I’ve done my fair share of strange stories in the short time that I have been a journalist in Pakistan, but how to go about narrating the story of a foreign prostitute in this foreigner-unfriendly country? Do I just call one and say, ‘Hi, I’m doing a story on prostitution, can you please tell me your life story? Or should I call her as a client, pay her whatever she makes in a night and then just ask personal questions? Would she find that strange or just write it off as another client quirk? Would she even be willing to talk? And where will I get her number from in the first place?
Well, the last part was the easiest. After calling numerous friends and acquaintances, I finally found someone who was calling a couple of Azerbaijani prostitutes to his place for the weekend. I drove to his apartment block around 10 pm, and took the lift to the third floor, where I was greeted by two friends that I rarely meet.
“Sir ji, finally aap humaray paas bhi ay!” (Sir, finally you have come to see us too) says one of them with a toothy grin. Then the orientation begins: I should act casual, they tell me. I musn’t tell the prostitute why I’m really there and finally, I must not name any names in the actual article. Or else.
I excitedly agree with all the terms and conditions, and then we’re off.
We pile into a green Land Cruiser and make our way to a four-storey building in the back lanes behind the heavily barricaded Bilawal House. The chowkidar at the entrance says only two people are allowed upstairs at a time, and I’m one of the lucky ones.
We take the stairs to the third floor and stop outside a wooden door that says ‘Home, Sweet Home’ on it. Expecting a stereotypical ‘madam’, I’m taken aback when the door is opened by a middle-aged woman with a huge smile on her face, and a gorgeous baby girl in her arms.
“Hello Jaan!” says the matronly lady. “How are you, please come in.”
The apartment is another surprise. This is no seedy den of sin, but pretty much like any other family apartment. There is a huge bowl of chocolates on the dining table and the neat living room is done up with pink curtains, a matching sofa set and some nice wooden side tables. A huge Sony TV has pride of place. But it’s not the TV that grabs my attention.
On the two sofas sit four beautiful women, who look like they’re between the ages of 19 and 27. Even though it’s now 11 pm, they’re still in their pajamas and look like they’ve just woken up. I suppose their day is only now beginning. They are talking away with each other in what sounds like Russian and laughing, while giving me glances and shy smiles. Two of them greet my friend by name, cooing over him like long-lost lovers.
“And who is this fine young man you’ve brought with you?” they ask my friend with a wicked smile and a sideward glance towards me.
As he introduces me, he turns and says “Salay, abhi na bata kay tu sahafi hay.”
I get a hug and a kiss from both the ladies as my friend settles the deal with the lady who opened the door, saying he wants his two ‘favourites’ for the night.
“That is fine,” she says. “The usual rate for you, Rs15,000 per girl for three hours.”
No money changes hands. Yet. He gives her a kiss on the cheek and tells her the girls should be at his apartment by midnight. They obviously know the place, as no directions are given, or needed.
A little past midnight, we’re back at the apartment when the doorbell rings. Two ladies in burqas enter the house. Then the burqas come off and my jaw drops!
They’re the same girls we met earlier, but they’re no longer in their pajamas. Right now, they look like they could steal the show on any catwalk anywhere in the world.
The taller one is wearing a white miniskirt with stiletto heels, showing off her long legs. Her sleeveless black top gives just a hint of cleavage. Black eyeliner and crimson red lipstick contrast with her pale skin. This is Jasmine*, and I decide right then and there that she’s the one I want to be talking to.
The other girl is slightly thinner and is wearing a brown dress. Her legs are covered but little else is left to the imagination.
I take Jasmine’s hand and she seats herself next to me. I’m anxious not just because she’s very beautiful but because I’m going to (at some point) tell her I’m a journalist on a story, and not a client.
Unable to come up with a witty yet meaningful opening line, I opt for the predictable and boring.
“What’s your name? Where are you from? ”
“Why do you care, jaan?” she says with a coy smile. “Do you want to interview me?”
Well, yes, I think to myself. That’s pretty much why I’m here. I tell her I just want to know more about her and she laughs out loud.
“Who is this crazy man who just wants to talk to me?” she asks my friend.
With a sly smile, she tells me we had better go to the other room and carry on the conversation there.
She starts by telling me what I already know: her name and the fact that she’s from Azerbaijan. She came to Karachi when she was 18 and has been in this business for the last eight years, but manages to go home and visit her family at least once a year.
“So how did you become a prostitute?” I ask.
“Why do you care?” she asks
“I just want to know,” I reply, realising how lame that sounds.
Luckily, she doesn’t need much more encouragement to narrate her story.
“Well, I was 15 when I started dating this guy who I fell in love with. My parents found out and did not approve and beat me up. The boy decided we should run away together, so I left my native village and went to the city with him. I got pregnant when I was 16 and the same year my boyfriend died in a car crash. I did not know what to do, I had no money and nowhere to go. I could not go back home to my village as I was unmarried and had a child, they would probably kill me and even if they didn’t, I’d probably end up being used as a sex slave anyway.”
Pausing to reflect on that memory, she continues.
“A friend of mine told me she would set up a meeting for a job, and I met this lady who told me I could earn up to $300 a month by selling sex. I was comfortable with having sex and I liked it, so I agreed.
“From the age of 16 to18, I must have met more than a hundred different clients, mostly foreigners visiting Baku on holiday. During this time, when one of the girls in our ring returned from Karachi and she told me I could have up to five customers a night there, and that I would end up making much more money because the demand for us was much higher there.
“I told my Madam that I wanted to go to Pakistan and she got me a work visa which needs to be renewed every three years. I have no idea how she did it, but I found myself in Karachi in January 2003.
“At first it was difficult to settle here, as the whole place was completely unfamiliar to me. On top of that, I had to entertain six to seven clients a night. But the money was good. We charge Rs15,000 for three hours and can end up doing three such sessions a night and we get to keep 40% of what we make.
“People in Karachi are rich, they even tip on top of the basic rate, they have nice cars and nice houses, with even swimming pools in some of them. I have visited politicians, celebrities and I think I may have seen you on TV.
“It’s been an easy eight years though, I have managed to secure my favourite customers whom I get along with and they are like my boyfriends. I can now understand and speak enough Urdu as well, and the savings here are immense. I try to go back twice a year, but mostly it’s during Ramazan that I go back to see my baby. He is 10 years old now and lives with my late boyfriend’s sister.”
I am no longer thinking in terms of journalism anymore; I am intrigued, curious and flabbergasted by the story this soft-spoken girl is telling me, this lady who is telling me with complete frankness what it’s like to be a foreign prostitute in Karachi. I just cannot understand how she could be happy doing this.
“I am happy,” she says in reply to my repeated query. “I have my house mates who I am close to, my clients who are very good to me, and I have money. I do look forward to not being bound to this profession, but the truth is that I like sex. Sometimes I do feel nostalgic about my home and my family but the feeling goes away as quickly as it came.”
Have you ever been mistreated by your clients I ask?
“Pakistani men are nice but they do have strange fantasies,” she says with a faraway look. “Sometimes two people want to do me together, which was initially very upsetting and humiliating, but I got used to it. It’s actually not so bad. Apart from that there is nothing I have been forced to do, and come to think of it there isn’t much I don’t want to do, and so I am perfect for this job.”
But what about friends and companionship I ask? Eight years is a long time to be in a strange land, after all.
“My customers are my friends, and so are the girls I live with,” she says in a tone that brooks no argument. “We have a four room apartment with five girls living in it, and I share my room with Ayesha*. The Madam is very nice. She makes sure we get nice clothes, eat well and sleep undisturbed during the day. We have never had to deal with cops, and I guess they are paid off. However, there are a number of no go areas and we rarely ever leave the Defence and Clifton areas. The day is mostly spent sleeping or watching TV, and the nights are for work. Once in a while, we are given time off and sent to Murree to relax, this also gives us a chance to make money by ourselves, as usually we ask one of our friends (customers) to come along.”
Before I ask my next question, there is a loud banging at the door and my friends shout out:
“Kitni dair lagao gay yaar? Jaldi karo.”
Blushing despite myself, I say goodbye to Jasmine and open the door.
Thanking my friends, I make my way to my car and drive off. I can’t fathom the fact that she claims she is happy selling herself in a foreign land with no plans of leaving soon. Can it really be that easy?
Jasmine’s story is by no means a universal one, and the vast majority of women trapped in this profession certainly don’t have such a blasé attitude about it. But it seems that, as opposed to the West, where organised gangs of traffickers trap women into sexual slavery, the foreign prostitutes working in Pakistan are here on their own, drawn by the financial rewards their exotic origins offer them. A senior police official whom I know well tells me there are at least 8 such rings functioning in Karachi alone, with approximately 90 prostitutes in total. The girls are mostly from Russia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkey. Each and every police official I speak to about this — and I am friendly with quite a few — tells me they know about it but aren’t really bothered about taking any action. Given the benefits this arrangement probably offers them, it’s easy to see why they wouldn’t be bothered.
*Names have been changed
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 25th, 2011.
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