November 10, 2011

Sitting With the Girls

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I’ll admit it: I wanted to see the hookers. Just see them — I certainly didn’t want their services — I just wanted to know if vice existed in the heart of the conservative Arab world. I’d heard about the prostitutes in Bab al-Farj, a seedy Aleppo neighborhood, so one night I caught a cab down there with some American friends.

We strolled past the street vendors calling out their wares in the dark, and past married couples walking home — the normal evening sights of a bustling Arab city. My friends and I turned off the main drag, toward the quieter and unlit heart of Bab al-Farj. Here, squalid hotels alternated with dank basement bars lit by red neon signs reading “night club” and serving fine selections of three beers and bizarre brands of dark liquors.

But the streets were empty — no sign of life other than those buzzing and flickering signs. No hookers here; the rumors were untrue! Feeling cheated, we turned back toward the main street. To our right, down an alley, I glimpsed the silhouette of a man standing in front of a doorway, his hands clasped behind his back. A sign above him read “Super Nightclub.”

Well, we could at least get a beer before we went home. We gave the guard a nod and he stepped aside. The narrow entrance corridor soon opened into a cavernous room with multiple-level seating, where a live band was performing on a stage. Groups of all men (which is the norm in the Arab world) sat at tables drinking beer or smoking water pipes. A waiter approached.

“Can I help you?”

“Yeah, I’d like a table for four.”

“Do you want to sit where the girls are?”

What? What girls? Did they have a youth section with mixed seating, as some hip clubs in Damascus did? I glanced at my friends, who shrugged.

The waiter motioned to a burly man, who led us away from the main seating area and up a steep and narrow staircase. We emerged into a small room with a few round tables and a bar, where some blonde women sat. They smiled at us as we entered. Blondes in Syria — probably not locals.

Ah, that’s what the waiter meant by “the girls.” Well, the novelty of “seeing the hookers” quickly evaporated, and now my friends and I were stuck in this back room. Feeling awkward, we resolved to order a beer each, drink it and go home, but the girls sauntered over to us and sat down. The one beside me was much less attractive than she appeared from a distance — just a lot of hair dye and makeup. She looked pretty young too, couldn’t be older than 19, and her eyes — weary, maybe bored. Where are you from? Ukraine. Oh, uh, cool.

What the hell do you talk about with a hooker, especially one with those eyes?

The conversation didn’t go far anyway, because a burly leather-jacketed bouncer asked to have a word with me. He told me that my friends and I each owed him $100. What the hell for? “Sitting with the girls.”

“Are you crazy?” I ask, and as our voices rise, more guards show up. Suddenly there’s a little scene, a standoff between the scowling Syrians — many of whom are off-duty secret policemen moonlighting as bouncers — and the confused Americans, with a peanut gallery of Eastern European hookers. And I’m chief negotiator.

I argue that we didn’t choose to “sit with the girls;” we don’t want their services; we only talked for five minutes anyway. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that we’re not getting out of here for free, and I’m surrounded by burly assholes who probably beat prisoners with rubber hoses in their day jobs.

I cobble together 1000 Lira from my friends (about $20), and shove it into the head asshole’s hands. Marshaling my most furious look, I push him aside and march out with my friends in tow –— past the hookers, down the narrow staircase, into the cavernous room full of smoke, past more off-duty secret policemen and into the dark of Bab al-Farj.

I later learned that “super nightclub” is code in the Arab world for a bar with prostitutes, where men pay to sit with “the girls” and chat. A man may arrange a “date” with a girl for the following day when she has “free time” — usually between the hours of 1-5 p.m., when her boss requires her to entertain customers. Outside of her “free time,” the girl is under constant watch, often locked in her room. That’s probably unnecessary, since the boss has her passport and money anyway. The cops don’t care because they’re getting a cut of the business.

And the business runs smoothly in Bab al-Farj. A block away from the sights and smells of the Arab markets, from the shouting vendors and crowded coffee shops and tourists, there’s a blonde girl, no older than 19, with tired eyes. She’s waiting at a bar for the next customer who wants to sit with the girls.

Jonathan Panter is a senior in the College of Arts  and Sciences. He may be reached at jpanter@cornellsun.com. The Storyteller appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Jonathan Panter