Hamada Bayloun is not particularly religious, but across his entire upper back spreads a large tattoo of the most revered saint in Shiite Islam, Imam Ali. He is one of a growing number of Shiite Muslims in Lebanon who have inked themselves with Shiite religious and political symbols as a show of pride in their community since neighboring Syria’s civil war broke out in 2011, fanning hatreds between Shiites, Sunnis and other faiths across the region.
The 30-year-old Bayloun got his tattoo a few months after the war began, partly as a response to attempts to bomb Shiite shrines in Syria and Iraq. “We can’t respond with car bombs, but (through tattoos) we can show our strength and love for the prophet and his family,” he said, referring to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, who was Ali’s cousin and father-in-law.
The Syrian conflict, which began with government forces crushing protests against President Bashar Assad, became a fight between predominantly Sunni rebels against Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism. The Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah has sent thousands of its fighters to Syria to support Assad, alongside Iranian, Iraqi and other Shiite militias.
That is why one Lebanese man, Tayseer, got the face of the bespectacled Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, tattooed on his chest, right above his heart. He said it’s a show of “deep love” for the man he says is protecting Lebanon from the Islamic State group and other Sunni extremists fighting in Syria and Iraq.
“Everyone should get Nasrallah tattooed,” said the 30-year-old civil servant, who asked not to be identified further so as not to jeopardize his job. Tattoos are forbidden by Sunni clerics but are generally accepted in Shiite circles. Among the most popular tattoos is “313,” the number of commanders Shiites believe will accompany their last imam, Mahdi, when he returns to save the world from oppression.
Tattoo artist Hussein Mistrah, 24, says tattoos in general have become fashionable in Lebanon. His small tattoo parlor in Beirut’s Shiite district of Dahiyeh is always busy. He inks an average of three or four Shiite tattoos per week, and among his clients are Hezbollah supporters fighting in Syria. At least 25 of his clients have been killed. “These are the ones I know about,” he said.
While an Associated Press photographer visited recently, a 21-year-old fighter name Mohammad Talal came in to get Nasrallah’s portrait on his chest. He was told the first appointment would be in two months. “I could be dead in two months!” Talal shot back. Mistrah said he would try to fit him in sooner.
Mohammad Mehdi al-Ameli, a Lebanese-Australian Shiite cleric who teaches religion in south Lebanon, said tattoos are a visual expression of faith. “Shiites are under strain ... and have been alienated, and they use this to belong,” he said. “The others do it like sheep that follow the flock.” Farah Najm has a tattoo of Ali’s sword on the back of her neck.
The 21-year-old aviation maintenance student said she got it a few years ago when she was “in a religious state, out of love for Ali.” Although she’s no longer observant, she kept the tattoo. She tries to hide it when she’s out partying “out of respect.” For some, tattoos have extra benefits. Zulfiqar, 30, said his tattoos are a magnet for women, especially at the beach.
On one pec he has Ali’s face, and on the other the name “Zeinab,” Ali’s daughter and the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. “Sometimes I get women’s phone numbers because of the tattoo. Maybe they like it more than they like me,” he laughed.
By Hassan Ammar