“I was three months pregnant when my husband stole my jewels and abandoned me forever. For this reason, I left Basra. And here I am in Baghdad, where I provide pleasure to anyone who pays.”
This is the beginning of the story of Wardah, 23 years old, which ends today in an apartment downtown, where she is spending the night with a man in return for $250 and a bottle of alcohol.
Certainly, her real name is not Wardah, and she may not even be from the city of Basra. This is how things are for prostitutes in Baghdad. Aliases are part of the precautions they take in a society that chases them down but derives pleasure from them at the same time.
It is very difficult to gain the trust of one of the prostitutes. But most of them feel excited when they talk to journalists. They complain about a country that did not provide them with opportunities for a decent life and perceives them with inferiority.
In a police station in Baghdad, scores of prostitutes were put in a small cell following extensive raids across the city. That night, they received dinner from a luxury restaurant via free delivery service, while unidentified guards ordered the delivery of cigarette packs and other items to them.
A police officer told Al-Hayat laughingly: “It is not any different for them in prison. This is a hotel, and they are on vacation.”
Two or three days after Al-Hayat paid a visit to the police station, the girls were set free on a high bail. This is just one of the daily incidents of night life in Baghdad. What the police officer said does not seem to be accurate. The dredges of the city are crushing the girls unabatedly.
In an area close to the eastern center of the capital, high residential buildings are inhabited by a number of women, who are known by young men as “sheikhas.” They are responsible for providing housing for young women working in prostitution, in addition to other services, such as health precautions and protection, under unstable and worrying social and security conditions.
A “sheikha” ensures the safety of prostitutes with the person who pays to escort the girl to his own place. But this method was surpassed by the “sheikhas” through the provision of prostitutes operating out of their own residences. While a supervisor pays her friends — from the police or members of the various militias responsible for security — the prostitute gets 20% of the money paid by the clients.
A sheikha is usually beyond the age that would allow her to provide services herself. It is difficult for her to attract a man, and even if she succeeds, her fees would be much less than that of a twenty-something young woman. Thus, with time, a prostitute becomes a “sheikha” that manages other prostitutes. Her main responsibilities are managing sources of funding, and holding dinners with officers or businessmen who carry out suspicious activities in order to make more deals.
In a nightclub located in the heart of Baghdad, where the nightlife is recovering after so many years, the police raided the place and closed it. The raid came as part of wide government-led campaigns against liquor stores and nightclubs.
A senior security source told Al-Hayat that “according to a decision from the higher authorities, these recreational facilities are not licensed.”
Officials in Baghdad said that people are outraged over the spread of these places. This came in conjunction with Facebook campaigns named “No to nightclubs.”
The nightclub used to be a restaurant. Its colorful façade and part of its interior had been burned down before the place was officially shut down. Al-Hayat asked a worker at the nightclub about the incident. But he refused to comment and only said that it was “an electrical fault during a night when the club was busy with Eastern dance music, and life does not stop in it until dawn.”
Today, however, the scene from inside the club is not only chaotic — it is one of the strongest signs of contradiction in Baghdad and a witness to the feeling of exhaustion and the weight of life among its people.
Amid this chaos, many men sat at tables surrounding a stage around which revolved girls wearing sexy dance clothes that highlighted parts of their bodies. Everybody here pays for pleasure, and quarrels often happen over one of the girls.
The audience is a mixture of young men depleted from the lack of life opportunities, a handful of rising businessmen made successful after the war and officers who have influence in the area where the club is located.
“Wardah” says that a big number of them are “religious, participate in religious events and activities, and practice rituals regularly.” Clashes between them never end peacefully.
A policeman in the area near the club says that “officers were at a party, and it did not end well. The reason was a bet on a girl.” Without a doubt, these facts are not officially documented, or at least are not discussed in the media.
“Wardah,” who keeps her son “Hamada” (4 years) at her friend’s while working, says: “I dance on stage with five girls. About 15 drunk men open strips of money and throw them on our bodies. Someone who works for the sheikha collects the money. When a man chooses one of us, he pays the fees for a table and a bottle of alcohol, and we finish somewhere else.”
But it's not that simple. “Wardah” who survived an attack a year ago by an addict who is used to beating up his wives with a leather belt, lost a girlfriend of hers who had spent the last night at the house of a drug gang northeast of Baghdad. She ended up completely disfigured.
But the question that everyone is trying to answer is how these girls come to this secret world in the capital. The traditional account says that the Roma lead the night life. But this account is old and goes back to the time when the pillars of Saddam Hussein's regime used to provide protection for the Roma, since a number of them were eager to spend some time with them.
Al-Hayat spoke to an officer in the “social police,” who had a different story: “Prostitutes are the last link in a long chain that begins with hard-to-reach businessmen and pimps, who invest their money in the sex trade. This is not new to Baghdad. However, Iraqi girls who have recently returned from countries of asylum have packed the clubs and secret houses.”
The officer says that the attempts to expose the pimps end in failure, because some influential groups exert pressure to revive this market.
Meanwhile, when asked about the dismantling of the human trafficking industry in Iraq, Wardah who became an alcoholic, says: “This is just a dream.”