The Old City is cool in the morning, and still naked before all the shops open up and the merchants cover her stones with scarves and bracelets, kefiyehs and Jewish prayer shawls, before the old guys sit with their cigarettes and cards. She’s quiet, too, in between the calls to prayer, before the Lutheran bell tower strikes noon, while the merchants are still having their coffee before the day starts for real.
I’m sitting in a little pocket in the Christian Quarter across from the Greek Catholic school — the door’s open and I can see several little girls in red and black plaid skirts playing in the courtyard.
I’m nervous because I’m about to do something I promised my mother I would never do.
I am getting a tattoo.
A real live tattoo.
I’ve wanted one for years – But I’ve waffled. I’ve debated. It isn’t like my nose ring which I can take out (and put back in) or my belly button ring which I DID take out forever when I was pregnant with my daughter, and my skin stretched tight over my baby bump. Those holes disappear if you want them to – maybe there’s a faint trace of a scar, but you can forget that they ever were. A tattoo is different. It’s forever – even if you laser it off (which HURTS and is expensive) you can see it’s shadow on your skin for the rest of your life.
It’s also taboo in Judaism. As it is written in Leviticus:
“You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord”
(But that prohibition doesn’t particularly move me – after all, we circumcise our sons. Why is that kind of gash ok, but a tattoo isn’t?)
But I did hear an explanation that was so meaningful and powerful, that it gave me pause.
My friend Sara HaLevi Kalech explained that back in the day, the Israelites lived next to a neighbouring tribe, the Amorites, who had a mourning custom to cut their own flesh when someone they loved died. With each loss, they would mark themselves, forever changing their skin – a constant reminder of their grief. The Israelites had a different approach: Nothing is forever. Even things as monumental as great loss. Grief — no matter how big and terrible — should not be forever.
We focus on the living, and on each next step.
It’s as my mother used to say to me “this too shall pass.” The good, and the bad. And so this explanation still resonates. But… I didn’t want a tattoo out of grief —I had other reasons.
When my daughter was born, I wanted something to mark that change from being only for myself, to becoming also for my daughter – and then 18 months and 25 days later, my son. I thought about getting the Tree of Life in the sweet dip where my neck meets my back — but that didn’t feel right.
When I moved to Israel, I began to think about mermaids — such strange denizens these liminal creatures that cross borders, that are always Others.
Mermaids are a lot like immigrants that way.
To others, we are both a little familiar, and a little frightening.
To ourselves, we belong in both places – but not really in either.
So yeah, I feel like a mermaid.
(I just don’t have the shiny scales.)
My kids know the truth about me — and on dusty nights after long days when my daughter hates her differences — that she isn’t like all the other kids, that her mother can’t help with homework the same way Shira’s mother can, that her mother doesn’t always understand what they’re supposed to bring or do, and she’s stuck having to explain the rules to her mother, she will creep into bed with me and whisper “I forgive you for not understanding. You’re a mermaid. And I am the daughter of a mermaid.”
So I wanted a mermaid tattoo.
But not some lame-ass Ariel the Little Mermaid, or some sexy mermaid BS. I wanted something different – I just didn’t know what.
I also made a deal with myself – and God – AND my mother of Blessed Memory.
I would only get a tattoo if I found a tattoo parlour in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Why? Because I love the Old City – I love its angles and its curves. I love its heartbeat and its stone. I also love the idea of getting a mermaid tattoo landlocked within ancient walls that fit between the desert and the coastal plain.
But also – if I’m being real with you – I think the overwhelming reason is I never in a million years thought I’d actually find a tattoo parlour in the Old City.
Jesus sandals? Yup.
A roman glass pendant? Sure.
A Coca Cola T shirt in Hebrew? Bought it.
But a tattoo parlor? Something so seemingly modern, and so mundane? No way. .
Well… it turns out there is.
It was Spring Equinox, and I was wafting around the Christian Quarter taking pictures as one does on a cool spring evening when the balance there is perfect between night and day. I turned down a street I hadn’t been on, made a right and saw a large wooden sign that read “Tattoos in Color”
It couldn’t be.
I walked in and there was a guy behind the counter with rippling muscles, long hair, a serious mouth and kind eyes.
His left arm was covered in a tattoo of Jesus with a crown of thorns.
“You gotta be kidding, right?” I said. “This place isn’t for real, is it?”
“Of course it’s for real. It’s Razzouk Tattoo.”
Stunned, I looked around. There was a giant cross hanging on the ceiling. The walls are covered in photos in different shades of sepia of different men, all with the same kind eyes as the man in front of me.
“I am Wassim Razzouk,” he said to me in English, extending his hand.
“Ana ismi Sarah – my name is Sarah” I answered in Arabic. “How old is this place?”
“Well, we just moved shops – we were in a different place – but my family has been in the tattoo business for seven hundred years.”
“Are you from Jerusalem?”
“I was born here, but my family is originally from Egypt. We are Christians from the Coptic Church in Egypt, and we came here more than 300 hundred years ago to tattoo pilgrims who would visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.”
“That’s a pretty cool souvenir.”
“Yes, it wasn’t like now where you can book a flight – people would travel days and days to get to the holy site. It was a difficult journey, and sometimes people died along the way. My Grandfather, Yakoub Razzouk, was the the first tattoo artist in this country to use an electric tattoo machine – he used a car battery to power it, and he used ink made out of soot and wine.”
“That’s amazing,” I answered. “Do you have a book of your designs?”
“I have something better than that,” he said, and he walked over to a glass case that had three shelves: The top shelf had what looked like a very old tattoo machine. The middle shelf had three wooden blocks — each big enough to fit in snugly in the palm of my hand. The bottom shelf had a large book. He lifted the book and handed it to me. “This book was written by a historian named John Carswell – he was walking one day in the Old City when he saw the sign “Tattoos in Color,” and he came in and met my grandfather. He was so impressed by my grandfather and the designs that he came back. My grandfather used special blocks carved from olive wood with the tattoo design – like a stencil, and John Carswell included all the designs in the book and wrote about each one. Would you like to see?”
The book was a proof copy – it felt heavy, and it smelled like earth and parchment. I opened it carefully – the room was quiet, and my hands shook.
The first page I opened to had this design on it:
Seriously. I can’t make this stuff up even I try.
“Oh my God,” I gasped.
“Ah, the mermaid,” he said. “She’s very special.”
She IS very special, and I felt a shiver move through my body as I looked at her.
“May I take a picture?”
I thought about her every day since that first day — and I went back twice to “visit”
“Are you ready now?” Wassim asked at the the end of Spring, during the last rain fall before summer.
“Not yet,” I answered.
“What about now?” he asked again when I went back on a white hot day in the middle of July.
“Almost, I answered.
I asked my dad what he thought.
“No. Absolutely not. What would your mother – of blessed memory – say?”
I even asked my kids:
“You have to really think about it,” my son told me. “If you don’t like it, you can get it lasered off, but it will really hurt.”
“He’s right,” my daughter said. “Maybe you could just get one of the temporary tattoos with the butterfly.”
“But it’s a mermaid!” I said.
“Mom, we love you anyway, no matter what, but make sure you can live with it. Forever is a long time.”
And I really thought about it, and I want it and I’m ready.
I’m 35, and I want this. I’ve lived in Israel for six years and I don’t see that changing – yet I’m still American, except when I’m in America, and then I’m Israeli.
I can be in both, but I don’t fully belong in either.
I’m also embarking on a strange and wonderful book project where I am actually living in Jerusalem’s Old City – I’m spending three months in each quarter – Christian, Armenian, Muslim, and Jewish – and writing a book. Again, a year of living as an inside-outsider… a visitor looking for community, but never really growing roots in any of the four quarters.
Plus, she’s badass: This mermaid with the inscrutable face and the looped tail, holding a flower that Yakoub Razouk told John Carswell symbolizes fertility, this mermaid with a pair of wings with which to fly, half-hidden behind her arm.
This is the mermaid who gives zero fucks.
I want to BE this mermaid.
A group of pilgrims draped in gauzy scarves turn the corner while I’m waiting for Wassim.
“The President of Italy is still in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” their guide says in English. “So we will wait a bit before heading down there.”
They pass me, a few look down at me and smile. I smile back.
But I’m nervous. I know I want her, but I still haven’t decided where I want her to be.
“How about you shoulder?”
“Your neck would be, like, totally hot.”
“What about your leg?”
“How about the inside of your forearm?”
I hadn’t thought about that one.
I look at my forearms. On my left I wear my bracelets – my bangles from Ramle, my silver beads with the Jerusalem cross a priest gave me near Jaffa Gate, and the Lotteria charm bracelet that my Aunt Caren gave me at the Hollywood Outdoor Market for my birthday. I have scars there, too, up and down my left arm.
But my right arm is a blank canvas. And as I sit there on the cool stone and look at it, there in Jerusalem, in the holy heart of Abraham’s grandchildren, I think of the line:
“Jerusalem, if I forget thee, may my right hand forget its skill.”
And I know it’s meant to be.
From a distance, I can hear the growl of a motorcycle.
It gets louder – then louder still. The stone I’m sitting on vibrates as Wassim Razouk roars up the steps on a black Harley Davidson. Of course.
He’s wearing this:
He opens the shop, and we go inside.
“Do you want coffee?”
“Milk and sugar?”
“Just milk, please.”
“So you’re really ready?”
He opens the glass case and takes out the book.
“I still have the original blocks for many of these designs,” he tells me. “But the mermaid — I don’t know what happened. Maybe it broke? Maybe it’s at a museum? Maybe we lost it? But I will copy the drawing and we will use that.”
He flips through the book – there are other pictures that are more religious — the crucifixion, the nativity, St. John the Baptist… There’s a small cross… And another one. Wassim is wearing a bracelet with silver skulls all around his left wrist. He’s added another tattoo since the first time I saw him – He now has the crucifixion scene on his left bicep. It ripples.
“Do you do your own tattoos?” I ask.
“Which was your first?”
He rolls up his sleeve and shows me Roman numerals and a question mark.
“What does it mean?”
“It’s a date to remind me of something,” he says without explaining what he wants to remember. “I asked my father to tattoo it, and he tattooed this one line, and then his hand started shaking and he said ‘I cannot do this anymore. I cannot hurt you.’ I said ‘oh come on’ and I took the needle and I finished tattooing it myself.”
He finds the mermaid picture and begins to sketch. His hands are steady. I am transfixed.
I notice that in the web between his left index finger and thumb is the Arabic letter “nun” — it stands for Nasara or Nazarenes – a pejorative for “Christian.” Islamic State began to mark Christian homes and businesses in Mosul with this letter, demanding that the inhabitants either convert to Islam ,or die by the sword. This tattoo is a sign of courage, of defiance.
This makes Wassim an outsider, too.
And as his hands move over the looping scales, and each fin, I think about the Christians beheaded on a beach in Libya not long ago — in fact, I remember in front of the Egyptian coptic church, the Chapel of St. Helena — the same church Wassim and his family attend — just behind the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — there is a banner with these men, their heads bowed and their hands bound behind their backs, moments, if not seconds, before each was beheaded, one by one, with a swift blade while the world watched.
“I’ve never done this tattoo before,” he says as he sketches the flower in her hand. .
There’s accompanying text next to the image – I had read it when I first found her, but I read it again:
“It is maintained by a Coptic priest that this design represents “the bride of the Nile…” — who apparently can be vicious, and needs to be placated with offerings. She also has a track record of luring young men to their deaths. Although sometimes she’ll sleep with them and reward them with gold.
I still like her — she has a past.
My colleague Luke Tress from Times of Israel — a great videographer and journalist — shows up to film. (I’ll be real with you: I think part of why I asked him to come film was so I wouldn’t back out at the last minute.)
He looks around, flips through the book, and Wassim explains a bit about his family history much as he did the first time we met on that first day of Spring.
He also talks about the spiritual nature of getting a tattoo – “It makes something,” he said. “like a pilgrimage or a change. For some, it is like being born again.”
Wassim turns to me:
“Are you ready?”
Yes and no. And no again. And yes.
So, I get up and follow him into the back room. The stone walls may be old, but the needles are brand new – still in their packaging. The tattoo machine works. The ink is black with no room for negotiation.
“Where do you want it?” he asks.
I show him my right forearm.
(Jerusalem, if I forget thee…)
He holds my arm in his right hand.
He places the stencil he drew right in the center, in a smooth spot of skin – you can see the vein running below, and above. But the mermaid will rest on an area unblemished. Her body curves toward the vein. She fits perfectly.
He takes off the stencil, and she’s there – and I am in love. I know this mermaid. I am this mermaid. And there is no doubt, no dread, no fear, only a sense of wholeness – of stopping for tea in the middle of a long journey and taking a breath and looking out over something so beautiful that you’ll forget it as soon as you open your eyes.
He holds my arm.
“Don’t move,” he says as he turns on the machine. With his right hand he holds the machine. With his left, he steadies my forearm, and my fingers close around his free hand.
The machine hums and he makes the first trace around the tail. I feel warm all over. I expected pain, but this is different.Yes, I feel it – and you SHOULD feel something when you change your body. But it doesn’t hurt exactly. It just is. I feel alive – my SKIN feels alive. Each cell, electrified. And I squeeze Wassim’s hand while he traces the outline of my mermaid onto my skin.
Each scale, each fin, then her ribs and arms… She has wings… I hadn’t noticed them before. Her flower, her hair, her crown…. Her face is somber, a little sad, yet there’s the faintest trace of smile on her lips, as though the tides may change for her, and she could laugh, still.
I love her.
“She’s perfect,” I say.
The same words I uttered when my daughter was born.
“Do you remember the people you tattoo?” Luke asks.
“Many. Yes.” Wassim tells us about the woman who cried. “’Why are you crying?’ I asked. ‘Are you in pain?’”
She wasn’t in pain. Many years ago, she and her mother and her family had come for tattoos — she was afraid, and she didn’t do it, so her mother didn’t do it either. “‘Her mother said they could come back next year, only there was war, and they didn’t. The little girl grew up and never came back until that day. Her mother had died, so she wasn’t just getting the tattoo for herself. She was really getting it for her mother.”
And then he tells us about the young man who had cancer suddenly, and had to have a lung removed — and with no lung to fill the space, his heart moved to his back, and he wanted a Magen David — a Star of David — on his back to mark that spot where his heart beats even still.
I wonder if Wassim will remember me and my mermaid – the first time he ever drew this old design that came from his ancestors’ olive wood blocks.
He may forget – but I won’t. Not only because she’s there on my right arm to remind me, but because some experiences change you from the inside forever even without ink — and this experience, being here with the scion of the great Razzouk family of tattooists — is a special stop on that road of living, of being an immigrant – always an immigrant – of being an outsider yet still living here in the Old City on that writhing seam between the ragged desert to the East, and the coastal plain to the West, of being many things, but no one thing. Forever. Until I simply stop being.
WATCH Luke’s footage here:
For more stories like these, check out my upcoming memoir about love and sex and despair and hope in the hottest piece of spiritual real estate IN THE WORLD: Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered.