Child prostitution in Zarqa: a city paralysed by the mafia

He refused to meet me in a café, for fear of being overheard. Mohammed had a story about Zarqa, one of the only cities in Jordan. Here, law and order is in the hands of the mafia, not the government. “I would rather talk at home if you actually want the details. I will say nothing here.”

Zarqa is a large industrial town of roughly one million inhabitants. The town’s population boomed at the beginning of the Kingdom’s history, after the Second World War, when the population rocketed from 6,000 to 280,000 people in 20 years. The majority of this influx came from Palestine, Jordan being one of the only countries that welcomed the refugees as citizens with a right to work. The city was transformed into the industrial centre of Jordan and has paid the price for such rapid progress, to the extent that civil society has broken down. There are parts of the town where the police cannot enter for fear of assault.

Zarqa is run by the “mafia”, Mohammed said. Foolishly thinking he was using the term in jest, I asked Mohammed whether he was referring to a mafia similar to that depicted in TV shows such as The Sopranos. Patiently, he explained that the Zarqa mafia is much worse. “Does Tony Soprano sell children’s bodies daily? Does he traffic young boys to the Gulf where they are sold as sex slaves? Does he actively prevent these children whose lives he is destroying seek help for the abundance of STIs they are contracting?”

Until 2011, Mohammed worked alongside two activists from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and Heartland Alliance, an anti-poverty campaign. Mohammed shadowed their work in Zarqa whilst a student at Philadelphia University, Amman. He described the work of Noor, his friend, who used to interview the boys who were being prostituted to find out the scale of the problem.

There has been no official research into child prostitution in Zarqa, so the real extent of it remains unknown. Likening it to the rampant and very visible growing of marijuana along the road to the airport, it seemed to Mohammed that the Jordanian government is more than happy to sweep the problem under the carpet and avoid official recognition of this crime.  

Their work collectively stopped when Noor was beaten up on the streets for her work. She had been going regularly to Zarqa and paying the boys on the streets in Amman to talk to her. After she had collected information about what happened to the money and how they were recruited, the mafia bosses became suspicious of her regular presence. Despite the mafia threatening Noor with attacks on her family, she continued to meet the boys, talk to them and suggest HIV testing. The attack she sustained left her with broken bones and stitches on her eyes.

Mohammed lost contact with Noor after that – he believes she left the country, possibly moving to Turkey. He was also too afraid to continue his work, knowing the risk he was putting himself and his family under. Unlike Noor, he was working alone, tagging along to their trips to Zarqa to educate himself about the problems in his country. Mohammed was no stranger to hostility. Being gay himself, and before he became a gay rights activist, his family had been exposed to the risk brought on by the ‘shame’ of his homosexuality. Knowing the danger he was putting himself in, Mohammed stopped his trips to Zarqa in 2011.

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Mohammed’s main goal was to educate people about HIV prevention. “These boys are doing this sex without any awareness of what is a condom or what is ‘safe sex’. We gave the mafia the HIV forms with questions, but they just filled them out wrong and claimed there was no HIV,” Mohammed told me. He recalled the words of a health minister from the Zarqa Governate, whom he refused to name, who when pressed for information claimed: “You are inventing stories, there is nothing like this in Jordan.” 

There is no HIV testing in Zarqa, so the numbers of HIV patients are increasing daily. This region is home to the second fastest growing HIV epidemic in the world. Noor claims the problem is not limited to child prostitution. “They are getting these STIs and not being treated, which can lead to a public health epidemic.” Infected boys, around 12-15 years of age, will marry before any symptoms of HIV necessarily appear, and in doing so infect their wives and children too.

HIV remains taboo across the Middle East and North Africa. Whilst the Jordanian government provides medication and testing free of charge, whenever Mohammed goes to Jabal Al-Hussein to get himself tested, he says the first question is always: ‘Anta shaz?’, translating as ‘Are you a fag?’

There are therefore very few reported cases of HIV in the Kingdom, as very few people get tested. Mohammed mentions a friend who consistently refuses to be tested, claiming he would rather die of AIDS than admit he has HIV.

Mohammed, unlike Noor, seemed most concerned about the future of the boys. There is no record of where they go or what happens to them. Within Jordan they are bussed to Amman and hang around the Mustashfa Takhasusi and Thiqafa Street in Al-Shmeisanyi, where, on a Thursday night, men in cars visibly drive up to the young boys and pay for their services for an hour or two. Many of the young boys get sold into human trafficking – their destination is usually the Gulf or Syria, where child sex laws are much more relaxed than in Jordan. Considering this second fate, the boys in Amman are considered the better off. Despite the huge problems coming out of Zarqa, Jordanian law, at least in theory, provides the same protections for children under 18 as UK law does– for example, forbidding marriage without parental consent.

Mohammed was sure that this variety of prostitution would not abate any time soon. Since the advent of the Syrian Civil War, Jordan has accepted the second highest number of Syrian refugees, after Lebanon. Most live in refugee camps, some of which are located in Zarqa. Syrians are well famed for their beauty across the Arab World, because of their unusual height and pale skin. Syrian boys are also much more vulnerable than the native Jordanians, being poorer and often orphaned. Mohammed predicts that soon, if it hasn’t happened already, the percentage of child prostitutes that are Syrian will exceed the percentage of Syrians in Jordan.

Sex has become big business in Jordan. In recent years, it has replaced Syria as the sex-tourism hotspot in the Middle East, with the opening of ‘Russian Clubs’ across Amman, Zarqa and Irbid meaning that more and more of the Gulf’s sex tourists are stopping here. Prostitutes characteristically dye their hair blonde, and are then referred to as ‘Russian’, whether or not their heritage is actually Slavic. Sex clubs are preferable to Mohammed, who wishes Jordan would legalise prostitution as Turkey has done. This, he believes, would root out the child sex market, making the clientele seek sex in regulated clubs, not on the streets. Culturally, sex with young boys, stretching back to pre-Islamic times, has been considered traditional: the rape of a young boy is not considered to break the law against pre-marital sex.

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Schools are one of the main locations where local boys begin involvment. The boys in this part of town are among some of the poorest in the country. The narrative goes that adults would approach one boy with the irresistible incentive of a few Jordanian Dinars to buy a mobile phone or some clothes. This one boy would then ‘spread the word’ to the rest of his school – his money would provide an incentive for others to contact the adults.

More sinister stories speak of men standing at the gates and telling the already-recruited boys which ones they wanted in the group: who was cute, who would fetch money, who to avoid. Using promises of “treats” as an incentive, the treatment of these children resembles the treatment of animals.

Despite this promise of money and goods, the boys rarely see any returns. They receive tips from the clientele occasionally, mostly through begging. Once they have begun prostituting themselves, however, leaving the clutches of their pimp is a much harder ordeal. He takes the fee and forces them to sell their bodies, at ages as young as 8 or 9.

It’s small wonder that these methods of luring boys with the promise of money or a mobile phone – a prized possession in Jordan – have been so successful. Despite the fact that most see no reward for their work, there is always the chance of escaping their home lives. According to the United Nations Development Programme in Jordan, the Zarqa Governate, the most densely populated and polluted in Jordan, contains four of the biggest ‘poverty pockets’ in Jordan, where poverty rates range from 29% to 52%. Through the Wikileaks scandal, the American Embassy’s views on Zarqa were shown to be broadly similar: “The city has become a symbol of urban decay, environmental degradation, and political radicalism.”

Zarqa is not only renowned for its child prostitution racket. Within Jordan, it is most discussed because of the concentration of Salafist terrorists it has produced, such as Abu Musab Az-Zarqawi, with many of them travelling to fight in the Syrian Civil War. It is also the centre of the Jordanian drugs trade. Dr Amer As-Sabaileh, a political analyst at the University of Jordan, commented on his blog that: “Signs of degradation are everywhere, with rubbish piled up in the streets, no proper services, no decent school, park or playground for children despite the fact that the city has one of the highest birth-rates in Jordan.”

Zarqa’s other problems have been exposed, with rogue journalists covering the dearth and deprivation within the city. However, the ever-present influence of the mafia obscures many of the issues that this Jordanian city faces. Despite recent efforts to democratise, and with ever-increasing help from USAID and the UN, the Jordanian government, mired in allegations of corruption, has done little to change the way of life for people outside of Amman or Irbid. Sadly, there is no end in sight for the young boys of Zarqa, selling their bodies for the promise of a new mobile phone.