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The Oldest Profession in the Oldest City

So, I realize that when I set out to write this blog I intended to do a lot of writing about Syria’s international position. However, I also wanted to do pieces about domestic issues and things that shed light on what life was like here. Well I haven’t done nearly enough of that so far, so consider this my first entry.

Recently a close friend, and former roommate, relayed a story that I think can shed some light on Syria. To give some background I met this friend here in Syria and was immediately impressed by his lovely and delightful blend of American patriotism and ernest interest in the Middle East. He has since returned to the US but has started an intense Arabic program that will bring him back to Damascus soon enough. His story was about another student in his program.

Sam and I lived together in a suburb of Damascus called Jeramana, or Germany by some locals. It doesn’t have much in common with the real Germany, but it certainly is an interesting place. Jeramana might be the most open and uncontrolled area in Syria. With loud bustling streets covered in trash, and lots of people. Liquor stores and “cafes” dominate the streets, tight jeans and revealing tops dominate the fairer sex. Employees of foreign embassies are not allowed to go unless on official business. One of the few places in Syria where almost anything goes, the place held obvious appeal for a group of young, male, ex-pats. Jeramana is also one of several areas that have absorbed the majority of the Iraqi refugee population living in Syria.

Well, Sam’s story had to do with both the demographics, and nature of Jeramana. You see, our flat was above one particular “cafe” that was really a brothel. Taxi drivers would inevitably raise their eyebrows when we told them where we lived. Every night a steady stream of working women would poor in, followed pretty quickly by the crowds of anxious men. The place closed late, around 4am, and closing time usually entailed a fight of some kind, usually over money or competition for the affections of a particular employee.

We all knew what was going on at Titanic. Everyone in the neighborhood knew. Upon moving in to our flat we were asked to sign a petition by another tenant of the building in an effort to get rid of the seedy business. While this sort of thing is certainly frowned upon by Syrian society, and officially by the Syrian government, nightclubs like Titanic aren’t that uncommon. The airport road, not far from my old flat in Jeramana, is peppered with similar spaces.

The thing is there is a plentiful supply of workers for places like Titanic. Iraqi refugees. While no one is sure exactly how many Iraqi’s currently live in Syria, the number that commonly gets thrown around is 1 million. These are people who are not formally allowed to work and, after being away from home for as long as 7 years for some, money is drying up. Some certainly are able to find work in one way or another, in general Iraqi’s are a very competent and resourceful people. Some are able to make ends meet through UN support and the underground market in supplies that has sprung up to handle UN food aid. This is a meagre existence and not enough for most.

What many have turned to has been prostitution. Summer is the busy season. Another component of Jeramana is the influx of Khaligi, or Gulf Arab, tourists that come to Syria every summer. According to this report the number of Arab visitors to Syria has exceeded 2 million in the first 6 months of 2010. Coming from Saudi Arabia or other conservative nations, Jeramana might as well be Germany. Liqour stores and “cafes” suddenly have a lot of new customers with money to spend. Iraqi women are often vying for those dollars as well. Aid organizations here openly assume single Iraqi women who live alone are part of the sex trade. There are stories of Iraqi men bringing their wives into Syria only to sell them into slavery and return to Iraq with the money.

The story that got Sam and I talking was about when Sam told another member of his Arabic program about Jeramana, and Titanic, and the many Iraqi working girls here in Syria. Sam’s classmate has been around the Middle East and speaks fairly good Arabic, good enough anyway to get into a competitive language program. And yet he was shocked by the revelation that such things went on in the Arab world. Having traveled the region some he had not seen anything on the order of a “Titanic Closing Time Brawl”.

The thing is for a place like Titanic to exist SOMEONE in the government has to know about it, and most likely is taking bribes to ensure it stays open in spite of any petitions. There are many mouths to feed, some being Iraqi, some being Syrian and it should come as no surprise that establishments like this one exist throughout the capitol. Just because pimps and hoes aren’t out walking the street as they would in western red light districts does not mean they aren’t there. Without too much trouble I’m sure it would be easy enough to find similar areas in Cairo, Dubai, Beirut and Amman. Hopefully Sam and I get to open the eyes of his classmate when they both come back to Damascus.



Walter Raubeson

Walter spent the last two years living and working in Damascus, reporting on the Syrian social, political, and cultural scene. Recently returned to the US, Walter continues to monitor Middle Eastern events with verve, and also gusto.

Having graduated from New York University's Masters Program in Political Science- International Relations-in September 2008, Walter's MA thesis analyzed the Lebanese political system; focusing on the impact of foreign intervention within Lebanon, particularly the roles of Iran, Israel, Syria, and the US.