It’s eleven o’clock in the evening on a cold Christmas Eve in Tunis. I’m walking past the Cathedral of St. Vincent de Paul on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in the center of town. The imposing structure is a physical and spiritual non-sequitur in this 98 percent Muslim country. The scene is foreboding. It’s been nearly two years since the “14 Janvier” revolution that kicked off the so-called “Arab Spring,” but peace has yet to find its home. A riot police detail is setting up out in front of the church, adding to the permanent security presence just across the street at the French embassy. Instead of evergreen and tinsel, there are palm trees and garlands of barbed wire. Warm light beckons from a large open door at the top of the steps framed by grand columns. I’m tempted to be spontaneous and duck into the church for midnight mass, but no. I’m on a mission: I’m going to find a prostitute.
I press on toward the old sector. I’m now walking past Bab El Bhar, a conspicuous arch of antiquity and the main gateway to the Medina. By day, with its byzantine, narrow and chockablock streets, the Medina is a cacophony of sight and sound. By night, shadows and silence engulf the squalid district, lending it a post-apocalyptic air; the transformation is dramatic. The Medina is home to hundreds of monuments of a bygone era, and it has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site. It has also been my home for the last couple of months, which is long enough for me to know that I have no business doing what I am about to do.
I step into the gloom of Rue de la Kasbah. The street is a thoroughfare to the seat of government and manifestly a post-revolution metaphor. It is considered so especially treacherous after dark that locals will approach hapless visitors and advise them to seek alternative routes. The concern is warranted: one of my roommates in the hostel has recently been robbed at knifepoint by two men, who cut him on both wrists in the tussle. And yet here I am with a backpack full of Apple products, a wad of cash, and my pepper-spray at the ready.
A short way into the “abyss,” I turn right onto another alley, which is lined with tangles of wire and pipe. This one is better lit but soon descends again into shadows. I think I know where I’m going because I’ve been there before – twice – and yet I’m still uncertain. The streets of the souk are sinister by night and labyrinthian, and I half expect them to conspire against me. I encounter a tall and slender man wearing a green jacket and a hat. He’s carrying a flashlight; its beam is dancing about in the dark. My heart starts racing, and I fight my flight instinct. He stops me. I think he must be a guardian whom local merchants pay to watch their storefronts by night. He offers me safer directions to anywhere but there. I tell him I want to take a look at Abdallah Guech. “Faites attention,” he says with a stern and uneasy look.
I follow the alley through its twists and turns. What little light there is seems to retreat at my approach into hushed stairwells and alcoves. I arrive at the end and turn left. There is a pile of garbage here, large even by Medina standards. It is being picked over by a clowder of sick and hungry cats. There’s something allegorical about the scene, but the profundity eludes me. On the right, just around a wall, through a neglected blue door and under a sloppy hand-painted sign, which reads “Closed on Fridays” (in Arabic), is my destination. I’ve reached Impasse Sidi Abdallah Guech, Tunis’ dead-ended red light district.
ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE
I step through the gate. Things are different from my last visit. Gone is the river of men in black leather jackets flowing through the center of the alleys. Gone are the unpretty women of a certain age lining the narrow streets and standing in doorways in various stages of dishabille. Here, now, are only a few stragglers and a squad of cleaning women tossing buckets of dirty water onto the cobblestones. In an effort to make myself feel less vulnerable, I am walking deliberately, as if I know where I am going; I do not. And as I pass a couple of shifty men leaning against a wall at a particularly narrow point (only two shoulder widths), I wonder what the hell I am thinking heading further into a dead end. Alone. At night. In Tunisia. On Christmas Eve. With all of my valuables on my back. Looking for a hooker.
Most of the doors are closed now, but not all. Some pink and green fluorescent lights remain on. As I step ankle-deep into a murky puddle, a cleaning woman tells me that they’re closed and to come back tomorrow. Undaunted, I continue my search for Leila, a woman I had spoken to the last time I visited. Luckily, I find her sitting on some stairs inside an open door, smoking a cigarette. I ask if I could ask her some more questions. “C’est interdit,” she says. That’s forbidden. “Combien pour une chambre?” I ask. How much for a room? “Vingt Dinars.” 20 Tunisian Dinars, or about $13. With a flash of her eyes and nearly imperceptible tilt of her head, she signals that I should enter. I walk up a set of narrow and steep steps into my first brothel… ever. Well, that’s not entirely true. In fact, it’s plain false, but it just sounds better that way.
At the top of the stairs, I arrive at a large reclining woman, the “patronne.” She reminds me of Jabba the Hutt, perhaps because I have just returned from visiting Luke Skywalker’s house in the south of Tunisia, the setting for Tatooine. The madame is watching TV… a news report about yet another protest, I think. She tells me that the price is 22 Dinars. I am disinclined to haggle. Consideration paid for services that have not yet nor will ever be rendered, she directs me to the end of an austere hallway. I don’t know which room I am to enter, so I ask a man in a black leather jacket, who is sitting awkwardly in a chair in the hallway outside one of the many closed doors. He doesn’t know and probably wonders why I would think he would. I take a guess and step into a room. From down the hallway, Leila tells me to close the door, which I do. And now I’m alone again.
THE END OF INNOCENCE
The first things I note are the Strawberry Shortcake and butterfly appliqués on the ceiling and the Mickey and Minnie Mouse stickers on the small wardrobe. They’re hugging, and there are little hearts emanating from their entwined bodies. The room is small, of course, with a sink and mirror, a bidet, and a slightly disheveled single bed. The floor is bare and on a simple nightstand draped with a variegated shawl, there is roll of paper towels sitting next to a bottle of water and an ashtray. There are also some condoms and some lubricant, the tools of her trade. This is Leila’s office and her home. To call it modest would be kind.
When she comes in, I offer her some dates that I have bought from my trip to the south. As I sit down on the bed, I watch her break open a date, remove the pit, and then discard them both into the ashtray. She contorts her hands as if she has just touched something icky. I suppress a twinge of surprised indignation. “Est-ce qu’il y a un problème avec les dattes?” I ask. Is there a problem with the dates? “Vous avez acheté les mauvaises.” You bought the wrong ones.
I tell her a little bit about me. I’m talking too much. She probably gets that a lot. I notice how her hair is an odd mess of corn rows and short bobby tails. She looks tired. Her lips are painted bright red and she’s wearing a small t-shirt and even smaller shorts. She lights up a cigarette, and I start the interview. My French isn’t great, and brothel vocabulary was never covered in class, but we make do.
What is there to tell you about the life of a prostitute that you haven’t already heard or read about before? You’ll never meet this girl, and she’s probably lying about at least a few things. It would be gratuitous to share some of the more salacious details, and her personal story could have been ripped from the pages of Les Miserables: married at 15, divorced, and raising a sick child alone, she turned to prostitution after exhausting other options. Her family, who lives hours away and now takes care of her two children (15 years old and five months old), thinks she works in a hotel. She’s 33 now and not particularly happy. She’s been doing this for four years and while she may quit at any time, she will likely continue until the mandatory retirement age of 50. That will make over 20 years of sex sometimes up to ten times a day, six days a week, for as little as 10 Dinars at a time, of which she sees four (about $3). So long as she does work at Abdallah Guech, she can not leave the dead end alley, except on Fridays (the Islamic holy day) or whenever she is sick or menstruating.
LIFE GOES ON
Like the cathedral on Bourguiba street, Leila is a non-sequitur – a woman in the legal sex trade in a Muslim culture. But this is post-revolution Tunisia, a clumsy moment rife with contradiction: divorce and abortion are legal and polygamy is banned; homosexuality is illegal and prostitutes are official employees of the Ministry of the Interior; women feel free to wear bikinis on the beach but kids are thrown in jail for kissing in the streets; alcohol is legal but not widely available and discreetly sold for fear of a fundamentalist cutting off your fingers; there is a liberal media yet one can still be locked away publishing pictures of the prophet. All the while, a Salafist minority noisily threatens to foist theocracy upon the country. Hypocrisy is also rampant … the psyche of millions torn asunder by the dissonance between the sacrosanct laws of God and the mutable laws of men and the social pressure to reconcile the two. A man that frequents the brothels would not tell me where it was located, because it is “haram” – forbidden by Allah. One young man would not speak the name of the street for fear of what others might think of him for the mere utterance; he opts to write the name on a piece of paper, and only because I am a friend.
Leila tells me that post-revolution life in Abdallah Guech isn’t so different from before. The men are more brazen she says, because they don’t fear the police as much. It’s a tale told time and time again: the new Tunisia is more free and less safe and people are wistful about the old days. The economy is abysmal and the money isn’t quite what it used to be. Other than that, life is as it always was. Stories to the contrary are false, she says, as she blows on an open palm – an arab gesture for a ‘lie.’
I ask Leila if I can take pictures of her room. She is wary, and reluctantly agrees so long as she isn’t seen. “J’ai une famille,” she says. I have a family. A cleaning woman knocks on the door. It is time to go. Leila is nervous and tells me not to let the patronne see my iPad. Things now feel rushed. I start preparing to leave but I can’t get my backpack to zip up. The harder I try, the worse it gets and I’m getting flustered. Finally, I succeed. As I leave the room, Leila tells me to come visit her again sometime. I walk quickly down the hallway, past doors both open and closed, past the patronne, down the steps, down the alley and back into darkness. It’s over. And I’m alone. Again.
As I exit the gate, I notice that the cats are still picking over the garbage in the shadows.
This article was written by Aaron Freed, a digital marketing consultant who is hitchhiking his way around the world by sailboat. This post reflects the opinions of the author and not those of Tunisia Live as a publication.