Um Nour was not pleased. I could see her eyes tighten slightly as she surveyed my attire. Not pleased. She pursed her lips and reached into her handbag for a bottle of strong flowery perfume and rubbed it over my hands.
A Sunni woman who had run from death threats in a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad, Um Nour was pretty and pale, a single mother, well upholstered, who had come to Damascus in 2006. When we first met, she had welcomed me into her modest home on the bottom floor of an unfinished concrete apartment block in a neighborhood crowded with refugee families. We had talked for a couple of hours, stretched out in her daughter’s bedroom like old friends. She had been remarkably candid about the prevalence of prostitution in the exile community. The conversation ended when her two children, a teenaged daughter and a somewhat younger son, came home from school and Um Nour resumed her role as an affectionate, protective mother.
A few months earlier, she had offered to take me to her favorite nightclub. “You won’t have to pay any money to go there,” she assured me. But Um Nour was in charge of the evening and I had to pass her careful inspection. I had rummaged through my traveling wardrobe for something appropriate. An alluring nightclub outfit was going to be a stretch. She looked through my cosmetics bag and decided that what I lacked in exposed cleavage could be offset by an Iraqi-style application of makeup. By way of advice, she gave me one firm warning: “Don’t speak English.”
Um Nour’s invitation would help me answer a question I had struggled with: Why had so many Iraqi women and girls turned to the sex trade for survival in Damascus? That question led to more questions, including: Why wasn’t anyone doing much to protect them? I had interviewed experts at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and talked to dozens of Iraqi exiles, but to interview the women and girls who make a living in the sex trade, to spend time with them, was more difficult than I imagined. Um Nour was my best chance for getting a look inside the business and she was willing to take me there.
Each time I returned to Damascus during 2009, I made a point of seeing Um Nour. Prostitution among refugees was another fallout from the Iraq war, and her choice of this survival strategy in Damascus was a measure of the welfare of the exile community. Over time her life had improved. She could now afford the school fees for her children, and on one visit I noticed new furniture in the front room of her apartment. She served tea there to celebrate her rising affluence. On yet another visit, she volunteered shyly that she had two lovers. I assumed that these men provided some of her income. She offered the barest details of her personal life, instead steering my questions to the conditions affecting the broader community. The price of food was rising, she told me. Life was hard for everyone. Jobs were scarce. But despite the hardships Iraqi exiles were not going back to Baghdad yet. She was not going back to Baghdad. She vowed to stay in Damascus until the Shiite-dominated government changed in Iraq.
Um Nour never admitted she was a prostitute, and I never asked her the question directly. Our conversations about the sex trade in Damascus remained on “Iraqi” terms, vague on her personal involvement and on the moral dilemma, but specific on the details of what other women did. Um Nour’s stories about herself were filled with omissions; but then, selective recall is a survival skill.
It was difficult for Iraqi women to acknowledge such shameful behavior.
In all of my interviews only one woman told me directly how she raised money to support her children and the rest of her family. “I go with men,” Hiba said bluntly. We were sitting in her apartment, in her daughter’s bedroom. Hiba’s mother was sitting beside her and had just told me that Hiba worked as a house cleaner. But Hiba, a pretty twenty-seven-year-old, rolled her eyes and snorted at her mother’s bald-faced lie. Hiba’s calculated candor made her mother cross her arms and look away.
“In Baghdad, I was the most honest housewife in the world,” she asserted, more for her mother’s approval than for mine. Hiba told me that she had graduated from college, then married and become a fulltime mother after her first daughter was born. Her father had been a goldsmith, and the family had lived comfortably in Iraq. Hiba and her family are Mandaeans, a religious minority that is among Iraq’s oldest, predating Christianity and Islam. Mandaeans revere John the Baptist, and their religious rituals, from baptisms to weddings, are performed in the muddy waters of Iraq’s Tigris River. The community’s wealth and faith placed them at risk from Islamic radicals. In Saddam’s time, about seventy thousand Mandaeans lived in Iraq; by 2008, almost all of them had fled the country.
In 2004, Hiba’s daughter was kidnapped when the family was on an outing to visit relatives, “and the gangsters were following us,” she explained. The family raised a $20,000 ransom, but soon after Hiba’s daughter was returned, they were threatened again because of their religion. The extended family fled to Syria in 2005.
A full-lipped woman with large eyes and shiny brown hair, Hiba waved her two young daughters out of the room. Hiba said she was now the sole wage earner for the family after her husband had disappeared eight months earlier. “He felt so tired of living. He ran away.”
Her story trailed off. Was this the event that had pushed Hiba into the sex trade? Or did her husband walk out the door because of Hiba’s work? I couldn’t help wondering as I looked around the small well furnished apartment. There was a television in the living room and another one in the girls’ bedroom alongside a DVD player. There were balloons on the living room carpet, left over from a birthday party for her daughters the day before. Hiba wore a heavy gold necklace that spelled her name in large English letters. A small diamond glittered on one letter.