Behind the Veil of Vice: The Business and Culture of Sex in the Middle East

Behind the Veil of Vice: The Business and Culture of Sex in the Middle East

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by John R. Bradley

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The Middle East has long been something of a mystery to Westerners, and in particular, the sexual mores of the region continue to fascinate. Arabs are often described as being in a state of Islam-induced sexual anxiety and young Muslims' frustrations are said to be exacerbated by increasing exposure to the licentiousness of the West. Here, Middle East expert John R


The Middle East has long been something of a mystery to Westerners, and in particular, the sexual mores of the region continue to fascinate. Arabs are often described as being in a state of Islam-induced sexual anxiety and young Muslims' frustrations are said to be exacerbated by increasing exposure to the licentiousness of the West. Here, Middle East expert John R. Bradley sets out to uncover the truth about sex in countries like Egypt, Syria, Morocco and Yemen. Among many startling revelations, Bradley reports on how "temporary" Islamic marriages allow for illicit sex in the theocracies of Iran and Saudi Arabia; "child brides" that are sold off to older Arab men according to ancient tribal traditions; the hypocrisy that undermines publicized crackdowns on the thriving sex industry in the Persian Gulf; and how, despite widespread denial, homosexuality is still deeply ingrained in the region's social fabric.

Richly detailed and nuanced, Behind the Veil of Vice sheds light on a taboo subject and unravels widely held myths about the region. In the process, Bradley also delivers an important message about our own society's contradictions.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Bradley (Inside Egypt) takes on Western prejudices and misconceptions in this sweeping exposé of Arabic sexual mores. Written in response to Western writers and pundits who view Muslim sexual repression and shame as the underlying engine of terrorism and Islamist fervor, the author takes a panoramic look at sexual behavior in the region. Emphasizing the profound differences between--and within--various Muslim and Arab communities, he definitively dispels the notion of any single dominant Muslim sexuality or moral norm. Instead, Bradley argues, the prurient concerns of the West are mostly distractions from real social, political, and economic problems faced in the Middle East--many of which the West plays a major role in perpetuating--which drive Muslim unrest. Drawing on extensive research as well as the author's own substantial firsthand knowledge of the region, the book offers an essential corrective to the fantasies and misinformation about Middle Eastern cultures. (Aug.)
From the Publisher

Recommend... for its accessibility, wealth of detailed content, and its potential appeal for scholars working in the fields of sex work and Middle East studies.... Bradley succeeds in his aim to effectively uncover the mysteries surrounding the business and culture of sex in the Middle East. He presents a very nuanced account of the realities of prostitution in various Middle Eastern countries, supplemented statistically and anecdotally. Bradley identifies a range of existent liberal cultural identities and attitudes towards sex in the countries he has visited, accompanied by an underground culture of sex that is often not as shrouded in mystery as western media so commonly depicts.” —LSE Review of Books

“Drawing on extensive research as well as the author's own substantial firsthand knowledge of the region, the book offers an essential corrective to the fantasies and misinformation about Middle Eastern cultures.” —Publishers Weekly

“Essential reading for anyone interested in modern Egypt and the looming dramas of the Arab world.” —United Press International on Inside Egypt

“In this highly readable and thoughtful volume, Bradley provides a devastating critique of Egypt's current dictatorial government.” —Library Journal on Inside Egypt

“Compelling... Inside Egypt depicts a hopelessly dysfunctional country where poverty, torture, and corruption are ubiquitous.” —New Statesman (UK) on Inside Egypt

“John R. Bradley is a writer looking for the truth in Arab countries ruled by dictators. His writing is brave and essential to our understanding of the reality behind the official, artificial image of our societies.” —Alaa Al Aswany, Egyptian author of the international bestselling novels The Yacoubian Building and Chicago, on Inside Egypt

“A highly informed, temperate, and understanding account of a country… that is an enigma.” —The New York Times on Saudi Arabia Exposed

“Brings to life the tensions between rulers and ruled, offering poignant evidence of widespread disillusionment with the Saudi royal family.” —Foreign Affairs on Saudi Arabia Exposed

“A thoughtful, incisive portrait of a fractured nation. . . [a] remarkable volume.” —Newsweek on Saudi Arabia Exposed

“[Bradley] uses a graceful journalist's pen to write with scholarly authority... shows a sensitivity rare for a Westerner, reaching directly to the society's core.” —The Nation on Saudi Arabia Exposed

Alaa Al Aswany

John R. Bradley is a writer looking for the truth in Arab countries ruled by dictators. His writing is brave and essential to our understanding of the reality behind the official, artificial image of our societies.

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Behind the Veil of Vice

The Business and Culture of Sex in the Middle East

By John R. Bradley

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2010 John R. Bradley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-62054-4



Overloaded with glasses and beer and wine bottles and a vast selection of half-eaten plates of food, my table was vibrating worryingly to the thunderous drums strapped to the young men on stage. They were swirling in tandem to a remixed Syrian classic belted out by the accompanying band and a female singer. Dressed in long, embroidered Levantine shirts, they began encircling each other, then teased their way through the Syrian, Iraqi, and Moroccan belly dancers, all the while pounding away as though to rouse anyone who, despite the racket, might drift off into slumber. Two adolescent boys with pearly white skin and jet-black hair, proudly decked out in leather pants and shiny silk shirts, scurried about the stage on all fours, gathering in wicker baskets the rose petals and money raining down from all directions on the women. The dancers' ripe, ample flesh quivered under figure-hugging gowns. If there was little expertise in the shimmy dances these amateurs attempted to perform, their seductive curvaceousness alone was enough to arouse the hundreds of Syrian men in this downtown Damascus nightclub. When the drummers descended from the stage and approached their tables, the men broke into dancing so wildly expressive that the belly dancers themselves could have learned a thing or two by studying their moves.

I had been brought here by the cleaner at my budget hotel, who subsidized his income by way of showing foreigners, usually Saudis, the ropes, a service for which he charged a $100 flat fee. It was an exorbitant sum, especially for a man who told me he earned $150 a month from his hotel job, though that salary was probably as good an excuse as anyone needed to pay him what he asked for. Because the clubs in Damascus are not advertised they are nearly impossible to locate without a local's help, and this one had cornered the market in the area where I was staying. The table reservation also cost $100, which included the food but not the drinks, which were $20 each, and almost needless to say they were put on my tab as well. Nor did his fee include the company of a woman, which on that evening meant a charming Iraqi in her late twenties. She sat next to us for a charge of yet another $100. Her drinks were on me as well, and a tip seemed expected on top of that, from which I suspected the guide would be taking a cut.

This Iraqi woman he had called over did not, it turned out, work as a prostitute, but rather (as she put it) "an escort." She offered company to men only inside the club whose wish was to chat to her while enjoying the show, eating dinner, and downing a few beers. She was originally from Baghdad, she told me, and had fled to Syria with her family, not as a result of the United States–led invasion but a few months before it had begun and in anticipation of the chaos that would follow it. They were a well-off Sunni family in a majority-Shia neighborhood, and had read the writing on the wall. She started working at the club a few months before I met her, after finishing her education, failing to find a job, and discovering that, after five years in exile, her father's savings were now all but exhausted.

"Do they know you work here?" I asked her.

"God forbid!" she said, with an expression of barely concealed horror. "I tell them I work as a waitress in a restaurant."

"So what would you do if someone from your neighborhood walked in?" I pressed her, rather cruelly I realize in retrospect.

"What would you do if someone from yours did?" she asked me in turn.

"I'd probably dive under the table," I said, not altogether seriously.

"And that's where you'd find me." She laughed, relaxing again.

She told me that, unlike her, some of the women dancing on the stage were available for sex. My guide interjected that no man ever left with any of them, evidently not having believed me when I told him all I was looking for was a drink and a chat, and that I was not going to get into the habit of hitting on prostitutes just because I was researching a book about them. The men and women exchanged cell phone numbers, he added, then met up elsewhere. This way the club owners could claim, in a way accurately, that they were not directly involved in prostitution, but just putting on a show. This setup had the additional advantage that the women could keep whatever money they made from clients outside the club, without having to give a middleman a cut. My Iraqi companion said she received half of the $100 fee paid to the club by the men who chose to spend time in her company, and the tips (hint, hint) were all hers. In the event no customer chose her, the manager gave her $20 for having turned up. I thought it unlikely that she would ever remain alone for a whole evening. She was a stunner, with long, light brown hair, delicate features, impish smile, and a little roll of puppy fat over her jeans—a woman Arab men have such a fetish for. Moreover, even on this weekday night, all of the hundred or more tables were booked, and there were no more than a dozen escorts. I guessed this Iraqi woman could be earning more than $2,000 a month, including tips.

We ordered another round of drinks and I mentally toted up the bill for the evening's entertainment so far. It was a considerable portion of the advance I had received to write this book, and we still had three hours to go until closing time. I looked around and tried to work out how much the owner must be making. Tens of thousands of dollars, even on a slow evening.

"There's no way this kind of club could exist in Egypt unless some cops or officials were taking a monthly kickback," I told the Iraqi woman, Egypt being my comparison because I was living there at the time.

"It's the same here," she said, surprised that I could have thought otherwise. "Only they come every evening, not every month."

"And there's never any problem with the police?" I asked.

"They only come here if we call them, for example, if there's a drunk customer causing some trouble."

"How often does that happen?"

"Never." She shrugged. "At least not since I've been working here."

* * *

Damascus became one of the Arab world's leading sex tourism destinations during the 2000s due to a number of related geopolitical developments. The most obvious is the Iraq war and the sudden influx into the country of more than a million Iraqi refugees. Many of them are impoverished, and prostitution offers a means for women living on the margins of any society to earn a living. Two years after the invasion of Iraq, in 2005, Syria also withdrew from Lebanon, following the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. That, too, led to a mass exodus. However, this time it was Syrians coming home from a country they had effectively been occupying. Many were extraordinarily wealthy, and they brought their cash back with them. Soon, on the outskirts of Damascus, malls, restaurants, and nightclubs were forming entertainment districts where before there had been only sand. Word spread among Iraqi women that there were job opportunities there. This transformation of the suburbs is colloquially referred to as the Beirutization of Damascus.

Israel's assault on southern Lebanon in 2006 had meanwhile led many Persian Gulf governments to issue travel warnings to their nationals to avoid Beirut, although the city was not specifically targeted by Israel in the end. The Lebanese capital has long been the favorite playground for Saudis, who come in multitudes to enjoy the less repressive atmosphere. Whenever Beirut is out of bounds, they usually head to Cairo for the summer. In Egypt, though, Islamic fundamentalism is spreading under the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Saudis have plenty of bearded moralizers at home. During the Israel-Hezbollah war, word seems to have spread among Gulf Arabs, too, about Syria's new potential, which in lingering homage to its pan-Arab ideology allows all Arabs to enter the country without a visa. In addition, Syria is only marginally more expensive than Egypt. Not that anyone needs much of an excuse to stay away from Cairo, with its chronic traffic congestion, choking pollution, and legions of touts who have a very well-earned reputation for ripping off all and sundry, but especially Gulf Arabs. These days, many of the cars parked outside the new nightclubs in the suburbs of Damascus have Saudi and Kuwaiti license plates, though the more established clubs downtown, like the one I had visited, still cater almost exclusively to Syrian men.

I wanted to talk to Sami Moubayed, perhaps Syria's best-known liberal intellectual, about the history and more recent proliferation of prostitution. Like other prominent liberals in the Arab world—the novelist Alaa Al-Aswany in Egypt, for example, and the historian Sami Angawi in Saudi Arabia—Moubayed has taken on, quite by accident, the role of cultural bridge builder between his country, which he loves, and the West, which he loves, too. Given his prominence, he is a difficult man to get hold of, and not an easy one to pin down when at last you do find yourself face-to-face with him. A professor, editor, publisher, author, historian, journalist, and political analyst, depending on the day of the week or the time of day, he only found time to chat with me, despite my numerous phone calls and emails, on the morning I was due to leave Damascus. And then we ended up sitting on a bench in a corridor between his endless meetings and a final edit of one of his magazines. In his early thirties, he gives the impression of being borderline hyperactive, which is probably just as well, given all the energy he must require to pursue his various activities. He is also sharp-witted, gentle, and hospitable.

Moubayed is the author of an Arabic-language book, Damascus between Dictatorship and Democracy, published in 2000 during what became known as the Damascus Spring. That was a period after Hafiz Al-Assad's death, and the end of his three decades of authoritarian and repressive rule, when there was a brief thawing of the strict limits placed on political participation. When I was in Damascus in mid-2009, though, things were frozen solid again. While there was still enough room for honest reflection on cultural and social topics, I knew that discussing the nitty-gritty of domestic politics would be pointless. Moubayed could never risk speaking critically, and on the record, about the worst features of the Syrian regime. Like so many other liberal Arab thinkers before him, he told me that he placed much of the blame on the West for backtracking on the promises of democracy in the region, because of the backlash against the United States and its "war on terror," the dirtying of the word "democracy" by the Iraq debacle, and the crippling political instability after the numerous wars following the September 11 attacks. These events diverted the attention of reform-minded leaders and provided a convenient excuse for hardliners to reassert their control.

Rather than to talk broadly about domestic politics, we stuck to the extraordinary fallout from an opinion piece he wrote in 2007 for the Washington Post, "Sexual Repression in Syria," in which he frankly called for prostitution to be legalized in his country. When I brought it up, however, he shifted uncomfortably, telling me that he resented being known as "the guy who wants to legalize prostitution." That was understandable, I said, considering his many other accomplishments, but the fact remained that the article did cause an almighty hoo-ha. Moubayed is the only intellectual in the Arab world to have recently made such a call for state regulation. Both liberal and Islamist groups throughout the Middle East tend to highlight the growth of prostitution and other "deviant" sexual behavior as a symptom of the failures and hypocrisies of their unpopular governments and the resulting moral disintegration of society. Thus Ayman Nour, onetime presidential candidate in Egypt and a supposed liberal alternative to the Mubarak regime there, can use, as evidence of the "dissolving" of the "social texture" of his country, the fact that "the number of crimes for immoral behavior, homosexuality, and whoredom is increasing." This is no different from the bigotry of which the Islamists throughout the Middle East are so fond, as Moubayed was to discover in Syria after his article appeared.

In his own more nuanced commentary, Moubayed had been careful to state at the outset that he by no means endorsed "the act of prostitution." He just did not believe it could be "eliminated," and its illegal status only helped it to "flourish in the Arab underground." Having set the parameters, he drew on his intimate knowledge of Syrian history to offer a sophisticated counterargument to prohibition. "I was always impressed with how open-minded and progressive Syrian leaders were in the early years of the twentieth century, when prostitution was in fact legal," he wrote in the article. "Most of these men, pious men who had been educated at proper Islamic schools in Ottoman Syria, prayed, fasted, and observed the pillars of Islam." Nevertheless, they saw "the need to legalize a profession that, with or without their consent, would happen anyway in Syria." Prostitution was therefore legalized and professionalized, he emphasized, during the Ottoman Empire:

Back then, there was fear in Damascus that the wandering soldiers would attack or rape young Syrians. That is why affordable prostitution centers were created for them in the Syrian capital, as a form of maintaining public security. This system was maintained when the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918. The destruction of World War I, along with the poverty imposed on the Syrians, however, made many young women turn to prostitution for a living, and the years 1914–1918 are considered the worst in the past hundred years of Syrian history. When the French came to Syria in 1920, they professionalized prostitution in major urban cities.... Prostitution centers were registered in government records, and guarded by armed men from the colonial troops of France, mostly, from the Senegal. Any woman found to be engaged in illegal sexual conduct more than three times would be arrested and sent to the prostitution center. There she would become an "official" employee. She would pay taxes on her earnings to the central government and receive checkups twice a week at the Ministry of Health.

Syrians believed that frequenting such places was "wrong, both morally and socially, and during the early years of the [French] Mandate the regular customers were often foreigners and Frenchmen." But by the 1930s Syrian men were regular clients, too. In 1953, the first attempt at combating the trend was undertaken by President Adib Al-Shishakli, "who passed strict laws to prevent prostitutes from entering Syria." A group of religious men approached President Shukri Al-Quwatli and Nazim Al-Qudsi, the speaker of parliament, a few years later, with a request that they close down "cabarets, nightclubs, and all illegal venues for prostitutes." But the Syrian president told them to take a running jump with a suitably religious rebuttal: "If I create heaven for you on earth, what do we leave for God Almighty?"

The government, according to Moubayed, did not consider interfering in the daily life of Syrian citizens a part of its job, but opted instead to make sure things did not get out of hand. "Punishment for immoral action—and reward for piousness—would be given by God in Heaven," he wrote. Prostitution continued to flourish in Syria and was only outlawed by Nasser during the years of the United Arab Republic (1958–1961), when Egypt and Syria were joined in a disastrous union. However, since then, "rather than diminish, the industry has thrived in the black markets." His call for legalization, Moubayed wrote, "far from being a call to promiscuity, or loose sexual mores," is merely an attempt to acknowledge the existence of a problem created (and sustained) by the rigidity of existing traditions and moral standards, and to address a possible, logical, and human solution to it. "Moral prudes and Islamists might argue against what I just wrote," he concluded, "but it is like trying to brush a problem under the rug instead of exposing it in a civilized manner, with the intention of resolving and humanizing it."

Moubayed strikes all the right notes about the past. Unfortunately, he was spot on, too, in his prediction of how "moral prudes and Islamists" would react to his call for legalization, even if the sheer ferocity and ad hominem nature of their assault caught him off guard. "The article was translated into Arabic without my permission," he told me, "and posted on the most popular Syrian website." It received more attention than any other he had written in the past decade, and according to him within a day almost half a million people had read it, leaving "an unbelievable number of comments." All were negative, he recalled, "containing all kinds of personal insults." One told him bluntly: "Get out of our lives, infidel!" Some accused him of being "an agent of foreigners" who wanted to corrupt the mentality of the Syrian people, while others asked how he could possibly know how prostitution was all those years ago. "The suggestion was," he said, shaking his head as though, two years on, he still could not fully comprehend the response, "there obviously must have been someone in my family working in the profession." The more usual accusation (and expected here) is that the critic, like the restaurant reviewer, must first have tasted the wares. For the historian this is not valid, but that evidently did not matter to the accuser, and one of the most common insults in English, son of a bitch, expresses the criticism of Moubayed's thought succinctly.

In any event, such was the pressure that he was forced to issue a statement in Arabic defending himself, saying that he was not calling for "immoral conduct." But that only provoked six more articles, again all by authors venting their fury. The discussion as a result spread to "just about every online forum in the region." Not a single person, Moubayed said, offered him any kind of support. "Even privately, those who agreed tended to say: 'Why get yourself into this shit?' Until now, whenever anyone wants to write anything negative about me, they use this article as ammunition."


Excerpted from Behind the Veil of Vice by John R. Bradley. Copyright © 2010 John R. Bradley. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John R. Bradley was born in England in 1970. He was educated at University College London, Dartmouth College, and Exeter College, Oxford. He has written for the Washington Quarterly, the New Republic, the Economist, Newsweek, Prospect, the London Telegraph, Salon, and the London Sunday Times. Fluent in Egyptian Arabic, he is the author of Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis (2005), a Foreign Affairs bestseller, and the critically acclaimed Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution (2008).

John R. Bradley is a widely published British foreign correspondent. Fluent in Egyptian Arabic, he is the author of Inside Egypt, Saudi Arabia Exposed, and Behind the Veil of Vice.

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