September 2009


After I wrote a post last month touching on the issue of prostitution, this blog has been receiving hits from searches such as “beirut AND prostitute.” And while “russian prostitutes lebanon” is an expected search term, “beirut indian prostitutes” might come as more of a surprise — and both searches have led here. But these search terms are two faces of the same coin.

Most reporters on prostitution in Lebanon “venture” to Maameltein or to Hamra and many end up unwittingly marketing prostitution rather than shedding light on its problems. This Meow Lebanon article, for example, makes human trafficking sound almost benign. A better researched report from Executive magazine (via Qifa Nabki) deals with some of the problems of semi-legal prostitution of the super nightclubs, such as the practice of withholding women’s passports and restricting their movements. But with its artsy photographs (many from Amsterdam!) and its detailed description of the logistics, it feels at points like something out of a tourist guide. The fact that it does not venture beyond Maameltein and Hamra either contributes to the relatively “rosy” picture of the business.

The darker side is very dark. There is a certain hierarchy to prostitution in Lebanon, topped by the super nightclubs and their well-off clientele. Lebanese, Egyptian, and other Arab sex workers come next, many working the seedier places such as the older bars of Hamra. Further down the ladder lie the less known facets of prostitution. A recent article (h/t: Antoun) begins to scratch the surface by touching on forced and family aspects of the business. Far less common are discussions of under-aged prostitutes, both boys and girls. As one descends the prostitutional ladder, leaving Maameltein and Hamra behind, the value of the human body drops radically. The markets of Khaldeh and Sabra Palestinian Camp offer bodies as young as 14 for the equivalent of $6.5-$20.

A very fragile and invisible group occupies the lowest rung: female workers from Africa and Asia. Though some light is being shed on the abuse domestics in Lebanon are subject to, not enough is being said about the destitution and deception that leads some to prostitution. One can only imagine how fragile the position of a domestic worker would be if she ends up out of cash and living illegally in Lebanon. And there is no dearth of people willing to take advantage of that. I know from a friend who is active in human rights that some who come to the country as domestic workers end up offering sexual services in Ouzaii, Khaldeh, and Dawrah for as little as $6.5. Others are deceived into coming to Lebanon for the sole purpose of prostitution, as is the case with Burundi and undoubtedly many more.

The Lebanese authorities are complicit in all these various forms. Whether in the semi-legalized glamor of Maameltein or the desert of human rights of Palestinians and foreign laborers, the hand of the law is there: overlooking, encouraging, taking bribes, setting visa categories, and perpetuating the depraved conditions that make the oldest profession in the world a flourishing business in Lebanon. As far as reporters go, however, the lower down the ladder one goes, the less sexy the topic becomes. So do not expect to see photographs of the brothels of the poor adorning the pages of a glossy magazine.

Attempts at branding Israel have accelerated after the war on Gaza, Blue Star PR being one example. But the attempt goes as far back as at least last summer when the Israeli government, together with Canadian partners, started the “Brand Israel” advertising campaign, aimed at changing Canadians’ view of Israel. Briefly put, the campaign entails doing nothing about the reasons why Israel is under constant criticism and doing everything about changing her image. Same product, different packaging. It is, after all, brought to you by the same people who branded Lebanon.

The honorary place Israel will be receiving at the Toronto International Film Festival is the culmination of this campaign. The festival’s new City to City program will be kicked off by a focus on Tel Aviv. As a sure sign that the pre-Gaza’09 world is not the post-Gaza’09 world, however, this has elicited a reaction that goes beyond the usual fringe group:

The emphasis on ‘diversity’ in City to City is empty given the absence of Palestinian filmmakers in the program. Furthermore, what this description does not say is that Tel Aviv is built on destroyed Palestinian villages, and that the city of Jaffa, Palestine’s main cultural hub until 1948, was annexed to Tel Aviv after the mass exiling of the Palestinian population. This program ignores the suffering of thousands of former residents and descendants of the Tel Aviv/Jaffa area who currently live in refugee camps in the Occupied Territories or who have been dispersed to other countries, including Canada. Looking at modern, sophisticated Tel Aviv without also considering the city’s past and the realities of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza strip, would be like rhapsodizing about the beauty and elegant lifestyles in white-only Cape Town or Johannesburg during apartheid without acknowledging the corresponding black townships of Khayelitsha and Soweto.

You can read the open letter and list of signatories here. The great surprise was seeing Jane Fonda among the signatories. The same Jane Fonda who entertained Israeli troops in east Beirut during the siege of 1982 and expressed her identification with Israel’s struggle — which got her on the Lebanese Internal Security’s list of banned movies (pdf list courtesy of Sean).