Sex for sale: the dark side of tourism in Lebanon
In Lebanon, known as one of the most liberal countries in the Arab world, sex work is a bustling and profitable business. But working conditions for sex workers are often grim.To Lebanon's Kamal, his job is a job like any other. "I send clients at luxury hotels photo albums of the girls,” he said. “It's like selling goods."
Kamal, whose name has been changed at his request, is a 40-year-old pimp based just outside of Beirut, where prostitution thrives – though it is illegal -- in hotels, nightclubs, brothels, private homes, chalets and even on highways.
"I inherited the trade from my father," he said. "To me, it's just a regular job. Demand soars in the summer season, so we help each other out across the networks. They pass girls over to us when we need them and vice versa.”
Kamal owns a club in a coastal city north of Beirut, which has a reputation as a prostitution hub.
In this seaside city, so-called “supper nightclubs” employ exclusively foreign women, mainly from eastern Europe, who travel to Lebanon on "artists' visas."
They start off as dancers and often turn to -- or are forced into -- prostitution in after-hours.
But Kamal says he prefers employing Lebanese and Syrian women, who are "in great demand among Arabs."
"We charge a minimum of 120 dollars (84 euros) per hour, but the price can climb to over 400 dollars (280 euros)," he said. "Gulf clients pay up without asking about the price, while the Lebanese haggle to the penny."
For a mere 20 dollars (14 euros), a receptionist at a luxury hotel provides a selection of pictures to a potential client who can then "choose a blonde, a brunette, one woman or three," said Kamal.
And in a country where sex before marriage is still frowned upon and where a young couple kissing in the street may be reprimanded by police, female sex workers -- some of whom are still legally minors -- can sometimes be seen on the hunt for wealthy clients, particularly men from the oil-rich Gulf seeking an outlet in a country dubbed the most liberal in the Arab world.
The business is also a hit with local clientele.
"I have friends who do not miss mass on Sunday but visit prostitutes twice a week because it's fashionable," said Sami, a Lebanese expatriate in Beirut for the summer. "It's frustrating and it's a sham."
"This 'profession' brings in thousands of dollars to those involved," said Major Elie Asmar, who heads the police's protection of morals department. "Prostitution thrives because of the economic crisis in the country."
Driven into the profession
Some of the women interviewed by AFP said they were drawn to the practice largely for economic reasons.
"I was attracted by easy money,” said Hanin, a 24-year-old Lebanese sex worker in a bar just outside Beirut. “It was too late by the time I felt regret."
"My clients are disgusting, but I make 100 dollars (70 euros) per hour," said Nadia, 26.
Nada, a voluptuous 21-year-old in high heels and a plunging neckline, turned to sex work at the age of 17.
"I obey my boss because he beats me," she said, before bursting into tears and turning away.
The circles most difficult to crack are those in which prostitution is a family affair, says Asmar.
The story of 18-year-old Soha, a Syrian working in Lebanon, is a case in point: her pimp is her husband.
"He brought the clients home," she said. "The first client raped me. I tried to run away in vain."
Like many girls, she says she is now resigned because of financial need, abuse and fear of what people will say.
"We once arrested a man who 'sold' his wife in his own house," Asmar said. "In another case, we found a husband who admitted he had earned 7,000 dollars (4,900 euros) in a week of 'work.'"
Asmar notes that prostitution remains illegal in Lebanon and, if indicted, those involved are liable to two years' imprisonment.
Punishment for the girls involved, however, can exact an even higher price, Kamal said.
"There are red lines that should not be crossed," he said. "If a girl moves to another network without our consent, it's a declaration of war and there will be blood."