven down from Dubai to mark celebratory occasions in the open air. There is ample room to roam, run and drive their dune buggies yet still maintain their privacy within the confines of their campsite, which is no doubt why this place retains its popularity year after year.

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Our little fishing boat turned a corner and the village of Kumzar revealed itself to us in the most cinematic manner. Only a few hours from Dubai’s metropolis and I was approaching a tiny village hugged by mountains, peppered and preceded by modest blue fishing boats anchored along the bay. Hundreds of small fluttering Omani flags hung from red ropes that, when I squinted, created red, green and white lines that connected the rooftops to one another.

Other than processing the initial time-warp feeling as I began to walk around, what struck me the most was the oddity of knowing I was in Oman yet hearing a language spoken around me that wasn’t Arabic. I had never heard anything like it and found it difficult to isolate the Arabic words in their sentences. But the locals were quick to welcome us, and spoke to us so proudly of their heritage and their unique language. Although almost all residents have access to internet and satellite television, this town has no paved roads, and most Kumzaris seemed to prefer to relax by the water or outside their homes to socialise with their neighbors in their free time. The children had also made toys and instruments created out of left-over scraps of wood or buckets – tangible testaments that this would not be a playstation generation.

Having partially grown up in the Gulf my aim was to capture that nostalgic 1950′s Arabian Gulf era that I personally felt still existed in the village. More importantly, as a photographer and observer of cultures, I truly cherished the trust and accessibility the Kumzari women unquestionably gave me, knowing that they would probably never see the photos unless I made the long journey back there to show them.

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Dubai’s Hoop Dreams

I came across the Jafiliya Basketball Court and its community entirely by accident whilst walking around the Satwa area shooting one evening. Two Filipino guys decked out in bright purple and yellow basketball jerseys – not the usual Satwa attire – casually walked out of their apartment building, they caught my eye and I followed them to the court. “You should come on Saturday night,” they said, and so I did, actually I went for the next 5 or 6 Saturdays after that too.

The Jafiliya Basketball Court is the fulcrum of Kababayan social activity in the Satwa area. It is a place where men come to shed the stresses of the daily grind of working in Dubai, shoot some hoops and participate in a team sport, where girlfriends, wives and fiancees cheer on their significant others and where expat children absorb musings on Tagalog slang and culture they otherwise wouldn’t learn in their everyday UAE school environment.  Tournaments are organized every few months, with designated coaches and players, printed out jerseys, referees and volunteers manning the logistics of the games. Games take place usually after work hours, so everyone in the community has a chance to come down, hang out and watch. They call this “Tambayan” in Tagalog meaning a place to hang out and not necessarily do anything.

The people that visited the courts almost every night came to know me quite well, they welcomed me with open arms, shared their stories with me and were happy that someone was not only photographing the winning team but also the strongly-built community they were so fondly proud of.

Modern Family

“My life is like a movie. There’s love, violence, and drugs.”

Sierra Mullaney, 20, Taylor Barton, 19, and Aydin Barton, 1, are an unconventional family.  As a young gay teen, Sierra asked her best friend Taylor to father her child.  Now, within the walls of their one-bedroom government subsidized apartment both parents strive to recreate an isolated reality for their son Aydin – a raw safe space imbued with the love and stability absent from their own childhoods. Sierra emerged from a background tattered with abuse, neglect and drugs, while Taylor’s family have continuously applied pressure abhorring his life style choices with a woman who is “too dark skinned.”

Matters are complicated as Sierra continues to date and love women and Taylor wants his best friend to love him in a committed relationship. Despite the complexities of raising a child in an unorthodox manner, Taylor harnesses an unwavering loyalty to his new family.

Taylor, currently unemployed, yet a dedicated father, cares for Aydin during the day, as he juggles nappies and maintains the home with cartoons blaring the background.  Sierra works the graveyard shift at Casey’s – a nearby gas station, making ends meet.

“I’m surprised through everything that he’s still here.”

A Week in Shahama

For the whole summer, a series titled “A Week in Pictures” has been running in The National. Staff photographers spend a week getting to know a neighbourhood or a city photographing daily life there.  Although I’ve occasionally filled in and shot for the paper before when we have been understaffed, this was my first “real” photo assignment. And boy was I nervous.

Shahama is a lazy town in between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. We all make the commute between cities quite often but I don’t know anyone who has explored Shahama except to visit the Kids Park.  The area is mostly residential and local. This could have proven problematic for two reasons : 1) Locals are quite private and don’t usually like being photographed for the paper. 2) It’s Ramadan AND mid-August, was I really going to find people milling about?

Driving through Shahama’s residential areas, I was fondly reminded of the Abu Dhabi portion of my childhood in the 80’s and 90’s.  Locals and expats alike were quite approachable, extremely friendly and keen enough to show off their “forgotten” suburb between the two major cities. Some even welcomed me into their homes to photograph them eating Iftar – for which I was very thankful.

After shooting stills for a week I’m extremely keen to keep honing my photo skills as I focus mainly on video. Let’s hope I get put onto more photo assignments as the months progress…