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It's late evening in Amman, Jordan, and the city, a sea of white stone, is particularly quiet. But not far from the center of town, in a neighborhood known as the Gardens, the Cottage is coming to life. A staircase leads down to a windowless room filled with sweet, stinging hookah smoke and shrill Arabic ballads, courtesy of a sweaty lounge singer and his electric keyboard. Men lean over small tables around the dance floor, taking in the club's main attraction: young Iraqi women swiveling their hips.
Malak's eyes are dark, almost black, and her mannerisms — hair flips, giggling, crossing and recrossing her legs — seem like the studied result of months sitting at the bar. You never ask what they do. They don't give their real name, and you never give yours. Five years ago, Malak was living in one of Iraq's wealthiest cities. She'd studied English, Polish, and Italian in college, and remains a big George Michael fan — her liberal mother, whom she lived with her father died of cancer a decade ago , bought her his tapes when she was younger.
Their house was next door to a Karbala hotel, a target during the U. When the bombs started coming, Malak wound up in the hospital for a month. After she got out, she learned her mother hadn't survived. Malak wasn't working before the war. When the Americans took over Baghdad, she stayed, interpreting for the U. One night, while out on patrol with the Marines, she was shot in the leg.
Less mobile, she started taking desk jobs for foreign embassies and contracting companies like KBR and Lucent Technologies, which kept her solvent and independent. Then one evening she came home to find her building swallowed by flames. Mortar attack. The money was gone. Soon after, on her way to work, she was shot in the same leg again, in a terrorist drive-by, leaving her right thigh twice the size of her left. It was time to quit Baghdad.
An American friend arranged for her flight to Jordan. Malak and I meet in her basement apartment in Amman. It could be a dorm room — the bed littered with stuffed animals, the humming mini-fridge, the chipped wooden dresser covered with neat rows of lipstick, eyeshadow, blush, and jewelry. She tells me she resisted prostitution when she first arrived in the city. They said there are no jobs for us," she says.