TEXT BY VICE STAFF
PHOTOS BY FALKO SIEWERT
While I was in Damascus last summer, my friends from the Serbian Embassy took me to a brothel. It looked like a regular nightclub. It was well lit, music blared, and people hung out. I would not have thought: This is a place to buy sex. I got to talking with a group of Iraqi girls. I told them I was a “colleague from East Germany” on vacation. They were slathered with makeup and topped by massive, overstyled hair. They explained their situation to me: They fuck for 20 or 30 dollars. They are forbidden from leaving their shady hotels during the day—they aren’t allowed out until they are picked up for work at 8 PM. Then they go to the club and, until dawn, alternate between sitting around and having sex with Syrian strangers. This is what their day is like, every day.
As we were talking, the club’s manager entered the room and clapped his hands. This was the signal for all the girls to get onto the dance floor. I followed them. It felt like the right thing to do. The girls didn’t really know how to do pole dances, so I hopped on to give it a shot. It was my first time on one, but I had been drinking and they kept on cheering, so I really let loose. Afterward, the manager approached me and asked me whether I would work at his club. He said he could see I had fun doing what I was doing and he liked that, and his clients liked that.
I wanted to see what I was worth in Damascus, so I agreed to meet his boss the next day. He wore a suit and had an air-conditioned, windowless office in a building on the other side of town. After offering me tea, he told me my strengths and weaknesses. He said that I was a bit old, but I wasn’t too insulted, because many prostitutes in Syria are 12 to 14 years old. He suggested that I would be suitable for “rich and demanding Saudis with elevated desires.” It was sort of awful, but I was flattered that he said I was “not for a Syrian who is only looking for an extramarital fuck.” The boss said he would offer me at an hourly rate of $400. The club manager asked, somewhat heatedly, for a 15 percent commission.
I never went back to this club, nor did I answer the phone when the boss rang, but I had the hook in me. It had been a dumb and callous adventure, but it had stirred something up. I wanted to visit more brothels.
On the following Friday evening, I went—this time with an Arab friend—to the discotheque in the basement of the Hotel Meridien. After my friend had met a few of the girls there, he confirmed that they were all Iraqi refugees. Some had been prostitutes under Saddam’s regime, and some were there following the very dark, violent, inconceivable cataclysms that the war had brought into their lives. All of them were drunk to the point of staggering up and down the carpeted stairs under the weak, cheap disco lights.
I had a relentless train of Saudi men in dresses grabbing my ass. Much of the clientele in Syrian brothels is from Saudi Arabia. All of them were drunk and I was turning out to be the main attraction. My friend explained to one of them that he had booked me for the night, and then he asked the man and his friends if there were any other places we could go. They told us that there was a whole red-light district in the suburbs now and said we should just get into a taxi and ask to be driven to a northern suburb called Sednaya. We got out of there and hopped in a cab.
We drove through the dark streets of Damascus, passing by Palestinian refugee camps. We were under the impression of having left the city altogether, when a sudden boom of bright, multicolored lights appeared on the horizon. It looked like Las Vegas. On each side of the road there were countless signs pointing the way to the “touristic clubs and restaurants,” which seemed to be the official term for “whorehouses full of underage refugees.” There must have been well over a hundred clubs there on this one strip of road. It was unreal. We started at one end of the street and worked our way down from club to club.
In each club we found a circular stage on which very young girls—children, really—circled throughout the night. Only a very few of them could walk in their heels. We asked some of the girls where they came from, and most of them proudly answered, “Iraq.” Some of them were Palestinian refugees from Lebanon. To set themselves apart from the Iraqi girls, they wrote “Lebanon” in Arabic on their upper arms. Even among underage refugee prostitutes, the social hierarchies of their parents and grandparents live on.
The girls wear tight, padded push-up bras, tight polyester dresses, and thick, dramatic make-up. They are chaperoned by their mothers, who gather in the dark corners of the club and scope the crowd for clients. When a mother sees a patron she likes, she shines a laser pointer on her daughter, who then goes to the man her mother has picked. Phone numbers are traded, assignations made. In these clubs, where 10- and 12-year-old girls are whored out, open prostitution is not allowed. Later that night, the clients and the mothers speak on the phone to arrange a rendezvous.
In one club, a fast Arab dance came up and a girl with terrible wounds—burns and cuts on her arms—asked me to turn her round and round. I twirled her for a long time, and when I stopped, 15 or 20 girls had gathered like butterflies to a candle. They were all begging to be twirled. They wanted to be turned like mad until they could not handle it anymore. So I did it for them, until I noticed the red flickering of a laser pointer on my shirt. A mother had noticed a guest giving me the eye, and wanted to help me with my business.