Tourism, Sex, and Beirut

by

Ghada Masri
Beirut - Aerial View

Rebuilding a city is an enormous undertaking for any society.  In the case of Beirut, rebuilding is a constant state of affairs.  The Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), and most recently, the Israeli attack and siege of the city in summer 2006, is cause to reflect on this cycle of destruction and reconstruction.  My work in Beirut focuses on the physical reconstruction and design of the city.  Yet, when questioned about these processes, my informants regularly alluded to the increasing sex-tourism in downtown Beirut.  This brief article relates some of my findings regarding sex-tourism in Beirut as expressed to me by locals, tour guides, tourists, and some who worked within the industry.

Beirut serves the pleasures of its tourists.  It is the chameleon city, catering to any desire. As many locals and visitors liked to say, ‘anything you want can be found in abundance in Beirut.’

Two types of nightclubs operate in Beirut—nightclubs and super-nightclubs.  The financial exchange for sexual favors may or may not occur in the nightclub setting.  Super-nightclubs contain nudity and strip shows, and hold the expectation that sexual favors will occur at the right price.  Those women who become good dancers are no longer expected to perform sexual acts, but may do so for a considerable price.  The young women contracted as dancers are often unaware of the true nature of the work they are expected to perform.  When they do arrive in Beirut, the hiring contractor (the ‘pimp’) illegally confiscates their passports and forces them into sex work through the super-nightclub circuit and through special hire.  Women who refuse are violently raped and beaten.

Lebanese law permits prostitution, but requires that brothels be licensed.  In an attempt to limit legal prostitution, the government has restricted the granting of new licenses.  Thus, many brothels and prostitutes practice illegally. In 1998, then President Amil Lahoud passed a law forbidding brothels where women had rooms and beds for sex work.  However, to bypass this law, the official status of these establishments changed to “nightclubs,” where women were picked up and taken to other locations, permitting the shadow operation of the sex industry.  The official law permits the government to claim a restrictive stance on prostitution, yet reap the benefits of increased tourist revenue from those seeking sexual adventure.

Beyond the projection of Beirut as a playground, the sexual consumption of female bodies becomes a tourist attraction.  Additionally, the consumed bodies are not merely marked as female, but certain bodies are sold as commodities of higher or lesser value based on national origin.  This is reflective of the global order and hierarchy between nations. Near the top of this value pyramid are women from Belarus, Ukraine, and Romania who take approximately US $1000 per night (most of this going to her pimp).  Women positioned with lower value are Ethiopian who cost US $25 per nightly entertainment, followed by Filipino women and finally, Sri Lankan women, who take 10,000 LL (US $6.50).  The lower valued women also tend to operate independent of the night clubs and tend to cater to local Lebanese men.

A more recent addition to the sex industry is an increase in participation from Iraqi women.  Those who have lost their husbands to the United States bombardment of Iraq, find their way to Beirut, via Damascus, into the sex-work industry.  For most, this is their only means of survival, especially if they have no other training or skills in which to support themselves.  If they are young, their pimp will sell them as virgins, which fetch the highest price in the sex market (US $1000 +).  Moreover, the pimp usually contracts with a medical doctor who performs hymen reconstruction surgery on the young women so that they may be resold as virgins.

A common perception by many local Beirutis is that behind the wealth displayed by the Khaleej, is moral ‘filth’ in their beliefs and practices.  Rami, a young man who is subcontracted to paint the newly erected facades of the buildings in downtown, holds an additional job as a driver for one of the super-nightclub pimps.  He explains his perception of downtown Beirut and its connection to sexual consumption.

“Half the people downtown don’t buy anything.  It’s nice, but there are nicer and cheaper places.  It’s [downtown] not for us; it’s not for the Lebanese—not for the wages of two days work for one night here.  It’s made for tourists, mostly al-khaligiya [Arabs from the Gulf] … the Saudi tourist goes two places, downtown with family and supernights with prostitutes … Saudis are filthy, I wouldn’t work painting their homes.  When you work for them, they own you.  The Khalij are dirty and if you sit with them, you get disgusted watching them eat—even though they have money, they stink.  Once I went to pick up some women from a Saudi after they had stayed with him.  They had bruises all over them.  Many Khalij like rough sex … mostly they beat the women.”

Rami’s attitudes were shared by many other Beirutis.  The city’s downtown is seen as not belonging to them, but rather for tourists, specifically those from the Gulf States in search of sexual adventure.  The location of sexual adventure in BCD is witnessed by many Lebanese as a place that permeates with moral corruption that presents a danger to Lebanese society as a whole.  Linda, the wife of a lieutenant in the Lebanese Army said she does not visit the central district at night during the summer tourist season, especially not with her young fifteen year old daughter.  She explains that, “The Khaleej come every summer and destroy our city.  They have money, but they are still dirty and uncivilized.  They are a bad influence on our society and young women.”  Although needed for economic growth by the state and the tourism industry, sex tourism is perceived to make Lebanese culture vulnerable to uncivilized Khaleeji morality.  This contradiction is further compounded by yet another, namely the tension between conflicting notions of morality and civility, as Lebanese struggle to define themselves as modern and western.

Based on the manner in which sex tourism is discussed, the presumption is that only Khaleejis are engaged in sex tourism.  The belief that European men would not come all the way to Beirut for sex with European women and the assumption that Lebanese women do not engage in ‘that sort of behavior,’ serves as an organizing principle to understand the emphasis on Khaleeji sex tourists.  This basis permits the construction of the Khaleej as a dirty moral danger to Lebanese culture.

Lebanese women are also involved in sex work, however, they only prostitute with foreign men for fear that in providing sexual services to Lebanese men, their families and local communities may find out.  This is a key strategy used to manage reputation, a most valued social capital that influences all aspects of one’s life.  A woman’s reputation alone is not only at stake, but the reputation of her kin which can have devastating effects on clan networks and economic access.

The myths of modernity and rebirth drape the image and reputation of Beirut as a place of desire where the fantasy of consumption, designer goods, and commoditized bodies are possible.  Beirut’s cosmopolitan spirit, taken to excess, as many things are in Beirut, encompasses its tourist consumption of sexualized and nationalized female bodies.  Beirut’s cosmopolitanism is turned into an “international buffet” where women of the world, whose bodies are nationally marked (i.e. Ukrainian, Ethiopian, Syrian, and Iraq), are presented on a sampling platter to the highest bidder—giving new meaning to ‘national cuisine.’

Through the prevalent myths of Beirut’s resurrection, contradictions emerge between western modernity and moral corruption on one hand and Khaleeji (eastern) morality and sexual desire on the other.  In one sense, they are both viewed as corrupting by different segments of the population.  Middle and upper class communities, desiring their own pleasures and economic benefits from westernization and Lebanon’s inclusion in the global economic system, mimic western styles and mannerisms and look upon the Khaleeji tourists as animal-like—made wild by their sexual urges.  The presence of Khaleeji tourists during the summer months offends the sensibilities of many self-defined ‘cosmopolitans’ residing in the city.  Khaleeji men walking with their two or three wives and their children in tow through downtown Beirut (the heart of the city and the nation) fills many Lebanese with concern and threatens the perception of Beirut as a modern, cosmopolitan, city with a characteristic ‘Lebanese culture’ and identity.

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9 Responses to “Tourism, Sex, and Beirut”

  1. Zeke Says:

    it is the 19th of March of 2010, i am in beirut visiting, i love this country, the beaches, the food, the weather, the people are sooo nice and sweet, the hospitality is amazing, it is a poor country and surviving on it’s tourisim income. readin your article and being here proves it all, the filth that Khaleeji people bring to the country is unfair, they only have one thing is mind ” SEX”, it is ruining the country ad corrupting the people as well. What we should do as business people is work with the local government to expand the economic growth in the counry by opening branches in Beirut and employ the locals in jobs to utilize their talents in business. Lebanees men and women are very intellegent by nature, all they need is an oppurtunities to show it. I personally will try to do my best to help, but we need to put our hands together with the government to make it easy for foriegn businesses to open up offices in Beirut so we can hire locals and minimize corruptions.

  2. Abu Says:

    While your personal observation about the tourists and the Khaleej people is well taken, I am concerned about the sweeping genralization you are making about all khaleejis. Is it really possible that all the tourists from Kaleej are ‘filthy’, have only sex on their mind or walk around with ‘wives’ and cheat on their wives?

    I, too, have been to Beirut several times and experienced the positive sides of the city and the local prejudices the nationals have against others. besides the secterianism there is also prejudice against other nationals especially people with dark skin. It would have been helpful for the author to mention that in the research to show the biases of the locals she interviewed.

  3. Ra7al Says:

    I love Beirut and I am Khaliji from Saudi , we consider Beirut and people in Beirut are very kind and with great hospitality we love them so much and we never think like what you are saying , but there is always negative people from my country think same way as you do , they are as bad as you (so they treat you the same) but good people will never think or act as you said (sorry for this but negative people are from every where try to think positive and think in best well and life will look brighter for you.
    I apologize for being offensive but not all people like what you are trying to paint.

  4. Bekhsoos Says:

    I deal with this same issue in my piece on the Lebanese Sex Work Industry at http://www.bekhsoos.com/web/2011/01/inside-the-sex-work-industry-in-lebanon/

  5. Aseet neb (indian) Says:

    After reading this article my heart goes to those lebanese girls wemen ladies…. I mean if its true about khalijis then these should be reported to police and punished.how can they illtreat women of foreign land? Can they do this in their own country? Answer me….

  6. Malaysia Says:

    I am from Asian country and my first time visit to Beirut…suprise me. I always think Lebonan as one of Arab country and very conservative. But my finding is wrong. I love Beirut even since my first trip I went there for other 4 more times. Yes, I agree Lebanese people are friendly but they are bias. The woman because most of them is beauty (either nature or through surgery) they kind of look down on people with average looking. And if the woman is having a darker skin complexion and from Asian they straight away thought she is Philipines. And this Philipines girl most of them work as house maid. But for the male they think she is easy woman and have not respect on this woman. They can call you on the street and start asking …”how much your service per night”.

    Maybe some of this Philipines woman they do extra job for income but you can not just associate all of the woman like that. This is the scene I was so upset about and mad during my stay. As the first trip I visited all tourist attraction area I do not encounter this. But on my 2-4 visit, as I exploring more Lebonan country, I am dissapointed. I am not only talking about the street people that I meet behave like this, even the Imegresen at Airport. They treat me BAD. Asking me from the quenu line move to line to quenu. Before the open and stamp the chop, they start asking “Philipina?” But I am from Malaysia and is Chinese. Then again they thought I am from Mainland China when you told them you are Chinese. I aksed why I been treated this way, they reply majority Philipines or China girl do PRO…OMG!!!

  7. NaR Says:

    We are what we are… If sex tourism didn’t exist , lebanon wouldn’t be on the map as a touristic country, we have a beautiful country, beautiful weather, and also beautiful women. The Gulf come here to enjoy, and we curtail to their needs, if this article is supposed to make Khaleeji’s feel less of themselves, then a dire mistake happened, most lebanese girls/women work in that field because its the easiest way to make a buck, and they have fun in the process of being courted as well.. i used the word courted, because most of the ppl that do take those girls have the sense to take them to clubs, pubs, etc. Never the less if lebanon doesn’t provide it, egypt will, jordan will, cyprus, etc.. so why not lebanon, The root of the problems is us and our mindset of allowing ourselves to stoop to such a lvl and work in such a field, they truly have nothing to do with it.

  8. john Says:

    You have to look at the brighter side of things. Social contacts in a foreign country don’t come easy. It is based on time, trust and a moulding relationship.

  9. Raymond Says:

    No doubt some of these girls are in the slave trade and cannot get free. The goverment there needs to do something and make sure this is freewill and not forced otherwise it is just a horror camp with pimps getting all the money. I say go for the pimps who are acting like criminals.

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