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July 14, 2008

Survival Sex: Iraqi Refugees

Imagine: One day you're a nurse leading a quiet middle-class life; a few years later you're in a strange country doing the unthinkable: selling yourself. For some Iraqi refugees, prostitution is the only trick they feel they've got left.

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Malak photographed in the reporter's hotel room.

Photo Credit: Jason Florio

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It’s late evening in Amman, Jordan, and the city, a sea of white stone, is particularly quiet. But not far from the center of town, in a neighborhood known as the Gardens, the Cottage is coming to life. A staircase leads down to a windowless room filled with sweet, stinging hookah smoke and shrill Arabic ballads, courtesy of a sweaty lounge singer and his electric keyboard. Men lean over small tables around the dance floor, taking in the club's main attraction: young Iraqi women swiveling their hips. For about 100 Jordanian dinars ($140), each can be bought for a night.

"When you start, you just watch and learn," explains Malak, a 34-year-old from Karbala, ruffling her coppery hair as she talks. Malak's eyes are dark, almost black, and her mannerisms — hair flips, giggling, crossing and recrossing her legs — seem like the studied result of months sitting at the bar. "You dance, and if someone is interested, he will invite you to have a drink. You never ask what they do. They don't give their real name, and you never give yours."

Five years ago, Malak was living in one of Iraq's wealthiest cities. She'd studied English, Polish, and Italian in college, and remains a big George Michael fan — her liberal mother, whom she lived with (her father died of cancer a decade ago), bought her his tapes when she was younger. Their house was next door to a Karbala hotel, a target during the U.S. invasion thanks to the Iraqi soldiers who occupied it. When the bombs started coming, Malak wound up in the hospital for a month. After she got out, she learned her mother hadn't survived.

"Being a translator prepared me for this job," she says drily, explaining that her Western clients prefer English speakers. Malak wasn't working before the war. When the Americans took over Baghdad, she stayed, interpreting for the U.S. military and making $850 to $1000 a month. One night, while out on patrol with the Marines, she was shot in the leg. Less mobile, she started taking desk jobs for foreign embassies and contracting companies like KBR and Lucent Technologies, which kept her solvent and independent. She says she sold the land in Karbala where her house had stood for $100,000 cash, and as there were no secure banks, she kept it in a bag under some clothes in her apartment in the Green Zone. Then one evening she came home to find her building swallowed by flames. Mortar attack. The money was gone. Soon after, on her way to work, she was shot in the same leg again, in a terrorist drive-by, leaving her right thigh twice the size of her left. It was time to quit Baghdad. An American friend arranged for her flight to Jordan.

Malak and I meet in her basement apartment in Amman. It could be a dorm room — the bed littered with stuffed animals, the humming mini-fridge, the chipped wooden dresser covered with neat rows of lipstick, eyeshadow, blush, and jewelry. She tells me she resisted prostitution when she first arrived in the city. "My friends who'd been in town a while laughed at me. They said there are no jobs for us," she says. "But I went on interviews. I got an offer from a dentist, to be his secretary, and he said I'd have to sleep with him. So I said, 'Fuck you. I won't do that.'" She kept looking, but whether it was a restaurant or a law office, the quid pro quo was the same. With her money nearly gone, she went to the disco at the Grand Hyatt Amman.

"The first time I had a client, I asked him to turn the light off," she says. "But he wanted to watch me undress." When the man, an American, saw Malak's deformed leg, he assumed she had a disease. She explained that she had taken a bullet while working for his government. "He told me to go."

If she wanted to make the rent, Malak had to try again. Her friends gave her advice. "They would say, 'You have to do this. You can't be too proud. You don't have to care about him.' They saw that I was scared and quiet, and they told me to be happy and laugh and pretend to have fun — that's the only way I could make money. They told me to forget myself." She started getting clients, American, French, Jordanian. "The first time, it was difficult," she says. "You have someone touch you, and you think you are respectable, but you let them do this. I was dying. Every minute I was dying inside. I was thinking, Please don't touch me. In Iraq, I was afraid I'd be killed by terrorists or kidnapped, and then I come here to do this."

After a year of getting by this way, the impossible happened — Malak met a good man and married him. Her friends wouldn't be so lucky.


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