Iraq crisis: For some Iraqi youths, the ethnic divisions are just skin deep

In a tattoo parlour in Baghdad, young Sunnis, Shias and Kurds find that their shared interests go beyond politics

To get to Dante's lair, you have to walk down an alley, up the stairs and along a corridor of a dilapidated shopping centre in Baghdad's central Karrada district.

Inside a dimly lit room there on a sweltering night, a group of tough-looking young men and teenagers are gathered around a comrade who was struggling to remain stoic despite the pain.

Dante, 24, our protagonist, was hard at work, drilling a tattoo of the Shia saint Ali into the young man's arm.

Dante's shadowy tattoo parlour showcases a different side of Iraq than its grinding political violence. Of course, almost no place in Iraq is immune from the horrendous suffering that has plagued the nation for decades – first under the brutal rule of Saddam Hussein, then with the violence that exploded after the US invasion in 2003. Every family has witnessed destruction. Every household has a tale of heartbreak.

The nation's sectarian rhetoric has amplified in recent weeks. An insurgency led by the Sunni extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) has conquered a vast section of Iraqi territory, particularly in the north‑west. It has threatened to sweep south to Baghdad, with Shia militias having headed to the front lines to fight back and Iraqi government forces also battling the insurgents – amid political deadlock in Baghdad.

However, the tattoo parlour contained an unusual mix of men and teens, Sunnis and Shias, militants and civilians, who were brought together by their unusual hobbies: grunge, rap music and ink – lots of it.

Mohamed al-Najab – Dante's real name – opened his first Baghdad tattoo parlour in 2008. For two years, he had worked as a translator for US troops based at Baghdad airport. They nicknamed him Dante, for the main character in a dark animated film, Dante's Inferno. And the name stuck.

An American soldier who had a tattoo parlour in Los Angeles taught Dante the craft of inking figures on people's bodies. Before that, he was just a kid who liked to draw.

Dante said he left the military job after a firefight that left his back and arm riddled with bullet wounds.

In the shop, he doesn't like to talk about those days, or the gun battle. When I asked who shot him, Dante pulled me outside. "The Mahdi army," he whispered, pronouncing the name of a prominent Shia militia.

Dante's space plunges into total darkness when the power cuts out every 30 minutes. It is crowded with young people whose tattoos reflect a mix of Western pop clichés and the religious and political symbols of Iraq.

Barek Basil, a 21-year-old Iraqi Kurd, had devoted a full arm to his passion for music: tattoos of a microphone, a skull wearing headphones, musical notes and a guitar. Even the English term "MP3" was there, along with his rap name, "Hell Mix aka Millionaire". His Arabic-language songs – mostly about love – are available on YouTube.

Beside him, another man had a tattoo of a Shia saint, Hussein, who was killed in the seventh century by a rival Muslim army. The words "Revenge for Hussein" arched above the picture on his shoulder.

Then there was Omar, Basil's 18‑year-old friend, who had his explicitly Sunni name tattooed across his knuckles and on his upper arm.

Omar was an adolescent during the years when death squads executed civilians simply for having names such as Omar or for keeping pictures of Shia saints on their mobile phones.

In the shadowy gloom of the shop, the symbols of Iraq's sectarian divide were out in the open for all to see. And yet, in a country where religious affiliation was linked to so many deaths, they kept their political views – or animosities – quiet.

The scene underscored a fact that Iraqis feel the foreign press often misses: that Iraq is still a religiously and ethnically diverse country, full of mixed families and neighbourhoods. Despite years of conflict, plenty of Iraqis still feel united by family, nationhood or simply a shared interest such as tattoos.

"We're not that interested in politics," declared an older man in the group. Asked about Isis, the group was quiet. A few mumbled that things seemed to be going badly for Iraq. The men and boys shuffled uncomfortably.

Then Dante pointed to Thahed Amar, a lanky 17-year-old with an arm full of animals and wings, a skull and a symbol for the British boy band One Direction.

"His dad is a major general in the army," Dante said. "They'll kill him when he goes home today" – for talking about politics. The guys all laughed. They went outside and smoked cigarettes.

And then they went back into the shop to huddle around Dante's latest customer: a man who wanted a tattoo removed. It was a cheesy poem about his mother.

© The Washington Post

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower