Prostitution Under Paint
Place: One of Beirut's street-side cafes.
Time: August 2005, 4 PM
On a table facing mine is seated three women and two men. The men's appearance and accents suggest they are of gulf arab nationality. The women's appearance, accents and mannerisms suggest they are Lebanese. It is also very evident what the entire meeting is for and about, as they are making no effort to hide their intentions. More about that later.
I realize that Lebanon must seem like an oasis of freedom and liberation when compared to other societies in the Middle East. I am also aware that part of the attraction this country holds in its regional setting is its reputation for beautiful women and hedonistic nightlife. But Lebanon is also home for many dark corners, where illegal practices are known but not officially acknowledged. In these dark corners there is drugs and sex.
The business of selling sex has always been present in Lebanon over the decades. It was regulated at first, along the lines of Amsterdam's Red Light District minus the window exhibitions. The area was limited to a few blocks in Beirut's seaside quadrant called the "Zeitouneh" which is now termed the Golden Triangle because of all the 5-star hotels in the area (coincidentally, the site of Hariri's assassination). During the war, the green line separating Beirut into east & west ran across the Zeitouneh. And the brothel business was one of the only aspects of Beirut that remained unaffected, with fighters from both sides frequenting the brothels regularly (as comically depicted in Ziad Doueiri's film West Beyrouth).
After the war, the sex trade was pushed into a dark corner. It moved to what was then the only viable nightspots in Lebanon, namely the then-raging areas of Jounieh and Kaslik. Under the guise of showdancing, women from Eastern Europe were recruited to perform sultry dance exhibitions as a means to meet clients, and the sex would take place outside these establishments in hotel rooms and furnished apartments while the club owners got a cut of the profits and the government turned a blind-eye. This is still going on today, and has expanded into the ubiquitous 'massage' parlors where clients get a rub down and more for a fee. The government did try and crack down on those parlors, but when it realized that police officers were among the clients arrested it somehow pushed those parlors as well into the little dark corner of "don't ask, don't tell".
The exploitation of impoverished foreigners is despicable and inhumane. It is taking place not only in Lebanon but across Europe and the Far East. But whereas European authorities are clamping down on what is essentially slavery, Lebanese authorities see no harm in 'importing' these women so long as it keeps the Lebanese men happy and the tourist dollars rolling. This racism has grown to such an extent that single women from Eastern Europe are sometimes denied visas into Lebanon, the thought being that they must be prostitutes here to 'freelance' their sex trade. Now, wouldn't that be terrible. Side-stepping their Lebanese pimps. That is unprofessional.
And this brings me now to the point I'm trying to make in this post (sorry for the long-winded recap, I thought it necessary). It is said that if you ignore evil, evil will only prosper. And our lax attitude regarding the continued exploitation of women in our country is starting to catch up with us. It is no longer 'those' women from 'those' countries who are falling victim to the sex trade, it is Lebanese women as well. Our sisters, daughters and friends. College students, divorced mothers, even women with families and with the approval of their spouses. All in the sake of supplementing their income in a city voted the most expensive in the Arab world.
The operation is clandestine, its operatives are taxi drivers, hotel employees and cellphone pimps. I am told the procedure goes something like this:
- Rich arab arrives in Beirut and is approached by a taxi driver. He is also approached by a hotel employee or a resident pimp in the hotel lobby
- A photo album or a cellphone number is provided, for a commission fee of course
- Women visit the client in his hotel room, and the hotel turns a blind eye
Is this the Lebanon we aspire to?
Is this the country we boast about in social circles abroad and speak so highly of?
We paint over it and forget it, as if it were just another massacre site that is now a nightclub.
But it is taking place nonetheless.
The deal is being made right now at the table facing mine.
I despise these men and I start to imagine standing up and throwing them out in a misguided impulse of protective spirit. But then I check myself. It is not their doing. It is ours.
If we want to end this injustice we must start with our own wrong doing. There cannot be a double-standard. Either outlaw prostitution completely and enforce the law properly, or accept it as the oldest profession and regulate it in a way that at the very least rids of it exploitation and slavery. And save us these humiliating scenes.
We can't paint over this one.