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The Cost Of Liberty

By Ariana Eunjung Cha

28 June, 2004
Washington Post

BAGHDAD -- The row of beauty salons had been ransacked and torched. Shards of glass, dust and bottles leaking sweet-smelling liquid were all that was left, creating an eerie mosaic in the afternoon light. Wrapped in a black abaya, Halla Muhammad Maarouf stood in the middle of the street, staring at the destruction and trying not to cry. There was no note, no graffiti saying who had done it or why, but Halla knew the attack was a warning meant for her.

Three months before, in October, Halla had begun working as a prostitute to supplement the income she earned helping out at her mother's salon. Her brother had been killed in the U.S.-led invasion, and after her husband was killed in the bloody chaos that followed, Halla suddenly found herself solely responsible for supporting her two young children. The $5 or so a week she earned at the salon was not enough.

She had tried to be discreet, but word got out. Earlier that week, she says, a stranger had shown up at her doorway with a copy of the Koran and asked her whether she knew any women who sold their bodies and, if she did, to tell them it was wrong. Neighbors inquired about the men coming and going from her apartment, and potential clients had tracked her down at the salon.

When U.S. troops marched into the capital on April 9 last year, they liberated a people who, for decades, had lived under a government that controlled nearly every aspect of their lives. In the later years of Saddam Hussein's rule, getting caught trying to solicit meant life in prison or even death. In a public ceremony in 2000, Hussein had 200 women beheaded after accusing them of prostitution.

Today, under a justice system largely overseen by foreigners, getting caught generally means a slap on the wrist and 48 hours in a jail cell. That has made soliciting a more inviting option for a new generation of women, especially in a place where few employment opportunities exist and hundreds of thousands of women have been left widows as a result of three successive wars.

But as the U.S. occupation draws to an end, and more conservative Islamic clerics gain power, the fate of prostitutes like Halla is uncertain. In recent months, attacks on people and establishments accused of promoting vices have escalated. Masked gunmen have shot at liquor vendors, according to Iraqi police officials. Religious leaders have run renters of racy videotapes out of town. And anonymous vigilantes have kidnapped, beaten and killed prostitutes in several major cities. Women's rights groups, including the Organization of Women's Freedom, have decried the killings, saying the women are in need of help, not punishment.

"Maybe there is an order to kill all the prostitutes," Halla would recall thinking that day. "If the Islamic parties arrive to power maybe even the Americans can't stop them." As she made her way through the rubble, Halla wondered what it would be like to have a real job, of being a receptionist at a hotel, a laundry woman or maybe opening a boutique for used clothes. She was 23 years old, healthy and a hard worker. There was a chance she could start anew. Wasn't there?

Halla grew up in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Baghdad, a strip of nondescript apartment buildings a few blocks from the Palestine and Sheraton hotels that became bunkers for foreign journalists during the U.S.-led invasion. Her father was a carpenter, her mother a beauty stylist. She had three younger brothers, and money was always a problem. After her parents separated when she was 10 years old, she dropped out of school to work alongside her mother. She washed hair and swept the floors.

The Loving Wife

She met her husband at the salon years later. She had spied a tall, muscular man staring at her. She was 15, barely five feet tall with bleached blond hair and a sassy attitude. At 26, Walid Hameed was more serious and worked as a security guard in Tikrit, about 90 miles north of Baghdad. He had stopped by to pick up a friend who was getting her tresses set.

Within days they went on their first date and within a few months he proposed. At first, both families objected. Halla's mother had another, wealthier beau in mind for her only daughter. Walid's parents thought Halla was too young. But the two were in love, and in late 1996 they were married at the swank Babylon Hotel. There were mounds of sweets, pretty shimmery clothes, and family and friends from all over Iraq. When her new husband came to their bedroom that night and tried to take her clothes off, she giggled. She says she changed into a nightgown and insisted on keeping her flowing white veil and her elbow-length white gloves. She ran out of the room and back to the elevator, where she spent the entire night pressing buttons and going up and down. It would be a week before she figured out what it meant to lose her virginity.

Married life suited Halla and Walid. They both kept their jobs, lived in a small one-bedroom apartment and shared the chores. On hot evenings, they used to get ice cream and sit on the sidewalk staring at the passersby. She affectionately called him "bald man" because his hair was thinning. He called her "baga," or bug, because she was so tiny. The couple had two boys, Iaad and Saif, in quick succession.

Everything changed with the war. Her middle brother, Ali Muhammad Maarouf, 20, a soldier, was shot and killed in the first few days of the fighting in the southern port city of Basra. And a few weeks later, after major combat was declared over but when law and order had yet to be established, her husband was shot in the head one night by a business associate. Halla said that her husband was still alive when she arrived at the hospital and that he managed to tell her, "Halla, be a good girl," before he died. Halla insisted on spending the night at the morgue, hugging Walid's body and weeping. At daybreak, one of her brothers came and gently carried her away.

Halla says she did not leave her mother's house for a month. When she finally ventured out and started thinking about her situation, she knew it was dire. Shortly after Walid's death, his family took all of the couple's possessions and stopped talking to her. She had already used up their modest savings and knew her wages from the salon would not be enough to support her sons and her younger brothers, who had had trouble finding work.

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.

The Life

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.

The attack on the salons in October badly shook Halla, her family and friends. When U.S. soldiers arrived to help extinguish the flames, she says they told her they thought the attackers were Islamic extremists and warned her to be careful. She was -- for a while. Halla says she made inquiries about other jobs through friends, but her attempts were cursory and she discovered that they often paid $30 or less a month, a tiny fraction of what she made as a prostitute. As the days passed without another attack, the fears started to fade and she went back to her old life.

Rude Awakening

One day in February, she woke up on a cold stone floor, confused. Her head was resting on her purse and she was covered by a blanket. She was still in her red flannel pajamas but was also wearing an abaya robe on top of them. The left sleeve was ripped. Then Halla noticed that the walls of the room were sky blue, the trademark color of the Iraqi police. She was at a police station.

Her head spun as she recalled the events of the night. She had been out with a friend, Asaad Abdul Razak, 22, and they had gotten into an argument. He criticized her for being a prostitute, but what really set her off was that he had said her late husband, Walid, was no good and had chastised her for being so stuck on him. She hit him and he hit her. Then somehow her brother Maarouf showed up, stabbed Asaad in the stomach and ran from the scene.

The police arrived but found only Halla and the wounded young man. She was arrested and locked up in an office in the local police station. All she did that day was cry, she says, so hard that at one point she had an asthma attack and the police had to rush her to the hospital.

But by morning, she says, things didn't seem as gloomy. Shamil had brought chicken and rice from her favorite restaurant and had talked the police into visiting Asaad in the hospital to clear things up. Asaad signed a statement saying Halla wasn't involved and told police some random gangsters had attacked him. After reviewing all the reports, a U.S. Army captain signed Halla's release papers, Halla says, and smiled as he wished her well.

That gave Halla an idea. Images of money flashed through her mind. She scribbled down her phone number and slipped it to the interpreter to give to the soldier.

She was disappointed when he didn't call.

Special correspondent Shereen Jerjes contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company