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."
Although Lebanon is widely considered to be one of the more sexually permissive countries in the Middle East, large portions of the country remain culturally conservative. According to Jad, most of his customers are wealthy, middle-aged Lebanese men, usually Muslim, who are looking to bypass the restrictions of Lebanese society.
"Lebanese girls don't like to go out and have fun because they're afraid people will say they're whores," he says. "Lebanese men like Russian girls because they like to have fun. If a guy wants to kiss a Lebanese girl, she'll probably start talking marriage and then he'll have to deal with her family."
When I ask whether it would be possible to speak with one of the women, Jad is initially reluctant, but he seems to relax as the interview continues. At one point, he is interrupted by his cell phone and, after a brief conversation in Russian, indicates that one of the women will be coming downstairs to answer a few questions, though he insists on being present. Shortly after, a tall woman with white-blond hair enters the lobby dressed in pajamas. She rubs her eyes sleepily and sits down next to him. Her name is Lina, and she's from Ukraine. Although she seems wary at first, it's soon clear that she has quite a different perspective on the industry. Surprisingly, Jad lets her talk.
"Coming here was the biggest mistake of my life," she says immediately. "In my country, I have my home, my family. But it's hard to make money. I worked with my brother in his business, but because of the economy, the business failed."
Lina lights a cigarette and sighs. "I've worked many jobs in my life, but I hate the system in Lebanon," she says. "I thought I was coming here to work in a disco, but when I came here and found out everything, I was shocked. Girls had told me what it would be like, but they only told me half the truth. I imagined that I would only have to go with people I liked.… I'm just waiting for my contract to finish so I can go home."
Her eyes fill with tears and she looks away. "I hate when someone chooses me," she says quietly. "I feel like I'm a product in a market and anyone can just point at me and say, 'I want that.'"
Jad interrupts her. "You're not happy you came to Lebanon?"
She looks him in the eye and smiles sadly. "I'm happy for one reason. You know why."
After she leaves, Jad leans back in his chair and is silent for a moment.
"I'm in love with her," he says after a while. "But I can't marry her, because if I do, I'd have to get out of this business, and I can't do that right now. This business isn't for her, and I respect her for that."
Not everyone involved with the industry is as forthcoming as Jad. It takes some time for Toros Siranossian, who represents super nightclubs to the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Night-Clubs and Pastries in Lebanon, which serves as a lobbying body between investors and owners and the government, to admit that he's involved with the industry at all.
Siranossian is a grandfatherly man with sharp black eyes, who looks to be in his late 60s. Every time he's asked a direct question, his perfect English suddenly fails him. When he reluctantly agrees to discuss the super nightclub industry, he insists it's a system that actually benefits Lebanese society.
"Lebanon is a tourist country, and because of that, we can't invite people to come see churches and mosques," he says. "We must have everything. It's better to have super nightclubs so people can go out with foreign girls instead of Lebanese girls. They'd have to pay a fortune to go out with Lebanese girls, and a lot of Lebanese girls would become prostitutes."
According to Siranossian, the industry has fallen on hard times in recent years.
"Girls cost more to bring over now," he says. "After paying money to the Ministry of Tourism and paying off the police, that's a lot of expenses.… Now, unless [super nightclubs] do dirty business, like forcing the girls to sleep with customers, they won't make enough."
Recent difficulties aside, the super nightclubs still have a loyal clientele among many Lebanese. Tony, a confident, muscular man in his early 40s dressed in jeans and a crew-neck sweater, is a frequent customer of the clubs. Although technically Christian, Tony, whose name has been changed, doesn't consider himself religious. He says that the industry is completely unique to Lebanon.
"These clubs would not be able to operate for one day in any other country," he says.
"They're in a category by themselves. I mean, the whole thing is such a procedure -- you can't even get a girl on the same night. But it works here, maybe because of the culture, which is open in a lot of ways but still very conservative in others."
According to Tony, the super nightclub industry has its redeeming qualities.
"There are benefits to the system," he says. "The girls have to get tested, and they're usually pretty well protected. But there are downsides too. Those girls basically live in a prison. They're locked in their hotels for most of the time, and they don't leave unless they have a customer. All the girls I meet at clubs are completely depressed. It's not exactly a turn-on."
Tony said that the government tolerates the industry because they can tax its revenues and because officials consider it better to contain and regulate prostitution than have it spread throughout the country. "They've turned Maameltein into Lebanon's red-light district," he says.
The complex nature of the super nightclub industry is typical of Lebanon, a country with more than its fair share of contradictions. As one drives past the neon signs of Maameltein's cheap hotels and seedy clubs, it's almost impossible not to compare it to the glitz and glamour of Beirut night life. Every Saturday night, while sleek Dior-clad women sip cocktails at luxurious rooftop clubs, super nightclub women just 20 minutes away don halter tops and micro-minis and prepare for work.
"It's like Jesus and Judas," Jad says of the industry, touching his crucifix. "God put Judas on Earth to kill Jesus. The super nightclubs are just fulfilling their purpose. Lebanon needs us, but it still judges us."