Dancing for Their Lives
Making an undercover visit to an Iraqi expat nightclub in Syria, where the refugee crisis's illicit economy is on full display.
Um Nour checked her watch. It was close to midnight and my guide to the Iraqi refugee underworld in Damascus wanted to get to the nightclub so she could start making money. I had failed the dress test, attempting to camouflage myself in an alluring outfit and eliciting only a pursed-lips stare, but Um Nour’s transformation was remarkable. I would not have recognized her on the street. On the many daytime occasions we had met during my reporting trips to Damascus in 2008, she dressed in baggy track pants, black hair tied back in a ponytail, her face lined and tired. This time, her long black hair was shiny and brushed with thick bangs that framed her face. She wore a tight-fitting black T-shirt sprinkled with sequins and black stretch pants tightly cinched at the waist. Her lipstick was deep red, her eyeliner heavy and black. She wore two rhinestone rings, her stubby fingers extended by fake red nails curled around an expensive cell phone.
Um Nour escorted me into the club, past men in black dinner jackets at the front door. Syrians owned the club, paid off the Syrian police when necessary, and called them in when there was trouble. Most of the clientele were Iraqis. The room was vast and dark, with spotlights trained on the dance stage. A live band played somewhere in the gloom behind the stage, making conversation almost impossible. There were at least a hundred tables. Most of the customers sat in small groups near the stage, drinking watered arrack and Johnnie Walker, sipping in the low haze of smoke from apple-infused tobacco in bubbling water pipes. Family groups sat farther back: mothers, fathers, and young daughters. Single women in their 20s and 30s had claimed seats in the darkest places, the better to survey the room. Um Nour picked a table near the back entrance, secured our spot, and gestured to the ladies’ restroom. We had gotten past the Syrian owners, but I would have to fit in with the mostly Iraqi clientele.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the Iraqi exiles in Syria had turned to the sex trade for survival. In Damascus, refugees were not permitted to hold jobs. As resources dwindled, many were led into the underground economy. Female-headed households accounted for almost a quarter of the refugees registered with the U.N. refugee agency. Widowed, divorced, or separated from husbands by the war, many women had children or elderly parents to support. Sex was often their only marketable asset.
"I will never dance until I get so drunk," said a woman in a pink latex jumpsuit with clear-plastic shoulder straps that kept the tight fabric in place. She was bent toward the mirror in the ladies’ room, applying eyeliner, next to a line of Iraqi women in the same pose. It was an utterly familiar female ritual: women gathering in front of a public bathroom mirror. It could have been anywhere, but for the outfits of tight fabrics and silver spandex revealing tactile, soft, full breasts served up for inspection. Clinging fabric over ample round backsides. Long skirts, slit to the thigh, bellies exposed. Gleaming black hair. High-heeled boots. Young faces. Curvaceous bodies. One last look? Enough eyeliner? Another pat of powder? Anxiety also filled the room, because of the deals that would have to be concluded later in the evening. One woman, maybe 20 but probably younger, was dressed as a schoolgirl. As we all prepared for the night ahead, the Iraqi women chatted, traded names and phone numbers. They flipped open cell phones and showed the pictures of their young children. Lingering together in this comfortable female place, homesick, they were preparing to live off their bodies.
Another woman said her name was Abeer. "My husband tried to smuggle the kids to Sweden, but they got caught and are back in Baghdad," she told me. She had divorced her husband when he set off for Sweden. She had agreed to the separation for the sake of her two children. Now, she lived with her sister, and worried about her kids. She sent her club earnings home for them. But why had she come to Damascus, I asked; what had driven her to come here in the first place? "I was a journalist," she said. In 2007, she was hired by a television station based in Baghdad. She worked as a correspondent until the day her mother found a letter that had been thrown into the family garden: "Leave in 48 hours or we will kill you." Syria was the only open border. While I was pondering Abeer’s choices, she clicked her cell phone shut, took one last look at her mirror image, and moved toward to door. "Have a good night," she said knowingly, one businesswoman to another, as she made her way into the dark nightclub.
I could see why this was Um Nour’s favorite club. The system of cost and rewards favored women who wanted some control over their work. It was a freelance market. We had walked in through the front door for "free," while the male patrons paid a steep cover charge and even more for the alcohol and snacks delivered to the table. Um Nour explained that women paid the Syrian men at the door at the end of the night — but only if they left with a man.
Iraq has a long historical connection to prostitution. The Whore of Babylon is a character in the Bible’s Book of Revelations, the symbol of all things evil. The world’s oldest profession was first recorded in Mesopotamia in the second millennium B.C. The code of Hammurabi, the ancient world’s first fixed laws for a metropolis, acknowledged prostitution and gave prostitutes some inheritance rights. But Iraq’s modern dictator, Saddam Hussein, had set the stage for the moral decline of his population.
That he did so came as no surprise even to the Iraqis I knew who were most disturbed by the rampant prostitution among the exile community. Many had lived in Baghdad when prostitution was public. At the close of the Iran-Iraq War, prostitutes, protected by the regime, were encouraged to welcome the returning troops — a benevolent "victory present" from Saddam. In the 1990s, another time of hopelessness, prostitution became more widespread. The United Nations sanctions, imposed in 1991 to force Saddam to reveal and destroy Iraq’s suspected weapons of mass destruction, ushered in a decade of deprivation and corruption. Saddam was unmoved by the punishing financial and trade embargo, but ordinary Iraqis were impoverished, humbled by destitution, as the social fabric of the country unraveled. I had heard many stories about these years. Iraqis poured out searing memories that were as clear and important as the current U.S. occupation. "My father always said one Bush starved us, the other Bush drove us from our homes," as an Iraqi doctor put it. His wealthy father had been ruined by the U.N. embargo, which reduced the family’s daily diet to tomatoes, bread, and onions, with small bits of meat for special occasions. Even the most common illnesses, previously treatable, could be a death sentence as medical supplies dried up. An Iraqi actor told me his bitterest memories came from the sanctions decade as his father moved the large family to cheaper and cheaper accommodations and his sister died prematurely due to inadequate medical care. In those desperate times, Iraqi women had also turned to prostitution to survive.
Another friend who had lived in Baghdad throughout this period observed: "You cannot overestimate the damage those sanctions did to the society. It was a casual thing for an Iraqi brother to help his sister, escorting her to a paying customer because it was improper for her to go alone. University students engaged in prostitution because they needed the cash for food. The administrative staff at the universities would take the role of pimps." Iraqis keenly recalled not only the social wreckage but also the period in the 1990s when Saddam turned to Islam to shore up his legitimacy and suddenly acquired a new moral censoriousness.
Saddam’s national faith campaign had singled out prostitutes and included a public campaign to halt their activities. Appearing on Iraqi television, Saddam announced that these Iraqi women "were dishonoring their country." Between 2000 and 2001, he unleashed the Fedayeen Saddam, a militia created by his son, Uday, to send an unmistakable message to a beaten-down population. Women accused of prostitution were rounded up and publicly beheaded in Baghdad and in other cities. The executioners carried out their work with swords. The severed heads of the condemned women were left on the doorsteps of their homes. Honor is a deeply held concept in Iraqi identity and women play a significant role. The horrific beheadings, the public humiliation of entire families, amplified Saddam’s cruelty and turned the punishment into a state-sanctioned desecration of a family’s name. But in the moral landscape of exile — shaped, in part, by Iraq’s sectarian civil war — honor was abandoned in the struggle to survive.
* * *
I would have to dance. In the dark at the back of the room the stage seemed like a bright planet, a place so distant I could barely make out the life forms. Um Nour had left me sitting alone. She was wandering around the club, greeting old friends. She had explained to the group of men sitting behind us that I was Ukrainian and therefore didn’t speak Arabic, but that didn’t stop them from sending drinks to the table and trying to engage me in drunken conversation. When one kissed me on the top of my head, I decided that I’d be safer on stage.
I climbed up into the bright lights. Most of the dancers seemed alone in the crowd. An older woman, in a simple red dress more appropriate for a day at the market, had been on the dance floor all night. She appeared to be listening to music from some distant time inside her head; eyes closed, she mouthed the lyrics of traditional laments of loss. With each refrain, her eyes moistened and she took the cigarette she was holding and brought the burning tip close to the exposed skin above her breasts. Over and over she brought the smoldering tobacco near her naked skin, about to inflict pain, but stopping short of contact. When the music ended she left the stage for a refresher of tobacco and alcohol.
Two girls danced together, fingers locked, madly twirling waist-long dark hair in circles to the beat of the music. One of them I recognized from the ladies’ room; no longer wearing her schoolgirl’s outfit, she had changed into a still more revealing costume and had paired herself with another long-haired beauty. Were they a package deal? Did they even know each other? They embraced like old friends but did not make eye contact with each other or with any other dancer on the stage. Beside them were two little girls, no more than 12 years old, in party dresses and lipstick. They copied the faces of the older women on stage — giddy, shiny-faced dancers at 3 o’clock in the morning.
The undeclared rules of the dance floor segregated the dancers. Men danced with men, arms entwined over shoulders, in short lines, flinging out one leg at a time and moving in a circle. Women danced alone or in pairs. Breaking the rules, pairing a man and a woman, would imply a business arrangement, and it was too early in the evening for that. The men mounted the stage to scout, to get a better look at the merchandise on offer.
The entertainment was tailored to an Iraqi audience, the music a medley of emotional, nostalgic old favorites from home. A comedian pumped up the audience by calling out the names of Iraqi cities. Baghdad! Sulaymaniyah! Mosul! The applause built for each constituency. He told jokes about the hard life in Damascus and played to the overwhelming longing for home. Then the band struck up another familiar tune and the next singer started the first few words of a song the audience knew well, a song of praise for Saddam. A blue laser light shot out from the audience and tapped the singer’s face. In mid-lyric, he switched to a tribute to the Iraqi national football team, eliciting widespread applause and calming the crowd of drunken men.
Abeer discovered me on the dance floor. I hadn’t seen her since our conversation in the ladies’ room. She wanted a dance partner and we were now old friends. She grabbed my hand and I was grateful. What choice was there? I was out of place, uncomfortable, a little scared in this crowd. My limited Arabic would not get me out of trouble. I needed a friend and Abeer had offered her hand, a partner for my charade. We danced. We rolled our eyes at the little girls on the stage as they became clumsy and tired and knocked into the other dancers. The red lady with the cigarettes was still with us and we shook our heads and wondered what trauma she was playing out. We moved around the dance floor, took in the details, looked at the faces, and then I saw Nezar Hussein, my translator and friend.
He was dancing, too, arms tangled in a line of men, smiling broadly when I finally noticed him. Unknown to me, he had been at the club all night, sitting across the room, my silent protector. I was relieved to see him. We made a plan to meet at the back entrance and share a cab for the trip home to compare notes on the rest of the dancers.
The man in the black dinner jacket at the front door demanded 500 Syrian liras, equivalent to about $15. He stretched out his hand and looked at me. He wanted his commission. I was leaving with a man, albeit Nezar, and I was now expected to pay up out of my expected proceeds. "But he’s my friend!" I said blurting it out in English, momentarily forgetting Um Nour’s instruction. Nezar and I had walked out together, reclaiming our identities at the front door, but to the Syrian controllers we were still part of the nightclub clientele. The dinner jacket stretched out his hand again and repeated, more forcefully this time, his demand for a cut of the deal. Five hundred, he said. We kept walking toward the cab and he watched us go. "Don’t ever come back here again," he said glaring. That was easy. I did not ever want to come back again. The undertow of despair was too great.
In the taxi, Nezar and I marveled at the dancer in the red dress, the cigarette lady, who had sat out the intermissions on Nezar’s side of the room. "I saw her beating herself every time the singer started a song about mothers. She beat her breast really hard. When she saw me watching her, she came over to my chair and kissed me on my eyes. And she was crying." We both shook our heads at the unimaginable calamity. We were tired, emotionally exhausted, and completely sober.
"I saw Um Nour showing pictures on her mobile phone," said Nezar. He had saved this detail for last. "I mean, I wasn’t far from her when she came to my side of the room. Photos of almost-naked girls," he said. Um Nour was a madam? She was trafficking young girls when she got up from the table and circulated among the male customers in the club? She was tough, a survivor. I should not have been so surprised. Each time I had asked her about her own daughter Um Nour had proudly answered that both of her children were in school. She was making sure they had a good future. Her children were Iraqis and one day they could go home.