BEIRUT — Jad sits on a couch in the lobby of a hotel in Maameltein, Lebanon. The air is thick with stale cigarette smoke, and the mirror-lined walls are smeared and cracked. A gold crucifix gleams on his chest. There's a large notebook on the chair beside him. Every so often, an attractive, young, Slavic-looking woman walks over, and he opens the notebook so she can sign her name.
"I have to make sure they sign out before leaving the hotel," says Jad, whose name has been changed. "Otherwise, Immigrations will make me pay a penalty."
Jad owns a "super nightclub," one of approximately 130 in Lebanon, most of which are located in the town of Maameltein -- just 20 minutes away from the glitzy clubs and high-end boutiques of Beirut. Not quite strip clubs, not quite brothels, super nightclubs represent the seedy underside of Lebanon's famous night life. Owners import women, usually from Eastern Europe or Morocco, to work in their clubs under an "artist" visa. It's understood, however, that "artist" is really just a euphemism for "prostitute."
Lebanese law stipulates that these women can enter the country only after signing an employment contract, which has to be approved by the Directorate of General Security. Although the women come voluntarily, it's not clear how many of them understand what their job will actually entail. According to Jad, most know what they're getting into. Once in Lebanon, however, the women's passports are usually confiscated until their contract is over.
There is no precise data on the super nightclub industry's revenues, but Jad estimates that he makes a maximum profit of $30,000 a month. In a 2009 article, Executive magazine reported that super nightclubs haul in at least $23 million a year through legitimate channels. That might be only the tip of the iceberg, however, as the industry also generates under-the-table income through prostitution. Although prostitution is technically legal in Lebanon under a 1931 law, it's only permitted in licensed brothels -- and the Lebanese government stopped issuing the licenses in 1975. Therefore, any prostitution that occurs in super nightclubs is nominally illegal.
As a result, a complicated ritual takes place in these establishments in order to stay on the right side of the law. Customers pay about $80 for a bottle of champagne (the government collects a 10 percent sales tax on each bottle) and an hour with one of the women at the club that night. The women are always fully dressed, and while kissing is allowed, further sexual contact is strictly prohibited. However, a bottle also buys you a "date" with the woman sometime during the next week. Although there are clubs that will allow customers to take a woman on the same night for an extra fee, Jad says, this is rare since the penalties for such offenses are severe.
"One mistake, and Immigrations can ruin your business," he says. "It's not worth it to break the rules, even if it makes you money, because if you get caught, it can cost you a lot more."
At first, Jad is evasive when asked whether the "dates" purchased by customers usually include sex.
"We don't sell girls," he maintains. "We're not bordellos. We sell time with the girls. I only make money from the transactions at the club. But I don't have GPS on every girl. If they want to do that, it's their business. Nobody's forcing them."
As the conversation continues, though, Jad concedes that most of the time, it's expected that the "date" will end in a room at one of Maameltein's many cheap hotels. He insists, however, that the women have the option of saying no, and he's adamant that the industry gets a bad rep.
"Everybody thinks that people who work at cabarets are the worst people in Maameltein," he says. "But we're really the cleanest people.… I'm not trying to say that we're saints, but we have rules."