BAGHDAD, Iraq – The ghastly procession of decapitated corpses and mutilated bodies that has defined death in Iraq drove Firas Adil Saadi to do something that once was the province of convicts and degenerates here: He got a tattoo.
The 28-year-old Shiite Muslim has a marking on his right shoulder so his family may avoid the despair of not being able to identify his remains. In ornate Arabic calligraphy, it says “My brother Husam,” after a cousin who suffered such a fate. Saadi also carries paper identification, but he believes it would be burned beyond recognition in a bombing.
“The idea came to me after seeing these daily incidents during which some corpses are mutilated and distorted, some were even headless, and the fact that the identity cards are either lost or destroyed,” said Saadi, a trader who works in Baghdad’s Shorja market, which has suffered numerous bombings. “Even the water of the firefighting equipment is destroying them, so I thought about an irremovable identity card, which is the tattoo.”
In Iraq, it has come to this: Faced with the omnipresent specter of death, an increasing number of people, mainly Shiite men, are willing to contravene social taboo to accommodate it.
Although tattoos are not exactly “haram,” or forbidden, under Shiite Islamic law, they are very much frowned upon in modern Iraq. There was a time here when men and women got tribal tattoos such as wrist markings or small dots on the chin as a sign of beauty or for spiritual reasons, such as warding off evil.
In the recent past, however, tattoos were usually worn by men of the lowest classes and became a way to identify prisoners’ bodies in case they were tortured to death by guards. Repressed by Saddam Hussein, Shiites make up the bulk of the lower classes, which might explain why they’re more willing than Sunnis to get tattooed.
“I think the resort to using the tattoos by people now from all social classes is something like a return to barbarism, and this is exactly what the Americans want, getting Iraq to the pre-civilization times,” said Hashim Hassan, a Shiite professor at Baghdad University’s College of Information.
For tattoo artists, it has become a lucrative business, although one conducted largely out of public view, in unmarked basements, in homes or at shops that ostensibly offer other services.
Artist Adil abu Salam, 45, an Iraqi who graduated from a fine arts college and did tattoo work in Lebanon, where it is more accepted, meets clients at a friend’s clothing store in the Shiite neighborhood of Karada. He returned to Iraq in 2004, after Saddam was toppled.
“In recent months, the number is getting more and more, Salam said. “At the beginning, people were using it as a beautification. Now, they are asking for special symbols, signs, variegation and drawings. The number of people asking for tattoos is increased (because of) the bad security situation.”
Of course, not all of the tattooing is out of mortal consideration. Possibly in response to Western influence, ranging from the presence of heavily inked Western security guards to images of tattooed American celebrities broadcast on satellite television, some Iraqis are getting work done for cosmetic reasons, with tough-guy designs such as scorpions or spiders. Teenage girls are sneaking in too, and Salam is training a female artist to do the work on them, “especially in some places of the body,” he said.
But he and others believe concerns about being identifiable in death remain the primary reason for the surge in business.