The Cost of Liberty
As a distraction, some girlfriends offered to treat her to a trip up north, to the resort town of Sulaymaniyah for a mini-vacation. They spent the days wandering around the marketplaces, staring at the blocks of honeycomb, hand-woven carpets, the children's clothes and toys. She had no money but as she touched the beautiful things she said she somehow felt more alive and hopeful.
One night at dinner, she was introduced to an older man who said he was a car salesman. He had a big potbelly, thin legs, and wore glasses but was otherwise quite cheerful looking. She said she told him about her husband and her worries about money. He took out four $100 bills and told her he would give them to her -- if she would spend the night with him. Halla says she shook her head when he made the advance, but he persisted and she followed him to a hotel.
She remembers that he gave her the money as soon as they walked into the room, and she put it on the table, ready to bolt. He picked it up and handed it to her again, telling her not to be afraid. She took a cigarette and a drink and they talked for a few hours before he took her to the bed and lay on top of her. She began to scream: "I can't breathe! I can't breathe!" She pushed him away and ran out, she says. But the next day he invited her to lunch, and a few hours later they were back in the hotel room. This time she gave in.
"I had a shock with that man, but I thought that with $400 I could buy everything," she says. She imagined the honeycomb, the carpets, the children's clothes and toys. "After that it became easier."
Her subsequent clients, maybe 40 to 50 in all, are a blur. The government officials from the Anbar province out west. The skinny young man who looked like a chicken. The wealthy former military official. The money flowed -- $100 to $300 for each night, as much as $2,500 some months, plenty to support herself, her sons, her brothers, aunts and uncles and cousins.
No one in her family asked where the money was coming from, but they soon found out. She says that by the winter, they were talking about prostitution openly, as if it were just another 9 to 5 desk job.
On a recent afternoon, Halla was holding court in her ground-floor apartment, a place that has become a salon of sorts for the destitute in the new Iraq. More than a dozen people rotated in and out of the room. There were small-time criminals, pimps and other prostitutes. Halla's brothers, Omar, 22, and Maarouf, 18, who act as her bodyguards, were also there. So was Halla's most regular customer, Shamil.
Shamil, an engineer who is a subcontractor for a U.S. company, visits Halla several times a week, three times a day, for breakfast, lunch and dinner that she cooks for him. He says he liked her because she is "frank" and "pure of heart." He has a wife, with whom he lives in a big house in the ritzy Mansour district of Baghdad, but he spends most of his free time with Halla. He has even helped her brothers by providing them with odd jobs in his company.
In Iraq, there are no red-light districts, and Halla and other prostitutes don't walk the streets. They typically meet their clients through friends. Aya Abbas Latif, 22, talks about being "married" three times to customers. Another friend, Nada Baqr, 31, refers to being in love with one of her "boyfriends." Halla and Shamil quarrel like husband and wife and he treats her children -- now 4 and 2 years old, like his own, buying them presents and playing with them when he is in the apartment. He has prohibited Halla from seeing other men. (She does, though, behind his back.)
Sometimes the conversation at Halla's place is mundane and practical, about repairing the electricity generator or favorite restaurants. Sometimes the conversation is racy. At other times, it's reflective.
Halla's friend Nada fell into prostitution when she could not pay her rent and her landlord said he'd let it go if she came to a party and danced. "My first reaction was that I felt sad and ashamed," she recalls. She told her husband the money came from her new job as a cleaning lady. Nada says one day she and her sister were driven to an office building near the Baghdad airport and were introduced to two American soldiers. She was afraid, she says, but they were gentle and nice and made jokes and slipped them an extra $100 each. She was so giddy from the encounter that she hardly cared that the pimp's profit, Nada says, was $700.
Aya, who goes by the nickname Hiba, says she had to give her son to a distant relative because she could not support him. She took a job as a dental assistant but the monthly salary of $64 was not enough. She says she sends most of the money she makes to her family and is occasionally allowed to see her son. "I go to kiss him and tell him I love him but I don't tell him I am his mother because I don't want the other children to know he is the son of a prostitute," she says.
Halla and her friends say they worry about pregnancy and disease and have sought advice from each other about how to protect themselves. Before they became prostitutes, they say, they didn't know very much about sexual health. But those are relatively minor concerns when compared with how to reconcile their jobs with their religion. Halla is Muslim but acknowledges that she doesn't believe her job conforms to Islamic law. Still she is more afraid of being judged by other Iraqis and being hurt than of a higher being in the afterlife. Allah, she says, will understand why she is doing what she is doing.
Halla's parents and brothers say they feel guilty about letting Halla work as a prostitute but have little choice. Her mother doesn't have the money to reopen her beauty salon and her father is now too old to work. Her brothers have had short stints as construction workers but say there are few steady jobs for people their age and with their junior high school education. "I hate it, but without her doing this we could not survive," Omar says. They sleep on the floor in her apartment and do what they can to keep her safe from the beatings that other prostitutes have suffered. One night a few months ago, a drunken man came to Halla's apartment and began shouting for Halla, she says. Omar told him to go away. The man fired two bullets into Omar's leg, cracking the bones. Doctors said he will have to wear a brace on that leg for a full year.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Halla Maarouf bargains with a customer in her mother's house.
(Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)
The Cost of Liberty: In a chaotic new Iraq, a young widow turns to prostitution to help support her family.