While on the ferry from Igoumenitsa, Greece to Venice, Italy a few months ago, I spent most of the day sitting on the top deck, enjoying the warm late-spring sun and hanging out with a middle-aged couple who was also on a long bicycle journey through Europe. We were opening our first bottle of wine when a beautiful young woman with long, bright red hair appeared on the deck. She walked around a bit, spent some time looking off at the horizon as she smoked a cigarette, and then she went back down.
She reappeared about an hour later to have another cigarette. Once again she was alone, and again I couldn’t help stealing glances at her every few seconds; she had a striking appearance and a funky yet elegant sense of style. Her light blue eyes shone bright and complemented the colour of her hair and 60s-style dress. Even her accessories were cool: she carried a little vintage handbag and wore a long necklace of large wooden beads around her neck. After she’d popped up a few times and we’d exchanged a few smiles, I invited her to join us for a glass of wine, and soon we were chatting away like old friends.
Her name was Julia, and she was returning to Vienna after having spent two months in Jerusalem. She’d had the misfortune of having her bag stolen near the end of her trip and was temporarily penniless, so she was having to find alternative ways to travel and make her way back home. To get around buying the 70-Euro ferry ticket, for instance, she’d been allowed to come on board as the co-pilot of one of the long-haul truckers who was carrying a load into Italy.
Only minutes into our conversation, she told me she was a bit sad because she’d been planning to get a tattoo at the end of her stay in Jerusalem, but because her things were stolen, she hadn’t been able to go through with it. Of course, that’s when I told her I was a tattoo artist doing a bike tour around Europe, and her eyes lit up. “Are you coming to Vienna? You have to do my tattoo! This is destiny!” We exchanged email addresses, and a few months later, I pulled up to her flat in Vienna, as promised.
I spent a week living with Julia in her cozy apartment. I was beautifully comfortable because she lives a lifestyle that I imagine mine would be similar to if I were settled down. Her home is spacious and simply furnished, with cushions, rugs and furniture with sawed-off legs that encourage dwelling close to (or on) the floor. The walls are tastefully painted in rich colours, plants are present in every room, and there are splashes of homemade art throughout the flat. There are shelves of books on everything from Modern Art to women’s rights in the Middle East. She keeps a garden on the roof of her building, does her grocery shopping at farmers’ markets, rides her bicycle to get around the city (well into the colder months of the year) and prepares the most amazing spreads of raw vegan food for every meal.
I was equally enchanted with her friends, some of whom, like Julia, have spent a great deal of time in the Middle East – a part of the world that fascinates me and that I hope to personally explore soon. It was the first time I’d met such young people who’d actually visited and stayed in occupied Palestine for an extended amount of time, and I was captivated by their stories and what they’d experienced.
One of these amazing people is Daniella, who is currently living in Vienna, where she works both at an Afghani restaurant and in a shelter for women escaping prostitution and other social problems. She is only 27 years old but she has already been to several Middle Eastern countries, including Syria, Jordan, Dubai, Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine. She went to the latter three times between 2005 and 2006 to work with an activist organization, where she got the opportunity to spend some time in a lot of small villages with various activist groups.
In 2007 she hopped on a bus and travelled from Vienna through Istanbul, Damascus, Amman and finally to Ramallah in the West Bank. She did the Arabic Studies programme at the Birzeit University in Palestine for 3 months while simultaneously doing research for her master thesis about farmers in the South Hebron Hills.
A year later, in 2008, she tried to go back again, this time through Tel Aviv Airport on a flight from Vienna. Once again, she was denied entry into Israel. She was held at the airport for 8 hours, then transferred to a deportation jail where she was held for an additional three days. Though no one ever told her why she was being detained, she suspects it had something to do with her involvement with the activist groups, and the research she’d done with the farmers living in the closed military zones in the south of the West Bank. Speaking of her time in detainment, she told me: “I stayed there with a lot of Russian sex workers who were also waiting for their deportation due to undocumented work in Israel. It was a strange but interesting period of my life.”
Although Daniella has a strong desire to return to Palestine, she thinks it may be another 6 or 7 years before she’s allowed back in. In the meantime, she’ll continue to visit friends in neighbouring countries, and keep up her research on the state of affairs in the Gaza Strip. Not surprisingly, upon learning that I was a tattoo artist, she expressed that she was interested in touching up and adding to a tattoo she’d had done in the Middle East, the place that has so marked her life. We decided to add some poppy flowers to the existing tattoo, which is an Arabic symbol for ‘freedom,’ and with a few hours of work, her shoulder piece was given new life.
On my last night in Vienna, Julia and I took on the last of three sessions to freshen up and expand upon two tattoos she’d had done several years ago. We had already finished re-doing a piece that was on her neck below her hairline, and now we were doing the second half of a large piece that I’d designed to cover up an old tribal tattoo on her lower back that another artist had disastrously attempted to expand upon with a mismatched addition to the side.
Given Julia’s flare for retro fashion and her ongoing love affair with the Middle East, I thought it would be appropriate to go with a pattern that was loosely inspired by paisley, a motif of Persian origins (it appeared in Iran as early as the 3rd century AD) that was hugely popular in western fashion in the late 60s. We chose some of her favourite colours for a few accents, and I was pleased with how intense the effect was due to the contrast that was provided by Julia’s milky skin.
I was sad to leave the girls the next day… but inspired in a way that I hadn’t been before. These girls are beautiful inside and out, soft-spoken, gentle and infallibly humble despite being richly informed about some of the greatest issues of our time. They’ve done things and gone places that many grown men are afraid to even consider… which has given me courage and the incentive to give more serious consideration to the possibility of following in their footsteps. It’s a big, interesting world out there. Why be content with getting to know it through a screen (in every sense of the word) if I can find a way to see it myself, in person?…