It was no accident that I got to know Shalala
. In fact, I had known of her for a long time, given that we lived in the same city for a while.
In fact, it was impossible
to hear about her. The entire neighborhood would talk about how an elderly woman in the building next door invited strange men to her home, and how she would smile to herself when she would pass through the yard, despite the fact that people behind her would offer up different versions of her life whenever she walked by.
The situation was such that I on occasion had to speak to her – I often needed the internet for my work, and the only internet club in the neighborhood didn’t allow any girls. And my only neighbor with access to the internet was Shalala. And so I went to her house every so often and got the chance to know this woman who spoke in the quietest of whispers.
If you had never heard of her, it would have never crossed your mind that she might have been getting by on the sale of her body. First off, she was rather old. Second, she didn’t appear to be a woman with what others might have called loose ‘moral values’ –neither in her speech nor in her clothing nor in her behavior. Her house was clean, tastefully decorated…there was always food on the table. Her clothing was elegant, expensive and suited her well for her age.
She was an open person. She knew that everyone else was well informed about what she did. But she wasn’t shy about anything, and on occasion brought up the subject herself.
And once, she even decided to tell me her entire story.
When she was 20 years old, she came with her husband to Sumqayit from one of the regions with her newborn son.
In those years, Sumqayit was a young, industrial city, and she and her husband saw a bright future for themselves there.
However, not a year had passed before her husband got into a dispute with his business partner, whom he stabbed. He later gave himself up to the police, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Now that her husband was in prison, Shalala had two options. She could either pack up, take her son and head back to her family in the regions, or stay in the city and find a job. Either way, she had to provide for her husband in prison.
The young woman quickly dismissed the idea of returning home. Had she returned home, she would have been indebted to her neighbors and family for a simple splice of bread, and then, where would she have gotten the money together to provide for her husband, whom she would have to go see in prison once a month to make sure he had clothes and food?
“Who would have given me this money? My family and my husband’s family were rather poor. I didn’t want to be a burden to them”.
The second option was to find work in Sumqayit. But without an education, without any trade skills, Shalala found it difficult to provide for herself, her husband in prison and her young son.
Shalala says that she tried working as a cleaner and a cook. However, she quickly became fed up with bosses who tried making passes and advances at her, and who later fired her when she would not agreed to be intimate with them:
“So I put aside the question of finding a job, but I realized there was something to be said about intimacy and its value…
“In Soviet times, sex-work was not a very common thing. So I didn’t even think of going to the hotels. I went to all the weddings I could. I was a tall, pretty and single woman, and there were always a few guys that wanted to get to know me. I gave them my home phone number, and when they called, I told them I would only meet them for money. The first man I met with for over half a year. And, well, such things get around quickly. Soon everyone knew, that in such and such a quarter there was such and such a building where such and such a woman lived and…
“It’s true that this brought me many customers, but it also meant the start of problems with my neighbors.
“Men and women came to my house, stopped me in the street, told me to scram, get out, go somewhere else…”
But Shalala wasn’t fazed.
She spoke with the local “good boys” of the neighborhood and told them she’d share in her earnings in exchange for their protection. And then she told her neighbors firmly that they they shouldn’t even think of doing anything ‘unkind’ to her. She told them she was unafraid of them, and that she did not think she was disrespecting anyone. She said that they would never hear the sounds of drunken debauchery or scandal coming from her apartment, and that her clients would come in and out only when no one was in the yard.
The fact that she was a frank and honest woman helped.
“I have never dressed garishly, never smoked, never had more than one glass of wine. I’ve respected my neighbors, the neighborhood and their mentality. I don’t speak loudly. Whoever has needed help, I haven’t begrudged them. Everyone has understood that it’s not as if I enjoy the work – I was forced into it, in order to feed myself, my husband in prison and to provide for my child”.
With time, the neighbors got used to her work. It even got to the point where her neighbors began to defend her if they heard an unkind word or two from an ‘outsider’ to the neighborhood:
“They used to say about me, ‘if only all woman who had to work like that were like her…”
Shalala looked after her husband for 15 years. His family came at one point and quickly found out what she was up to. But they hid it from her husband. Shalala says that because they thought he would stop seeing her, they decided not to tell him – else they would have to bring him food, cigarettes, clothes and other items he would need in prison.
They told him only after he got out of prison.
Though he was angry, he did recognize the necessity of her work and the reality of her loyalty to him throughout the last 15 years.
Above all, the warm words of Shalala’s neighbors about her having brought up a well-behaved boy, with good grades in the Russian language section softened him towards her.
When he came home, he didn’t want to get a divorce: he forgave her, and said he wanted to live with her. But Shalala said it wouldn’t work out.
“It’s not easy to forget such a thing. He would have been quiet for a year, two years – then the neighbors, his family would have started to get to him and fill his head with ideas and tease him…they would have told him his wife is a prostitute.
In the end, he would have started beating me, or he would have killed me. Or maybe he would have committed suicide. I, of course, wouldn’t have like for any of that to happen. So I told him, no, let me give you some money. Go, find some work. If you want, take our son, too. After all, the name of his mother doesn’t bring with it any great associations…
I gave him some of the money I had saved and he opened a small store in the regions. We’re on good terms these days – he still comes by as a guest”.
Shalala had her son study in the Russian-language section at school, where he was interested in literature and art from his childhood. However, Shalala advised him to become a soldier, because she doesn’t want him to stay in Sumqayit. She thought he would fare better in another city where his mother was not known.
Her son took her advice and is now a high-ranking officer – he is a little younger than 40. He has four children from three marriages, all of which ended when his wives’ parents and relatives found out about his mother and her profession, and demanded that he reject his mother. However, he stuck by her side every time.
The judge has allowed Shalala to see her grandchildren frequently. She always spends her time with them on the days she is allowed.
Shalala says her son has never once spoken about her work. Maybe because she has never accepted a client at home when he was around – she was careful and attentive, and made sure he had all he needed. For that reason, despite the insults he might hear on the street, he has never asked his mother about her work.
Shalala says that she thinks he has tried to remain as truthful to her beliefs and ideals as possible throughout her trials.
“I understand that we are Muslims, and that no relative and no neighbor will ever look at this profession in a positive light. But everything is in the hands of man himself. I’ve tried to help people when I can, and I’ve spoken with respect to all. No one has ever seen an ounce of disrespect from me. I’ve always remained cool and level headed. I’ve tried spending the money I’ve earned in a smart way, to save, to think about and provide for my son.
One can never forget one’s humanity. My customers continued to come to me because I’m kind and compassionate. I have some clients that have become friends – we no longer have an intimate connection, but sometimes they come to talk, or to fix something at my house. And that’s because I act like a
with them. They feel at home with me. Some come over to eat khash, because their wives won’t let them have it at home. Some call me and say, ‘I don’t want anything, I just need to relax – there is such a racket at my house!’ Some call and say, “I have to drive to such and such a place…I get tired and bored on the road. Come, travel with me for a bit.’”.
Shalala doesn’t consider herself unlucky. She says that she has enough money to last her to the end of her life. She has a good son, with a good job. Her grandchildren are educated…Her only regret is that she didn’t get an education her self.
“Had I got to school at the right time, I wouldn’t have gone down this path, of course. Despite this, I don’t think I’ve made many mistakes. I haven’t put myself in any altogether ridiculous situations. I haven’t ended up entirely alone. And yet, there is a small whimper in me that from time to time does cry out,
‘My, everything could have been entirely different…’”.