Register Monday | June 18 | 2018

Hidden in Plain Sight

How prostitution is changing Jordan

The drab, carpeted room smells of cologne and air freshener. The owner, a well-coiffed Jordanian in his thirties, sits behind an uncluttered desk. I am two steps in when he demands 15 JDs (Jordanian dinars, about CDN$25)-a fee that gets you through the door, and no further. "We have Russians, Ukrainians, Moroccans, Chinese, Syrians and Romanians," he announces, as though rattling off a wine list. Above him hang portraits of the late, beloved King Hussein and of his son, the current ruler, King Abdullah II. The monarchs seem to smile beneficently down at the tremendous wad of cash the man is holding. You'd expect security precautions, like bodyguards and an intercom; at the very least, a lock on the door. But there is none of this. Neither the owner nor the burly men crowding the room's two vinyl couches look the least bit worried-or embarrassed, for that matter.

Every few minutes, a door opens at the other end of the room, and out slips a girl dressed in high heels, tight jeans and a top that would attract scowls-or worse-in downtown Amman. She collects one of the men on the couches, and together they disappear through the same door.

An Iraqi man in his twenties enters the room, followed quickly by his chubby, pubescent brother. The man informs the owner that it's his brother's first time. The owner hesitates, asks how old the kid is. Thirteen. More hesitation. It's against the law if you're under eighteen, he says. The older brother insists, promising lots of money. The owner considers this briefly and then acquiesces. "140 JDs each," he says (approximately $250). The kid waits with a look of detached curiosity on his face. After money is exchanged, he asks for a Moroccan girl.

Prostitution is alive and well in Amman. This massage parlour, although illegal, is by no means unique; in fact, its dull façade is practically the standard for such businesses, which have sprung up across Jordan's capital in the last year. "You can see their advertisements in newspapers," says Tamer Khreis, a human-rights lawyer in Jordan. "People all know that massage parlours are used for something other than massage."

Everyone also knows that this is not the only way to pay for sex. It is available on street corners, as well as in hundreds of similarly nondescript nightclubs that cater to expats and wealthy Jordanians. The spectre of sex is omnipresent here, used to sell everything from dishwasher soap to sunglasses. Pornography is viewed, shared and habitually obsessed over in Internet cafés around the city. The increasingly easy access to sex can be attributed to the huge number of young people in Jordan (the median age is twenty-two, compared to Canada's thirty-eight) and to its pro-Western government, which is eager to attract tourists and business from beyond the Arab world.

While the modern realities of prostitution and Internet porn are proving to be unstoppable forces, so too are history and religion. Though scarcely mentioned in the Koran, prostitution is one of Islam's gravest sins-worse than murder-and punishable with death by stoning. Few Muslim countries enforce this rule, part of a ritual and judicial system known as shariah, but the stigma remains. Jordanian culture, heavily influenced by its nomadic Bedouin tribes and their laws emphasizing honour, still entitles a father or brother to kill a female relative if she has sullied the family's reputation. The country is caught between encroaching Westernization and a bedrock of Islam, especially in Amman. Sex is repressed, yet it is everywhere.

Alena thinks she knows why there are so many massage parlours in Jordan. "Anyone can do it," she says in a thick Romanian accent. Wearing only a towel, I'm lying in front of her on a massage table, my head propped up on one arm. A facing wall-length mirror reflects a white shower stall, a white bottle of cold cream, a white counter and a white sink-it feels like I'm waiting for a very hygienic orgy to begin. Alena had ushered me in and quickly left the room, the towel an apparent prerequisite for her to re-enter. It was just as well: the room was far too warm for clothing. When she returned, she washed her hands and asked me what I wanted. When I told her I just wanted to talk, she promptly leaned on the counter and lit a cigarette. "If I had money, I could [start a massage parlour]."

Alena has black hair and is wearing hoop earrings. A modest gold crucifix dangles over her top. Her lips are outlined in dark red, her skin is powdered white, and her eyes are painted black. In Montreal or New York, she might be going clubbing, but she is unlike any woman I've seen in Jordan. She tells me that while she has several American customers, most of the clientele is Jordanian.

What she doesn't have is a guilt complex. "I give massage, I do hand job. That is my fucking job. No shame, no problems. I am happy." Sex with clients, she says, is out of the question. "I don't suck or do fuck, only hand job. It's not like sex, no?" She says she clears the equivalent of about two thousand dollars a month. She only sticks around for the money; Jordan, she claims, is oppressively boring. "I don't like it here," she says, exhaling smoke. "They say you have to dress a certain way, wear the hijab and all that. I don't want to. I want to dress like this." I ask if she feels that Jordanians look down on her as a result. She responds by pointing out once again that most of her customers are Jordanian-and terrible tippers, to boot.

Her responses, delivered with the gusto of honest-to-God spite, cut to the heart of this society's contradictions. Prostitution might be worse than murder, but it is as present and as popular here as it is in the West. "Islamic law has this funny feature," explains Wael Hallaq, a professor of Islamic law at McGill University. "It has the strictest requirements, yet in application, countries tended to use punishments only occasionally to either deter further action or to teach a lesson." The image of brutal Arab societies only applies to countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, which are in competition "to show who is a better Muslim," according to Hallaq. Most Arab countries recognize the existence of prostitution, and even tacitly accept it.

Khreis, who has defended many prostitutes in court, counters, "People are not very open-minded about this. People look at the prostitute, and she is not a good figure in the world." In Jordan, both the owner of a brothel and the women who work there can face up to three years in jail if convicted. Prostitutes are often mistreated while in custody. However, the police have stopped cracking down on massage parlours like the one I visited. "Governments have given law enforcement 'non-written' instructions not to bust these places," states Khreis. The reasoning is simple, he adds. It is the government that issued the permits for these parlours in the first place.

In Amman, a city that becomes more and more Westernized the further one travels away from its core, opinions about sex literally depend on where you are on the map. Downtown Amman is the old part of town-a crowded circus of cigarette vedors, coffee shops and sidewalk kiosks hocking everything from fake Nikes to real monkeys. At its centre is the al-Husseini mosque, to which Muslims flock five times a day for prayer. It is one of the city's poorest and most devout neighbourhoods. More than anywhere else in the city, it is also where street prostitutes ply their trade.

A short two-dollar cab ride away lies another reality altogether. Thirty years ago, the Shmesani district was farmland. Today, it's an American middle-class dreamland. The count-less coffee-shop terraces brim with style and attitude, as do the many Burger Kings and Pizza Huts. The Kentucky Fried Chicken near the Canadian embassy has lines out the door on Thursday and Friday nights. Like proper budding suburbanites, Jordanian men have mastered the macho art of driving around in circles, pumping out American hip hop mixed with a frenetic wail of Arab pop music. Young Arab women, if not dressed as provocatively as Alena, are certainly following in her footsteps. There are young people everywhere-and absolutely no palpable sense of moral menace.

The Shmesani is typical of the "new" Jordan, the one its government wants the West to notice. Most Arab countries export oil. Jordan, which lacks this commodity, sells stability. It boasts Western-friendly business practices and, more importantly, location. Wedged between Syria, Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the country is arguably the most stable spot in this violent region.

The thirst for all things American-money, clothes, cars, music and, above all, sex-is evident everywhere, from the dozens of five-star hotels packed with Americans and Brits working on the Iraqi war effort to the scrapyard on the outskirts of Amman that resells plundered Iraqi steel. The new Jordanian International Police Training Centre was built with a $100 million us grant from the American State Department. By the end of 2005, thirty-five thousand Iraqi police officers are expected to have trained here.
When it comes to interpersonal communication and relationships, however, the Jordanian approach is distinctly un-American. Much of the youthful bravado on display in the Shmesani district is one giant tease. "This society is screwed up, worse than you can imagine," says Shadi al-Qassem, a Jordanian journalist living in Amman. The diminutive and at times explosive al-Qassem has worked for the BBC's Arabic service and is a frequent critic of Arab society. In his view, Jordan is bleak, materialistic and obsessed with sex. "The girls are looking for the money, so guys without cars, they will not go with them. But a guy with a car, they will immediately jump inside." Because a woman's virginity is prized, al-Qassem says that young Jordanians choose to have anal sex instead-usually without protection. He qualifies such middle-class hook-ups as purely "sexual relationship[s]."
  Men with no disposable income have few options besides pornographic websites-and, in some instances, each other. Internet porn is more than rampant in Amman; it is an epidemic. "Most of the people who use the Internet, they use it for porn," al-Qassem says. "They pay 7 to 8 JDs [$12-$14] for the day, and they just watch porno. They are poor, so no girl will go with them."

Like prostitution, the viewing and downloading of Internet pornography are illegal, but these activities are almost universally tolerated. "According to the piece of paper on the door, I'm the owner of the café, and I'm supposed to comply to the laws governing Internet cafés," explains Ayman, an ebullient Jordanian-Canadian who owns a café in Shmesani. "I have to document all the users of the Internet. They have to provide legitimate ID, and give the time and their signatures. I'm supposed to keep all the files"-he stifles a laugh-"of the history of the computers. I have to have some sort of filter or blocking [on] any sites where you can either see or hear-, which tempts the sexual instincts of the user."

Ayman obeys none of these rules. He made an attempt when he opened the place a little over a year ago, he says, but "after a while I decided not to do that because I started losing business, you know what I mean?" His establishment is typical of the hundreds of such cafés in Amman. The computers aren't the best, the Internet connection is often maddeningly slow, and the air is choked with cigarette smoke. But thanks to the cheap access prices-roughly $2 an hour-and the lack of content filters, business is booming.

The stories Ayman tells seem almost surreal, at least to Western ears. He once had a woman wearing a hijab ask for help downloading hardcore pornography. On another occasion, a Saudi man asked him if he knew where to find "real" girls in the neighbourhood. "Back when we were documenting the records, I was watching this one guy who kept paying attention to everybody's moves," says Ayman, remembering another incident. "And I know he's going through porno stuff because he doesn't want nobody to see them. I came up to him, and I asked him for ID, and I showed him the paper that's on the door. He was very offended and he decided to leave. I really wanted to know what this guy is all about, so I clicked on the files, and next thing I know, they were all sex. And guess what? They were all gay sex."

Al-Qassem isn't surprised by this proliferation. He mentions a popular men-only Internet dating site, which lists nearly eight hundred personal ads for Amman alone. Internet culture in Jordan is rife with homosexuality, he says, despite-or perhaps because of-the severe repression of gay sexual activity. To him, it's a question of logic. "You have a guy, he's horny, and he can't have sex with a girl. So he goes to an Internet café to meet other guys and to be with them. And no one talks about it."

The Internet is a quandary for almost all Islamic nations. How to take advantage of the benefits of this technological development while limiting exposure to "immoral" material? In the United Arab Emirates, for example, surfers are automatically denied access to sites deemed immoral by a government authority. However, due to the large number of expats living in and visiting the UAE-non-nationals account for over half the population-you can still purchase lad magazines like FHM and Maxim. (Playboy, apparently, is still too risqué.) Of course, all the naughty bits are covered by inky black dots, courtesy of the state censor. The blacking out of both websites and magazines feels especially bizarre in Dubai, one of the Emirates' largest cities, where tourists usually have to run a gauntlet of hookers any time they want to get into their hotel. If you are selling sex in Dubai, it appears you'd best be doing it in the flesh.

Less Western-friendly Arab countries face similar conundrums. In Syria, which shares a border with Jordan, prostitution goes largely unfettered. "Prostitution spread long ago in Syria," Prof. Hallaq informs me. "There are places where men pick prostitutes, where you can see pimps in the streets offering services." Online sex, however, is an entirely different story. Though Internet cafés are just as popular in Damascus as they are in Amman, all traffic is directed through one of two state-controlled Internet service providers. Pornography is as bad as political dissidence, apparently: both are on the government's list of banned subjects. (In 2003, Syrian officials jailed two Internet users for posting, respectively, a political newsletter and pictures of a peaceful Kurdish protest. Both remain in jail to this day.)

Yet in Syria and Saudi Arabia-a far more prosperous but no less repressive country-technological savvy often trumps government censorship. Though Saudi Arabia has one of the largest Internet filtering systems this side of China, ostensibly blocking (according to Reporters Without Borders) some four hundred thousand Web pages that "violate the principles of Islam and the social norms," access is nonetheless relatively easy. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the Internet can use proxy servers located outside the country to circumvent state-controlled ISPs. Saudis use this trick to access information about their royal family and Israel, as well as news about Saudi affairs from sources other than the state-controlled media. Yet, according to the same Reporters Without Borders brief, "in the great majority of cases, these relay servers are used to access pornography sites."

Back in Jordan, it is easy to find sex the old-fashioned way: on the street. In Amman, this takes place almost exclusively in the poorer areas-notably, in its overtly religious downtown quarter. As a foreigner, I spent so much time dodging cars that I was finding it difficult to spot a prostitute. With the help of a fixer, though, I managed to meet three-two Jordanians and one Egyptian-in the space of fifteen minutes on an overcast Thursday afternoon.

The young women were jumpy and didn't want to talk, constantly looking over their shoulder for police. Apparently, they were right to be nervous. "Sometimes when police catch a prostitute, and they know she's a prostitute, they try to be with her in the police department," confirms Tamer Khreis,the Jordanian lawyer. "Sometimes they will take her money or even rape her, threatening to tell her family"-which can amount to a death sentence.

Perhaps because of this constant fear of the police and the fact that they have to advertise out in the open, there is something desperate about these women. Far more than Alena in the massage parlour, the prostitutes I met downtown were vivid reminders of how rough and hypocritical the sex trade can be: they live in constant fear of the society they service. While the police have all but ceased raiding expensive massage parlours, street prostitutes, who usually earn about 20 JDs ($35) for sexual intercourse, remain fair game. Legal latitude, it seems, is contingent on profit.

I ask one of the Jordanian women about her background. She's a slight girl named Sana who says she's eighteen, which could very well be the truth. "My family sent me to be a prostitute," she says bluntly. I then ask her if she uses condoms. She looks at the translator, confused. "What's a condom?" she replies.

As we talk, her Egyptian friend, Leila, breaks away and wanders over to a cart crammed with pirated CDs. As she pretends to flip through them, men rush past her to the al-Husseini mosque two blocks away. Suddenly, she is surrounded by a group of Jordanian boys, none older than eighteen. Their styled hair and nice clothes hint at middle-class upbringings. They are laughing and talking, trying to mask their nervousness with noise. They too play the CD-browsing game, as they negotiate a price for one of the boys. It takes all of thirty seconds, and soon Leila and her client peel off, the former looking exhausted, the latter all the more nervous as his friends fall back. They make it around the corner and disappear into the crowds rushing to midday prayers, at once obvious and oblivious to everyone around them. "Hidden in Plain Sight" was originally printed in the Good & Evil Issue of Maisonneuve (Issue 14 April/ May 2005).


Every few minutes, a door opens at the other end of the room, and out slips a girl dressed in high heels, tight jeans and a top that would attract scowls-or worse-in downtown Amman. She collects one of the men on the couches, and together they disappear through the same door.

An Iraqi man in his twenties enters the room, followed quickly by his chubby, pubescent brother. The man informs the owner that it's his brother's first time. The owner hesitates, asks how old the kid is. Thirteen. More hesitation. It's against the law if you're under eighteen, he says. The older brother insists, promising lots of money. The owner considers this briefly and then acquiesces. "140 JDs each," he says (approximately $250). The kid waits with a look of detached curiosity on his face. After money is exchanged, he asks for a Moroccan girl.

Prostitution is alive and well in Amman. This massage parlour, although illegal, is by no means unique; in fact, its dull façade is practically the standard for such businesses, which have sprung up across Jordan's capital in the last year. "You can see their advertisements in newspapers," says Tamer Khreis, a human-rights lawyer in Jordan. "People all know that massage parlours are used for something other than massage."

Everyone also knows that this is not the only way to pay for sex. It is available on street corners, as well as in hundreds of similarly nondescript nightclubs that cater to expats and wealthy Jordanians. The spectre of sex is omnipresent here, used to sell everything from dishwasher soap to sunglasses. Pornography is viewed, shared and habitually obsessed over in Internet cafés around the city. The increasingly easy access to sex can be attributed to the huge number of young people in Jordan (the median age is twenty-two, compared to Canada's thirty-eight) and to its pro-Western government, which is eager to attract tourists and business from beyond the Arab world.

While the modern realities of prostitution and Internet porn are proving to be unstoppable forces, so too are history and religion. Though scarcely mentioned in the Koran, prostitution is one of Islam's gravest sins-worse than murder-and punishable with death by stoning. Few Muslim countries enforce this rule, part of a ritual and judicial system known as shariah, but the stigma remains. Jordanian culture, heavily influenced by its nomadic Bedouin tribes and their laws emphasizing honour, still entitles a father or brother to kill a female relative if she has sullied the family's reputation. The country is caught between encroaching Westernization and a bedrock of Islam, especially in Amman. Sex is repressed, yet it is everywhere.

Alena thinks she knows why there are so many massage parlours in Jordan. "Anyone can do it," she says in a thick Romanian accent. Wearing only a towel, I'm lying in front of her on a massage table, my head propped up on one arm. A facing wall-length mirror reflects a white shower stall, a white bottle of cold cream, a white counter and a white sink-it feels like I'm waiting for a very hygienic orgy to begin. Alena had ushered me in and quickly left the room, the towel an apparent prerequisite for her to re-enter. It was just as well: the room was far too warm for clothing. When she returned, she washed her hands and asked me what I wanted. When I told her I just wanted to talk, she promptly leaned on the counter and lit a cigarette. "If I had money, I could [start a massage parlour]."

Alena has black hair and is wearing hoop earrings. A modest gold crucifix dangles over her top. Her lips are outlined in dark red, her skin is powdered white, and her eyes are painted black. In Montreal or New York, she might be going clubbing, but she is unlike any woman I've seen in Jordan. She tells me that while she has several American customers, most of the clientele is Jordanian.

What she doesn't have is a guilt complex. "I give massage, I do hand job. That is my fucking job. No shame, no problems. I am happy." Sex with clients, she says, is out of the question. "I don't suck or do fuck, only hand job. It's not like sex, no?" She says she clears the equivalent of about two thousand dollars a month. She only sticks around for the money; Jordan, she claims, is oppressively boring. "I don't like it here," she says, exhaling smoke. "They say you have to dress a certain way, wear the hijab and all that. I don't want to. I want to dress like this." I ask if she feels that Jordanians look down on her as a result. She responds by pointing out once again that most of her customers are Jordanian-and terrible tippers, to boot.

Her responses, delivered with the gusto of honest-to-God spite, cut to the heart of this society's contradictions. Prostitution might be worse than murder, but it is as present and as popular here as it is in the West. "Islamic law has this funny feature," explains Wael Hallaq, a professor of Islamic law at McGill University. "It has the strictest requirements, yet in application, countries tended to use punishments only occasionally to either deter further action or to teach a lesson." The image of brutal Arab societies only applies to countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, which are in competition "to show who is a better Muslim," according to Hallaq. Most Arab countries recognize the existence of prostitution, and even tacitly accept it.

Khreis, who has defended many prostitutes in court, counters, "People are not very open-minded about this. People look at the prostitute, and she is not a good figure in the world." In Jordan, both the owner of a brothel and the women who work there can face up to three years in jail if convicted. Prostitutes are often mistreated while in custody. However, the police have stopped cracking down on massage parlours like the one I visited. "Governments have given law enforcement 'non-written' instructions not to bust these places," states Khreis. The reasoning is simple, he adds. It is the government that issued the permits for these parlours in the first place.

In Amman, a city that becomes more and more Westernized the further one travels away from its core, opinions about sex literally depend on where you are on the map. Downtown Amman is the old part of town-a crowded circus of cigarette vedors, coffee shops and sidewalk kiosks hocking everything from fake Nikes to real monkeys. At its centre is the al-Husseini mosque, to which Muslims flock five times a day for prayer. It is one of the city's poorest and most devout neighbourhoods. More than anywhere else in the city, it is also where street prostitutes ply their trade.

A short two-dollar cab ride away lies another reality altogether. Thirty years ago, the Shmesani district was farmland. Today, it's an American middle-class dreamland. The count-less coffee-shop terraces brim with style and attitude, as do the many Burger Kings and Pizza Huts. The Kentucky Fried Chicken near the Canadian embassy has lines out the door on Thursday and Friday nights. Like proper budding suburbanites, Jordanian men have mastered the macho art of driving around in circles, pumping out American hip hop mixed with a frenetic wail of Arab pop music. Young Arab women, if not dressed as provocatively as Alena, are certainly following in her footsteps. There are young people everywhere-and absolutely no palpable sense of moral menace.

The Shmesani is typical of the "new" Jordan, the one its government wants the West to notice. Most Arab countries export oil. Jordan, which lacks this commodity, sells stability. It boasts Western-friendly business practices and, more importantly, location. Wedged between Syria, Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the country is arguably the most stable spot in this violent region.

The thirst for all things American-money, clothes, cars, music and, above all, sex-is evident everywhere, from the dozens of five-star hotels packed with Americans and Brits working on the Iraqi war effort to the scrapyard on the outskirts of Amman that resells plundered Iraqi steel. The new Jordanian International Police Training Centre was built with a $100 million us grant from the American State Department. By the end of 2005, thirty-five thousand Iraqi police officers are expected to have trained here.
When it comes to interpersonal communication and relationships, however, the Jordanian approach is distinctly un-American. Much of the youthful bravado on display in the Shmesani district is one giant tease. "This society is screwed up, worse than you can imagine," says Shadi al-Qassem, a Jordanian journalist living in Amman. The diminutive and at times explosive al-Qassem has worked for the BBC's Arabic service and is a frequent critic of Arab society. In his view, Jordan is bleak, materialistic and obsessed with sex. "The girls are looking for the money, so guys without cars, they will not go with them. But a guy with a car, they will immediately jump inside." Because a woman's virginity is prized, al-Qassem says that young Jordanians choose to have anal sex instead-usually without protection. He qualifies such middle-class hook-ups as purely "sexual relationship[s]."
  Men with no disposable income have few options besides pornographic websites-and, in some instances, each other. Internet porn is more than rampant in Amman; it is an epidemic. "Most of the people who use the Internet, they use it for porn," al-Qassem says. "They pay 7 to 8 JDs [$12-$14] for the day, and they just watch porno. They are poor, so no girl will go with them."

Like prostitution, the viewing and downloading of Internet pornography are illegal, but these activities are almost universally tolerated. "According to the piece of paper on the door, I'm the owner of the café, and I'm supposed to comply to the laws governing Internet cafés," explains Ayman, an ebullient Jordanian-Canadian who owns a café in Shmesani. "I have to document all the users of the Internet. They have to provide legitimate ID, and give the time and their signatures. I'm supposed to keep all the files"-he stifles a laugh-"of the history of the computers. I have to have some sort of filter or blocking [on] any sites where you can either see or hear-, which tempts the sexual instincts of the user."

Ayman obeys none of these rules. He made an attempt when he opened the place a little over a year ago, he says, but "after a while I decided not to do that because I started losing business, you know what I mean?" His establishment is typical of the hundreds of such cafés in Amman. The computers aren't the best, the Internet connection is often maddeningly slow, and the air is choked with cigarette smoke. But thanks to the cheap access prices-roughly $2 an hour-and the lack of content filters, business is booming.

The stories Ayman tells seem almost surreal, at least to Western ears. He once had a woman wearing a hijab ask for help downloading hardcore pornography. On another occasion, a Saudi man asked him if he knew where to find "real" girls in the neighbourhood. "Back when we were documenting the records, I was watching this one guy who kept paying attention to everybody's moves," says Ayman, remembering another incident. "And I know he's going through porno stuff because he doesn't want nobody to see them. I came up to him, and I asked him for ID, and I showed him the paper that's on the door. He was very offended and he decided to leave. I really wanted to know what this guy is all about, so I clicked on the files, and next thing I know, they were all sex. And guess what? They were all gay sex."

Al-Qassem isn't surprised by this proliferation. He mentions a popular men-only Internet dating site, which lists nearly eight hundred personal ads for Amman alone. Internet culture in Jordan is rife with homosexuality, he says, despite-or perhaps because of-the severe repression of gay sexual activity. To him, it's a question of logic. "You have a guy, he's horny, and he can't have sex with a girl. So he goes to an Internet café to meet other guys and to be with them. And no one talks about it."

The Internet is a quandary for almost all Islamic nations. How to take advantage of the benefits of this technological development while limiting exposure to "immoral" material? In the United Arab Emirates, for example, surfers are automatically denied access to sites deemed immoral by a government authority. However, due to the large number of expats living in and visiting the UAE-non-nationals account for over half the population-you can still purchase lad magazines like FHM and Maxim. (Playboy, apparently, is still too risqué.) Of course, all the naughty bits are covered by inky black dots, courtesy of the state censor. The blacking out of both websites and magazines feels especially bizarre in Dubai, one of the Emirates' largest cities, where tourists usually have to run a gauntlet of hookers any time they want to get into their hotel. If you are selling sex in Dubai, it appears you'd best be doing it in the flesh.

Less Western-friendly Arab countries face similar conundrums. In Syria, which shares a border with Jordan, prostitution goes largely unfettered. "Prostitution spread long ago in Syria," Prof. Hallaq informs me. "There are places where men pick prostitutes, where you can see pimps in the streets offering services." Online sex, however, is an entirely different story. Though Internet cafés are just as popular in Damascus as they are in Amman, all traffic is directed through one of two state-controlled Internet service providers. Pornography is as bad as political dissidence, apparently: both are on the government's list of banned subjects. (In 2003, Syrian officials jailed two Internet users for posting, respectively, a political newsletter and pictures of a peaceful Kurdish protest. Both remain in jail to this day.)

Yet in Syria and Saudi Arabia-a far more prosperous but no less repressive country-technological savvy often trumps government censorship. Though Saudi Arabia has one of the largest Internet filtering systems this side of China, ostensibly blocking (according to Reporters Without Borders) some four hundred thousand Web pages that "violate the principles of Islam and the social norms," access is nonetheless relatively easy. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the Internet can use proxy servers located outside the country to circumvent state-controlled ISPs. Saudis use this trick to access information about their royal family and Israel, as well as news about Saudi affairs from sources other than the state-controlled media. Yet, according to the same Reporters Without Borders brief, "in the great majority of cases, these relay servers are used to access pornography sites."

Back in Jordan, it is easy to find sex the old-fashioned way: on the street. In Amman, this takes place almost exclusively in the poorer areas-notably, in its overtly religious downtown quarter. As a foreigner, I spent so much time dodging cars that I was finding it difficult to spot a prostitute. With the help of a fixer, though, I managed to meet three-two Jordanians and one Egyptian-in the space of fifteen minutes on an overcast Thursday afternoon.

The young women were jumpy and didn't want to talk, constantly looking over their shoulder for police. Apparently, they were right to be nervous. "Sometimes when police catch a prostitute, and they know she's a prostitute, they try to be with her in the police department," confirms Tamer Khreis,the Jordanian lawyer. "Sometimes they will take her money or even rape her, threatening to tell her family"-which can amount to a death sentence.

Perhaps because of this constant fear of the police and the fact that they have to advertise out in the open, there is something desperate about these women. Far more than Alena in the massage parlour, the prostitutes I met downtown were vivid reminders of how rough and hypocritical the sex trade can be: they live in constant fear of the society they service. While the police have all but ceased raiding expensive massage parlours, street prostitutes, who usually earn about 20 JDs ($35) for sexual intercourse, remain fair game. Legal latitude, it seems, is contingent on profit.

I ask one of the Jordanian women about her background. She's a slight girl named Sana who says she's eighteen, which could very well be the truth. "My family sent me to be a prostitute," she says bluntly. I then ask her if she uses condoms. She looks at the translator, confused. "What's a condom?" she replies.

As we talk, her Egyptian friend, Leila, breaks away and wanders over to a cart crammed with pirated CDs. As she pretends to flip through them, men rush past her to the al-Husseini mosque two blocks away. Suddenly, she is surrounded by a group of Jordanian boys, none older than eighteen. Their styled hair and nice clothes hint at middle-class upbringings. They are laughing and talking, trying to mask their nervousness with noise. They too play the CD-browsing game, as they negotiate a price for one of the boys. It takes all of thirty seconds, and soon Leila and her client peel off, the former looking exhausted, the latter all the more nervous as his friends fall back. They make it around the corner and disappear into the crowds rushing to midday prayers, at once obvious and oblivious to everyone around them. "Hidden in Plain Sight" was originally printed in the Good & Evil Issue of Maisonneuve (Issue 14 April/ May 2005).
  body { font-family: georgia, times new roman, serif; font-size: 0.9em; color: #404040; line-height: 1.5em; } P { font-size: 1em; line-height: 1.5em; margin: 8px 0 14px 0; } h1 { margin: 5px 0; font-size: 3.5em; line-height: 1.1em; } h2 { font-size: 1.2em; margin: 2px 0; } h3 { margin: 2px 0 10px 0; line-height: 1.1em; } P.text-align-right { text-align: right; } P.text-align-left { text-align: left; } P.text-align-center { text-align: center; } P.font-weight-bold { font-weight: bold; } P.font-style-italics { font-style: italic; } The drab, carpeted room smells of cologne and air freshener. The owner, a well-coiffed Jordanian in his thirties, sits behind an uncluttered desk. I am two steps in when he demands 15 JDs (Jordanian dinars, about CDN$25)—a fee that gets you through the door, and no further. “We have Russians, Ukrainians, Moroccans, Chinese, Syrians and Romanians,” he announces, as though rattling off a wine list. Above him hang portraits of the late, beloved King Hussein and of his son, the current ruler, King Abdullah II. The monarchs seem to smile beneficently down at the tremendous wad of cash the man is holding. You’d expect security precautions, like bodyguards and an intercom; at the very least, a lock on the door. But there is none of this. Neither the owner nor the burly men crowding the room’s two vinyl couches look the least bit worried—or embarrassed, for that matter.

Every few minutes, a door opens at the other end of the room, and out slips a girl dressed in high heels, tight jeans and a top that would attract scowls—or worse—in downtown Amman. She collects one of the men on the couches, and together they disappear through the same door.

An Iraqi man in his twenties enters the room, followed quickly by his chubby, pubescent brother. The man informs the owner that it’s his brother’s first time. The owner hesitates, asks how old the kid is. Thirteen. More hesitation. It’s against the law if you’re under eighteen, he says. The older brother insists, promising lots of money. The owner considers this briefly and then acquiesces. “140 JDs each,” he says (approximately $250). The kid waits with a look of detached curiosity on his face. After money is exchanged, he asks for a Moroccan girl.

Prostitution is alive and well in Amman. This massage parlour, although illegal, is by no means unique; in fact, its dull façade is practically the standard for such businesses, which have sprung up across Jordan’s capital in the last year. “You can see their advertisements in newspapers,” says Tamer Khreis, a human-rights lawyer in Jordan. “People all know that massage parlours are used for something other than massage.”

Everyone also knows that this is not the only way to pay for sex. It is available on street corners, as well as in hundreds of similarly nondescript nightclubs that cater to expats and wealthy Jordanians. The spectre of sex is omnipresent here, used to sell everything from dishwasher soap to sunglasses. Pornography is viewed, shared and habitually obsessed over in Internet cafés around the city. The increasingly easy access to sex can be attributed to the huge number of young people in Jordan (the median age is twenty-two, compared to Canada’s thirty-eight) and to its pro-Western government, which is eager to attract tourists and business from beyond the Arab world.

While the modern realities of prostitution and Internet porn are proving to be unstoppable forces, so too are history and religion. Though scarcely mentioned in the Koran, prostitution is one of Islam’s gravest sins—worse than murder—and punishable with death by stoning. Few Muslim countries enforce this rule, part of a ritual and judicial system known as shariah, but the stigma remains. Jordanian culture, heavily influenced by its nomadic Bedouin tribes and their laws emphasizing honour, still entitles a father or brother to kill a female relative if she has sullied the family’s reputation. The country is caught between encroaching Westernization and a bedrock of Islam, especially in Amman. Sex is repressed, yet it is everywhere.

Alena thinks she knows why there are so many massage parlours in Jordan. “Anyone can do it,” she says in a thick Romanian accent. Wearing only a towel, I’m lying in front of her on a massage table, my head propped up on one arm. A facing wall-length mirror reflects a white shower stall, a white bottle of cold cream, a white counter and a white sink—it feels like I’m waiting for a very hygienic orgy to begin. Alena had ushered me in and quickly left the room, the towel an apparent prerequisite for her to re-enter. It was just as well: the room was far too warm for clothing. When she returned, she washed her hands and asked me what I wanted. When I told her I just wanted to talk, she promptly leaned on the counter and lit a cigarette. “If I had money, I could [start a massage parlour].”

Alena has black hair and is wearing hoop earrings. A modest gold crucifix dangles over her top. Her lips are outlined in dark red, her skin is powdered white, and her eyes are painted black. In Montreal or New York, she might be going clubbing, but she is unlike any woman I’ve seen in Jordan. She tells me that while she has several American customers, most of the clientele is Jordanian.

What she doesn’t have is a guilt complex. “I give massage, I do hand job. That is my fucking job. No shame, no problems. I am happy.” Sex with clients, she says, is out of the question. “I don’t suck or do fuck, only hand job. It’s not like sex, no?” She says she clears the equivalent of about two thousand dollars a month. She only sticks around for the money; Jordan, she claims, is oppressively boring. “I don’t like it here,” she says, exhaling smoke. “They say you have to dress a certain way, wear the hijab and all that. I don’t want to. I want to dress like this.” I ask if she feels that Jordanians look down on her as a result. She responds by pointing out once again that most of her customers are Jordanian—and terrible tippers, to boot.

Her responses, delivered with the gusto of honest-to-God spite, cut to the heart of this society’s contradictions. Prostitution might be worse than murder, but it is as present and as popular here as it is in the West. “Islamic law has this funny feature,” explains Wael Hallaq, a professor of Islamic law at McGill University. “It has the strictest requirements, yet in application, countries tended to use punishments only occasionally to either deter further action or to teach a lesson.” The image of brutal Arab societies only applies to countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, which are in competition “to show who is a better Muslim,” according to Hallaq. Most Arab countries recognize the existence of prostitution, and even tacitly accept it.

Khreis, who has defended many prostitutes in court, counters, “People are not very open-minded about this. People look at the prostitute, and she is not a good figure in the world.” In Jordan, both the owner of a brothel and the women who work there can face up to three years in jail if convicted. Prostitutes are often mistreated while in custody. However, the police have stopped cracking down on massage parlours like the one I visited. “Governments have given law enforcement ‘non-written’ instructions not to bust these places,” states Khreis. The reasoning is simple, he adds. It is the government that issued the permits for these parlours in the first place.

In Amman, a city that becomes more and more Westernized the further one travels away from its core, opinions about sex literally depend on where you are on the map. Downtown Amman is the old part of town—a crowded circus of cigarette vedors, coffee shops and sidewalk kiosks hocking everything from fake Nikes to real monkeys. At its centre is the al-Husseini mosque, to which Muslims flock five times a day for prayer. It is one of the city’s poorest and most devout neighbourhoods. More than anywhere else in the city, it is also where street prostitutes ply their trade.

A short two-dollar cab ride away lies another reality altogether. Thirty years ago, the Shmesani district was farmland. Today, it’s an American middle-class dreamland. The count-less coffee-shop terraces brim with style and attitude, as do the many Burger Kings and Pizza Huts. The Kentucky Fried Chicken near the Canadian embassy has lines out the door on Thursday and Friday nights. Like proper budding suburbanites, Jordanian men have mastered the macho art of driving around in circles, pumping out American hip hop mixed with a frenetic wail of Arab pop music. Young Arab women, if not dressed as provocatively as Alena, are certainly following in her footsteps. There are young people everywhere—and absolutely no palpable sense of moral menace.

The Shmesani is typical of the “new” Jordan, the one its government wants the West to notice. Most Arab countries export oil. Jordan, which lacks this commodity, sells stability. It boasts Western-friendly business practices and, more importantly, location. Wedged between Syria, Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the country is arguably the most stable spot in this violent region.

The thirst for all things American—money, clothes, cars, music and, above all, sex—is evident everywhere, from the dozens of five-star hotels packed with Americans and Brits working on the Iraqi war effort to the scrapyard on the outskirts of Amman that resells plundered Iraqi steel. The new Jordanian International Police Training Centre was built with a $100 million us grant from the American State Department. By the end of 2005, thirty-five thousand Iraqi police officers are expected to have trained here.
When it comes to interpersonal communication and relationships, however, the Jordanian approach is distinctly un-American. Much of the youthful bravado on display in the Shmesani district is one giant tease. “This society is screwed up, worse than you can imagine,” says Shadi al-Qassem, a Jordanian journalist living in Amman. The diminutive and at times explosive al-Qassem has worked for the BBC’s Arabic service and is a frequent critic of Arab society. In his view, Jordan is bleak, materialistic and obsessed with sex. “The girls are looking for the money, so guys without cars, they will not go with them. But a guy with a car, they will immediately jump inside.” Because a woman’s virginity is prized, al-Qassem says that young Jordanians choose to have anal sex instead—usually without protection. He qualifies such middle-class hook-ups as purely “sexual relationship[s].”
  Men with no disposable income have few options besides pornographic websites—and, in some instances, each other. Internet porn is more than rampant in Amman; it is an epidemic. “Most of the people who use the Internet, they use it for porn,” al-Qassem says. “They pay 7 to 8 JDs [$12–$14] for the day, and they just watch porno. They are poor, so no girl will go with them.”

Like prostitution, the viewing and downloading of Internet pornography are illegal, but these activities are almost universally tolerated. “According to the piece of paper on the door, I’m the owner of the café, and I’m supposed to comply to the laws governing Internet cafés,” explains Ayman, an ebullient Jordanian-Canadian who owns a café in Shmesani. “I have to document all the users of the Internet. They have to provide legitimate ID, and give the time and their signatures. I’m supposed to keep all the files”—he stifles a laugh—“of the history of the computers. I have to have some sort of filter or blocking [on] any sites where you can either see or hear—, which tempts the sexual instincts of the user.”

Ayman obeys none of these rules. He made an attempt when he opened the place a little over a year ago, he says, but “after a while I decided not to do that because I started losing business, you know what I mean?” His establishment is typical of the hundreds of such cafés in Amman. The computers aren’t the best, the Internet connection is often maddeningly slow, and the air is choked with cigarette smoke. But thanks to the cheap access prices—roughly $2 an hour—and the lack of content filters, business is booming.

The stories Ayman tells seem almost surreal, at least to Western ears. He once had a woman wearing a hijab ask for help downloading hardcore pornography. On another occasion, a Saudi man asked him if he knew where to find “real” girls in the neighbourhood. “Back when we were documenting the records, I was watching this one guy who kept paying attention to everybody’s moves,” says Ayman, remembering another incident. “And I know he’s going through porno stuff because he doesn’t want nobody to see them. I came up to him, and I asked him for ID, and I showed him the paper that’s on the door. He was very offended and he decided to leave. I really wanted to know what this guy is all about, so I clicked on the files, and next thing I know, they were all sex. And guess what? They were all gay sex.”

Al-Qassem isn’t surprised by this proliferation. He mentions a popular men-only Internet dating site, which lists nearly eight hundred personal ads for Amman alone. Internet culture in Jordan is rife with homosexuality, he says, despite—or perhaps because of—the severe repression of gay sexual activity. To him, it’s a question of logic. “You have a guy, he’s horny, and he can’t have sex with a girl. So he goes to an Internet café to meet other guys and to be with them. And no one talks about it.”

The Internet is a quandary for almost all Islamic nations. How to take advantage of the benefits of this technological development while limiting exposure to “immoral” material? In the United Arab Emirates, for example, surfers are automatically denied access to sites deemed immoral by a government authority. However, due to the large number of expats living in and visiting the UAE—non-nationals account for over half the population—you can still purchase lad magazines like FHM and Maxim. (Playboy, apparently, is still too risqué.) Of course, all the naughty bits are covered by inky black dots, courtesy of the state censor. The blacking out of both websites and magazines feels especially bizarre in Dubai, one of the Emirates’ largest cities, where tourists usually have to run a gauntlet of hookers any time they want to get into their hotel. If you are selling sex in Dubai, it appears you’d best be doing it in the flesh.

Less Western-friendly Arab countries face similar conundrums. In Syria, which shares a border with Jordan, prostitution goes largely unfettered. “Prostitution spread long ago in Syria,” Prof. Hallaq informs me. “There are places where men pick prostitutes, where you can see pimps in the streets offering services.” Online sex, however, is an entirely different story. Though Internet cafés are just as popular in Damascus as they are in Amman, all traffic is directed through one of two state-controlled Internet service providers. Pornography is as bad as political dissidence, apparently: both are on the government’s list of banned subjects. (In 2003, Syrian officials jailed two Internet users for posting, respectively, a political newsletter and pictures of a peaceful Kurdish protest. Both remain in jail to this day.)

Yet in Syria and Saudi Arabia—a far more prosperous but no less repressive country—technological savvy often trumps government censorship. Though Saudi Arabia has one of the largest Internet filtering systems this side of China, ostensibly blocking (according to Reporters Without Borders) some four hundred thousand Web pages that “violate the principles of Islam and the social norms,” access is nonetheless relatively easy. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the Internet can use proxy servers located outside the country to circumvent state-controlled ISPs. Saudis use this trick to access information about their royal family and Israel, as well as news about Saudi affairs from sources other than the state-controlled media. Yet, according to the same Reporters Without Borders brief, “in the great majority of cases, these relay servers are used to access pornography sites.”

Back in Jordan, it is easy to find sex the old-fashioned way: on the street. In Amman, this takes place almost exclusively in the poorer areas—notably, in its overtly religious downtown quarter. As a foreigner, I spent so much time dodging cars that I was finding it difficult to spot a prostitute. With the help of a fixer, though, I managed to meet three—two Jordanians and one Egyptian—in the space of fifteen minutes on an overcast Thursday afternoon.

The young women were jumpy and didn’t want to talk, constantly looking over their shoulder for police. Apparently, they were right to be nervous. “Sometimes when police catch a prostitute, and they know she’s a prostitute, they try to be with her in the police department,” confirms Tamer Khreis,the Jordanian lawyer. “Sometimes they will take her money or even rape her, threatening to tell her family”—which can amount to a death sentence.

Perhaps because of this constant fear of the police and the fact that they have to advertise out in the open, there is something desperate about these women. Far more than Alena in the massage parlour, the prostitutes I met downtown were vivid reminders of how rough and hypocritical the sex trade can be: they live in constant fear of the society they service. While the police have all but ceased raiding expensive massage parlours, street prostitutes, who usually earn about 20 JDs ($35) for sexual intercourse, remain fair game. Legal latitude, it seems, is contingent on profit.

I ask one of the Jordanian women about her background. She’s a slight girl named Sana who says she’s eighteen, which could very well be the truth. “My family sent me to be a prostitute,” she says bluntly. I then ask her if she uses condoms. She looks at the translator, confused. “What’s a condom?” she replies.

As we talk, her Egyptian friend, Leila, breaks away and wanders over to a cart crammed with pirated CDs. As she pretends to flip through them, men rush past her to the al-Husseini mosque two blocks away. Suddenly, she is surrounded by a group of Jordanian boys, none older than eighteen. Their styled hair and nice clothes hint at middle-class upbringings. They are laughing and talking, trying to mask their nervousness with noise. They too play the CD-browsing game, as they negotiate a price for one of the boys. It takes all of thirty seconds, and soon Leila and her client peel off, the former looking exhausted, the latter all the more nervous as his friends fall back. They make it around the corner and disappear into the crowds rushing to midday prayers, at once obvious and oblivious to everyone around them. "Hidden in Plain Sight" was originally printed in the Good & Evil Issue of Maisonneuve (Issue 14 April/ May 2005).
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