My family hates tattoos.
I have one. It’s on the back of my neck, written in delicate Arabic script. Shamouna. A name from a bygone era, believed to be a Syrian martyr beheaded by a Roman emperor in A.D. 316. Shamouna is my Lebanese-born grandmother’s name, who is around 96 years old, as far as we know. "I was told that rats ate my birth certificate," she shrugged when asked her age.
My tattoo was a gift from a good friend, Andrew Saena, a talented Samoan-Australian tattooist. Andrew worked his magic on me one evening in the tiny kitchen of my sister’s Sydney apartment, during one of my quick trips home from living in the United States. He laughed at the big deal I’d made about a speckle of ink. I grew up with many Polynesian friends and learned early that for Samoans, tatau (tattoo) is a way of life: it’s a visual representation of one’s journey through beauty and pain. Andrew and I had lots in common culturally, but in this respect we were worlds apart. In Australia, those with Middle Eastern and Pasifika ancestry often lived in the same neighbourhoods. We came from rich oral storytelling traditions and had incredibly high family values. But when it came to tattoos, Samoans saw them as a virtue, whereas Lebanese saw them as a sin.
My heart was bursting with pride at this beautiful tribute to my grandmother, but my mind anticipated her reaction
It took Andrew and me hours to get started on inking the tattoo because we had to be certain about lettering. I don’t speak fluent Arabic let alone read it, and my greatest fear was leaving our makeshift tattoo session with ‘sharmouta’, which means ‘whore’ in Arabic, on my nape instead of ‘Shamouna’. Once Malak, a mutual friend of ours, had confirmed the script, the actual tattooing was over in minutes. I even slightly enjoyed the tingly pain of the machine. I rushed into my sister's bedroom to stand in front of her mirror while holding a smaller reflector above my head to gaze in adoration at Andrew’s handiwork. My heart was bursting with pride at this beautiful tribute to my grandmother, but my mind anticipated her reaction.
In my family, tattoos are a no-no. We‘re a rowdy bunch that crack dirty jokes around each other and drop the ‘c’ word in casual conversation, yet for some reason tattoos are, and have always been, taboo. They’re frowned upon – especially on women. Those who have them, especially on skin seen in public, are viewed as promiscuous. Under Islamic religious law, tattoos are considered ‘haram’ or forbidden. While my family is Christian Arab, they follow the same train of thought, like most of their community. My late father, who was from Cyprus, was the only person I knew as a child with tattoos. I remember the faded Popeye cartoon on his forearm to recall his sailor days, and the scorpion on his leg for his astrological sign. When my mother married him, her family considered him quite the rebel.
When it came to tattoos, Samoans saw them as a virtue, whereas Lebanese saw them as a sin
There is something about my grandmother that makes me want to always impress her, despite the fact she loves to hound me. The woman is almost 100 and tough as nails. Her physical health has greatly deteriorated lately, but she’s still sharp as a tack. She raised seven children (an eighth tragically died after birth) with a husband prone to alcohol-fuelled bouts of rage. She has 12 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. She worked three menial jobs most of her life and hardly spent on herself, instead she doled out large sums of money to loved ones in need. She nags at me more than the other grandchildren.
My sister and I are closest to her – but my sister is The Golden Child, while I’m the rebellious one. My grandmother’s biggest gripe with me is my inability to ‘hold a dollar’, as she’d say. A few years ago I excitedly told her I’d paid a significant debt and finally had my head ‘above water’. Her response? "When will you get out of the bloody water?" She tells me it’s because of how much she loves me.
My grandmother was in her living room when I went to debut my new ink later that night. I called Mum in from the kitchen, and began my spiel by reminding both of them how much I’ve always loved my family. Mum gave me a look that said, "What have you done now?" My grandmother wrung her delicate hands in anticipation. I reminded Mum she wanted my name to be Shamouna but my father didn’t agree, so they had settled on Simone. I also jogged her memory that I’d always wanted a tattoo, so here at 30-something, I’d finally decided to get it.
“A tattoo?!" Where did you get it, your bum?
After a moment of silence where I expected a dose of my grandmother’s famous vitriol to hit me in the face, she started laughing. “A tattoo?! Where did you get it, your bum? That’s what you all think of me!” she said in her ocker accent (my grandmother has lived in Australia since she was 10). My nerves instantly faded and I walked towards her chair, pulled my hair into a bun and carefully removed the bandage from my neck. My grandmother gasped. She kissed the inscription, hugged me longer than usual, and told Mum I was now “top shelf”.
Other relatives didn’t warm to my mark of respect so fast, even when promised I would stick to just one tattoo. Out of my five aunties, four hold conservative values and none were too pleased. Two of them had long complained my grandmother favoured my sister and me over their children. I heard background chatter that the tattoo represented me ‘sucking up’ to the old lady more than ever.
Leave it to my Uncle Stephen, who is Mum’s only brother and a natural-born peacemaker, to sum up the family’s sentiment in his straight yet loving way. “I'll never understand the bloody need for tattoos, but it was a beautiful thing to do, darlin'.”
Simone Amelia Jordan is a freelance writer. You can follow Simone on Twitter @SimoneAJordan.
This article has been published in partnership with Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. Editorial support for each piece has been provided by Winnie Dunn and Michael Mohammed Ahmad.