Her last client has consummated his want; she arises, disheveled, out of the hole in the dirt ground designated for her to fulfill her purpose. She gathers small transparent bottles, in which she had collected the fluids of the men who have relieved their tension with her that night. She leaves, carrying the bottles with great caution, and she hands them over to an individual in exchange for some onions and cheese, and a few loaves of bread.
This is not a scene from a film, or part of a script, but rather the dire reality experienced by a number of young women who took up the profession of prostitution in Egypt at the turn of the twentieth century.
In other provinces, they resorted to living on the margins, but in Cairo, they occupied the heart of the city.
In the book Prostitutes in Egypt: A Historical Social Study, historian Emad Helal (1834-1949) recounts the lives of sex workers during that period. These women lived in certain neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities, and were not allowed to live in popular areas in the provinces of Upper Egypt and rural areas.
In Cairo, however, their most prominent gathering points were in the center of town. Yet, in Alexandria, the number of prostitutes far surpassed those in Cairo, due to its position as a port city, and its cosmopolitan and trade-intensive nature.
The Hierarchy of the Profession
This segment of society was divided according to a pyramid of power and influence. At teh bottom of the pyramid were the down-and-out who fell into the profession out of a stroke of misfortune, and who, according to Helal, often met their end in the form of suicide or a fatal disease. Studies revealed that the majority of them were either orphaned or divorced at an early age.
Should one of them have experienced an unwanted pregnancy, they would likely attempt to abort the fetus themselves in any way possible. If they failed in doing so, they would discard the infant on the street or in front of a mosque, while only a small number of them would choose to keep the child.
At the turn of the twentieth century, prostitution was officially recognized by the Egyptian state.
The lives and times of an average Egyptian sex worker at the turn of the twentieth century.
According to an Egyptian newspaper issued in May 1938, another method of getting rid of the child that became popular at the time was killing it upon birth. That year, the Ministry of Interior reported 208 such cases of infants killed upon birth, perhaps because their mothers believed this to be a better fate than growing up in such an environment—one that they could not escape.
Just above them in the hierarchy were the saḣăbat, i.e. those who were designated the task of luring other young women into the profession. They were followed by pimps or brothel-keepers, who were tasked with obtaining the necessities for the household, including food, clothing, makeup, and medical treatments. They were also responsible for accompanying the workers to hospitals and check-ups and paying their bills, as well as paying their taxes to the “change collector”—i.e. The government official tasked with collecting “taxes” from them.
Next in the hierarchy were the prostitutes’ “lovers”. These were men who would strike up a mutually beneficial arrangement, whereby the workers could meet their needs for free, in exchange for providing her with protection and ensuring that she was paid by her clients.
In Cairo, the workers and procurers were subordinate to three elders, known as the “Pimp Sheikhs”, one of whom lived in Bab el-Louq, another in Old Cairo, while the third lived in the center. They kept a record of all the sex workers’ names, and resembled the sheikhs of tribes.
Ibrahim al-Gharbi: Egypt’s Pimp Supreme
Towards the end of the first half of the twentieth century, men entered the profession of owning and running brothels, albeit with far more violent and extreme approaches. They would kidnap and rape young women and girls, essentially forcing them into prostitution, with no qualms over using violence. Such brutality could range from severe beatings to mutilating the women with sharp objects, or even pouring acid on them. If they deemed it necessary to “punish” the “rebels” among the workers, they would incite their fellow workers to put caustic substances, such as chilli, in sensitive body parts.
Among the most famous pimps in Egypt at the time was Ibrahim al-Gharbi, who rented out an entire large house to run, after moving to Cairo from Aswan, where he had lived with his father who was a slave-trader. He then acquired a local coffee shop, where bellydancers held titillating performances to attract clients. By 1912, al-Gharbi owned fifteen different brothels in the Azbakiya district, each employing an average of ten women.
When al-Gharbi was arrested, it was discovered that he was a homosexual, and he was sentenced to five years in prison, though he only endured one year before his death. When they searched his home in 1923, they found piles of salt and onions, and bowls of old cheese, constituting the inventories of food that would be distributed in his brothels. The workers had no choice but to eat this food, and were not permitted to object or complain. The women were said to suffer from conditions and poor health due to the poor quality of the food and the negligence they faced, often leading to their deaths in a few short years.
Decades later, his biography would be adapted into a short radio series in the 1960s, titled The Devil of the Night.
Brothels were nonetheless more often run by older women, who would attract girls into the profession with promises of easy luxury. These often young girls would fall prey to such lures, following which they would be forced to resign themselves to their new reality, as they could not escape their madams by any means unless they paid their debts to her, which were often extortionately high. If one of them tried to escape, the madam could easily retrieve her with the help of the police who would collude with her. Otherwise, she would accuse her of theft and have her put in prison for failing to pay her debt to her.
The madams’ brothels were large, often made up of two or three floors, while each worker had her own room to receive her clients, after meeting them in the reception area and offering them drinks. Otherwise, there were some smaller brothels that were open to comers and goers, and the workers didn’t live there but rather had their own homes to return to, and would be called over if a client asked for them.
The Mosque, the Church, and the Brothel
Upon the government’s acknowledgement and legalization of prostitution, the number of brothels increased across the country, particularly in Cairo and Alexandria. The majority of them were owned by madams, although some were rented.
One peculiar phenomenon was that some of these brothels were rented by the Ministry of Religious Endowments, according to an issue of a magazine called Latāif Mosawara, dated April 15, 1935. Some of these were charity endowments affiliated to the ministry, or Christian charities, affiliated to the Coptic Orthodox Church. There were even those that were affiliated to the Jewish rabbinical order in Egypt. The ministry justified the existence of these brothels on the basis that they were legally required to rent them, until the minister later issued an order to evacuate all the houses rented to sex workers to placate public opinion.
A Specialized Hospital
In his book Cairo’s Secret Society, doctor Abdel Wahab Bakr (1900-1951) describes the convoys of sex workers to who would visit Al-Haud Al-Marsoud Hospital for skin and reproductive illnesses for check-ups during the 1940s. “This hospital was consigned specifically for prostitutes, and those who were officially registered were required to go for a checkup every three months, or else they would be fined a penalty that they would have to pay to their pimp. They would go in large convoys, riding horse-drawn carriages, with their arms, legs, and necks exposed, decorated with ample makeup,” he wrote.
At the time, the hospital only had three beds and two doctors, and the women would be met with poor treatment. Those who were found to be ill often wept in anticipation of the ill treatment they would face at the hospital.
The convoys would travel under the protection of policemen, and the hospital walls would be guarded by the lovers, madams, and thugs, to receive the workers upon being discharged. The madams would receive their workers if they were found to be clear of any illnesses.
Bakr further explains that the hospital was responsible for providing a periodical report to the government on the spread of certain diseases, and on the overall health conditions. This was considered a critical indicator of the general status of health in the country as a whole.
Officially-recognized prostitution was overturned in February 1949, forcing many of the workers to sustain their career clandestinely. Some of them resorted to entertaining clients in artistic salons, in which the profession took on a new form, through titillating dance, servings drinks, and performing explicit monologues.
The features of that world disclosed the women’s extreme poverty and exploitation, or rather the enslavement of the girls and women, at times to the point of kidnapping and holding them against their will for years. Was this due to extreme poverty, or the official recognition of the profession? A question that we may find the answer to in the near future, as inflation and price hikes sweep away the remains of the middle class, leaving the entirety of society in want.