The Tragedies and Political Realities of Aleppo’s Old Red Light District

Naomi Pham and Elie Chalala
Photograph of author Ibtisam Ibrahim Tracy from and Al Jazeera.

In a tale that spans generations, a recent novel shows the suffering of Syrian society through the abuse of sex workers and a struggle to make their smothered voices heard. Syrian novelist Ibtisam Ibrahim Tracy’s latest work, “Daughters of Lahlouha” (House of Culture for Publishing and Distribution, 2021), introduces readers to Syrian women suffering under both French mandate and Syrian regimes, social oppression, political tyranny, and the machinations of intelligence services over the past century. The novel was recently reviewed by Salman Zainuddin in Independent Arabia.
The corpse of the novelist Farida al-Raydah greets readers in the opening pages of the novel, crumpled in a chair with torn remnants of paper in her hands. On her computer lies an open, blank document entitled “Novel.” When a deliveryman named Abdel al-Salam discovers her, he searches through her belongings and finds the ready-to-publish manuscript of her novel discarded in the neighborhood trash bin.
So begins the murderous novel’s saga which led to Farida’s death, whose tragic fate was the tail-end in a long line of murders and plots orchestrated a lifetime before her. The true beginning of the novel occurs decades before the 2011 revolution (the time of Farida’s death), in 1930s Syria under the French Mandate. Lahlouha, a woman in her 30s, ends up on the streets of Aleppo after fleeing from oppression in a khan. Here, she falls into the clutches of Badr, a man operating with the intelligence service who plants Lahlouha in the neighborhood of Bahthita to run a brothel. There, she must take girls (her “daughters”) under her wing, taking advantage of their need for shelter and enlisting them as sex workers. The young girls and women must provide intel on their clients, among which are well-known personalities whose loyalty to the regime is under scrutiny.
The winding schemes set in place throughout history in “Daughters of Lahlouha” are seen through many eyes. Tracy delves into the lives of women of varying social classes, whose encounter with Lahlouha leads them down a dark path of violence and death. Aarti Habiba is a soft-spoken Japanese girl who comes into Lahlouha’s care after being assaulted by French officers. Nadira al-Sharif witnesses the murder of her father by her uncle, who beats her and throws her onto the streets, where Lahlouha finds her. Wahiba al-Ayqa flees from her village with a young man in Cairo. He dies in a work accident, and she marries another man, who gambles her away to officers in Aleppo. From there, they send her to Lahlouha. Waheeda al-Rayda loses her grandmother in Beirut when she is five years old and is taken to Lahlouha’s house. These women and girls, along with several others, are reduced to their bodies and exploited. Children born out of their illicit entanglements with government officials equally share their unlucky fates in a cycle of tragedy, either killed alongside clients who are suspect to the regime or subjected to more abuse.
Tracy especially shines a light on female submission in a patriarchal society, power imbalance, and abuse of power against the women by the intelligence forces. The novel’s significant villains include Badr, whose actions started everything, Brigadier General Jadallah al-Muzayen, who demolished Bahthita where the women were working, Colonel Abu Firas, and Major General Sheikh al-Jabal, among others. However, the most malicious figure is represented by the head of the information branch, Salah al-Sayed, the former fiancee of Farida. When Farida leaves him, Salah retaliates and seduces the young girls working for the intelligence service, abusing them to the point of death. He targets officials loyal to the regime with the slightest suspicion, killing them and the sex workers in bombings. Farida, the daughter of one of the sex workers, finds out about his dark history and documents the security forces’ crimes against sex workers along with sensitive files related to the activities of the regime in her novel. This dangerous operation ends up ruining — if not costing — her life, her sisters’ lives, and the life of the delivery worker Abdel al-Salam who discovered the hidden manuscript when Salah sends his men to dispose of the novel and all those involved with it.
The novel paints a bleak portrait of the Syrian government, as seen from those it has trampled and abused. “The morals that characterize most of the ruling figures in the Baath regime are immoral. They practiced oppression and corruption, and some of them practiced murder, starting from the head of the state to the smallest informant in it,” author Ibtisam Tracy said of the novel as cited by the website IICFF.
“Daughters of Lahlouha” offers a disjointed narrative that feels more fitting considering its themes of family disintegration and fragmented time and space at the hands of an oppressive regime. It is the overarching narrative of death, of sex workers but also to prominent actors in the Syrian regime, as a “prophecy of an inevitable end to the corruption and oppression represented in the regime, which every free Syrian desires,” in the words of Tracy. “We are now living through the consequences of 2011… This mass death that occurred in the novel is an inevitable result of the mass death and massacres that took place in reality.”
Ibtisam Tracy is a Syrian writer born in 1959. She is a graduate of Aleppo University, where she studied Arabic Language and lived in Kuwait for a time. She published her first short story collection, “Dead Roots,” in 2001, which won the first prize of the Souad Al-Sabah competition. Her novel “The Eye of the Sun” was long-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2011. “Daughters of Lahlouha” will certainly not be the last addition to her long-standing series on Syrian struggles, as the prolific writer continues to shed light on life under oppression and tyranny.
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