By Aida Ghajar
December 18, 2018
I asked an Iranian businessman who smuggled goods between Turkey and Iran to introduce me to Iranian sex workers in Istanbul nightclubs. He said he knew a few places in the neighborhood of Aksaray as well as in Istiklal street. And he agreed to take me on one condition: that I tag along posing as his girlfriend. I agreed.
I met up with the businessman, who went by a pseudonym, Saeed. Saeed had been living in Turkey for the last 20 years, when he arrived to set up and operate his own business. He constantly played Kurdish music, and frequently mentioned his childhood and growing up, which was a difficult period for him. He had been very poor. And yet he did not share many details about himself. Every few sentences he asked: “When will this report of yours be published?”
We planned to go to the nightclub on a weekend night. Saeed and his colleague came to pick me up and took me to his office. He said it was still too early to go to the club. “Let’s warm up a little bit, so we don’t spend money on alcohol in the club,” he said, putting a bottle of vodka on the table. As per usual, he played Kurdish songs and began discussing the Kurds’ struggles in the region. His colleague was Turkish and they had a heated debate on Kurdish-Turkish relations as well until finally, we began talking about Iranian sex workers.In the middle of our conversation, the Turkish colleague showed me his phone, which was full of photos of women who have now become a business offer in the inner circles of traffickers.
According to Saeed and other accounts of human traffickers, some traffickers decide they like a female client, and then kidnap her and not let her leave their house. They may subject them to sexual abuse or rape. Sometimes they use violence and force the kidnapped women to call their contacts and tell them they have reached their destination so the traffickers get paid and avoid any trouble. Some of them trade these women for between 5,000 and 10,000 euros. Many of them consider the women to be their property, and control whether they can continue on their journey or not. These women have no documents or money and therefore have no way of escaping from this trap.
The Club Experience
It was almost midnight when we packed up and headed for the club. We walked down streets and alleys until we got to the Iranian Nightclub, which had the night’s running order on the door, posters featuring photos of Persian women with start and end times. It was a regular club with a light show and an Iranian DJ. The club managers and staff came to welcome Saeed and took us a nice table with the best view over the whole establishment.
Finally I saw the women, who looked like mannequins with an imposed bitter smile on their faces. I could barely smile either. After all, playing the role of a smuggler’s girlfriend was not such an easy task.
Saeed introduced me as Shiva, his new girlfriend, and after a few minutes, the DJ announced my name as the special guest of the night. There were two Iranian women dancing on the stage. After they made eye contact with customers, they would give them a sweet smile and sometimes reluctantly shake their body to the music. Saeed pointed out one and whispered in my ear: “She’s Mariam [a pseudonym), she’s been working in this club for six years now. Before starting work here, she was my girlfriend for a while. It’s the same story with Tannaz [another women he pointed out]) she was also a girlfriend of mine for a while.” He shook his head to show he felt sorry for them.
The club owner filled our table with drinks and snacks and Saeed called Mariam to join us. She sat next to me and without looking me directly, looked at Saeed and said: “She’s cute, what’s her name? When did she arrive?” After listening to Saeed’s responses, she looked at me and said: “It’s hard in the beginning but you get used to it. Don’t trust everyone though!” Then her face turned to stone and continued: “Look at me! I’ve been here for six years now.”
The DJ changed the music and Saeed asked Mariam to take me to the dance floor. She took me with her and a member of the club’s staff joined us, complete with a tray of money, rewarding me like a stripper while I danced with Mariam. Saeed sent his colleague to keep an eye on me so no one would approach me that night. I was his girlfriend for the night. For the first time, I got a sense of what it was like to be the property of a trafficker. I sat next to him at the table and he touched my arm often, or whispered something in my ear. When walking down the street, he held my hand to “publicize” the relationship.
A Brawling Business
When we went back to the table, Saeed asked Mariam to show me the city. “She’s new around here and doesn’t know anyone, take her and show her around.” She refused, and whispered in my ear: “Be careful, but you’ll get a hold of it.” I asked her what I should be most worried about. After a brief silence, she looked at me and replied: “Every night after 3am.” Then she smiled and left our table to perform, grabbing a microphone to sing.
The clients were men of all ages, from young boys to old men. They would go to the stage, dance with the girls for a little, and then go back to their tables to drink and watch the girls performing. It was Tannaz’s turn to join us. “Saeed, this boy reached for my panties when I was singing,” she complained. Saeed shook his head and told her to go. She left. “They just want unnecessary trouble, wanna make me angry and go and mess up that poor boy.” According to him, he had had multiple instances of bar fights with the clients because of the girls’ complaints.
We went to another club, which was full of men, all of them gathered around the stage. We went to a corner and sat next to the European clients. But soon after there was a brawl in the bar, which resulted in a glass being smashed over a woman’s head and the owner having to intervene. We left then, and I did not want to spend any more time in those places. I began to walk down the street by myself and was deep in thought when I heard Saeed shout my name. He was standing in front of another bar talking to someone and signaled me to join him. When I got there, he grabbed my wrist tightly and ordered me to stay right there, next to him. Apparently, I had to continue playing the role.
A bit later, I asked him about the rates people pay to be with the women at the clubs. “The women dance till 3am and after that customers pick the one they want. They pay US$100.”
I got ready to take a taxi. But counter to my instructions, Saeed tried to give his office address to the driver. It was his colleague who eventually came to my help and let the taxi driver take me to my hotel room. All the way back, I was thinking about women who are in similar situations in Greece. There the rate for sex workers is between 10 and 20 Euros. There are also male sex workers in Greece — another detailed story in itself.
The stories of female sex workers around the world, no matter their nationality or race, is full of violence. Many of them have been kidnapped, raped, and sexually abused. But here in Turkey, you can feel and see sexual harassment just walking down the street, a kind of aggression everywhere that women feel first. And when you are a refugee or an asylum seeker, the harassment and aggression is even worse.
It was almost morning and Istanbul was still awake. I kept hearing Mariam’s voice in my head. When we were saying goodbye, I asked her: “Why is your face is so sad?” She turned away from me and replied: “My brother burned and died in the Plasco building fire,” she said. I stared at her face, with her bitter stone cold look full of mysteries.