Beirut, Lebanon - In an economically troubled, conservative country where homosexual behaviour is taboo, a growing number of men are prostituting themselves to scrape together a living.
When talking about his life "Hassan" hesitates, the words coming out with difficulty as he chain-smokes cigarettes and fiddles with his sweatshirt. His work could have him arrested, beaten up and jailed. Hassan, a 27-year-old Sunni from Iraq, is a male prostitute and has been selling himself for money in Beirut for a year.
This was not a lifestyle that he ever wanted, but something he says was forced upon him. He insists he would have chosen another path "had I been given the choice". Hassan - who asked his real name not be used - was forced to leave his country after his family found out about his homosexuality and threatened to kill him. Fearful for his life, he fled Iraq and was smuggled into Lebanon, along with five other refugees, by an NGO he refuses to name. After a few months, he was evicted from his flat after getting involved in a fight.
Alone, still unemployed and desperate for any way to make money, he heard about bars in bourgeois areas of Beirut where men would pay high prices to spend a few hours with young men like him. A couple of days later, a wealthy entrepreneur from Turkey picked him up at a gay club located in the heart of the capital. After a drink and a short discussion about prices, they left together. The next morning Hassan was given $400 from the first of what would become many "clients". He was now a male escort.
His is not an isolated story. "Fouad", a 20-year-old Christian student who fled from Syria to avoid being forced into the army last summer, now works in a hammam, or men's bath-house, near a tourist area of Hamra in west Beirut. Fouad, who also requested anonymity, gives "special" massages to any customer who asks.
All of his co-workers are Syrian as well and offer the same kind of services. Instead of being paid by the owner of the hammam, they "rent" their position there for a fee, then arrange rates directly with the clients.
It's a temporary situation. As soon as I have saved enough money, I will go back to Syria to finish my studies.
Like Hassan, Fouad says there was nowhere else to turn but to a life of prostitution. "It's a temporary situation," Fouad says. "As soon as I have saved enough money, I will go back to Syria to finish my studies."
It is difficult to be sure whether he believes in what he says, given the ongoing civil war in his country, but like several of his coworkers, Fouad is eager to return to a normal life.
In the meantime, he and the other sex workers wait, bare-chested with white towels tied around their waists, standing against a fake stone wall next to the entrance, hoping for - and fearing - a busy night. They are all young and healthy-looking. Some even joke and laugh, while others do not talk at all and never make eye contact with potential clients smoking shisha in the lobby.
Easier than ever
According to several NGOs working with male escorts, thousands of men such as Hassan and Fouad have turned to prostitution in Beirut, offering everything from sexual favours to simple company to their clients.
Clients tend to be wealthy middle-aged men from Lebanon, Turkey, the Gulf states and as far away as North Africa. Some became escorts after arriving from a country torn apart by war, having nowhere to turn; others found themselves with bills to pay and children to feed with no chance of employment. The fact that one can anonymously use gay social networks such as Grindr or Manjam to meet clients in a matter of minutes - or look for potential ones in Beirut's gay bars, clubs or hammams - makes it easier for these male prostitutes to stay safe and to keep their job a secret.
Despite homosexual activity being illegal in Lebanon, Beirut is widely regarded as the safest place for homosexuals in the Middle East. Police rarely raid the hammams and nightclubs - since their owners pay good money to avoid crack downs. The world-famous Lebanese band Mashrou Leila has an openly gay singer. And the younger generations tend to be more much more open-minded about sexual preferences than the older ones.
This perceived safe haven is well known in the region, and has since made Beirut the go-to destination for Middle Eastern tourists wanting to express their sexuality more freely. Before the violence and instability in Lebanon turned them away, wealthy gay men from the Gulf countries were especially prominent, ready to pay up to a few thousand dollars - in cash, jewellery or designer clothes - for a night with an escort.
But such high prices are by no means the norm. Most clients are understood to pay about $200 for a Lebanese escort. Syrian men reportedly tend to cost less, only $50 on average. But even at this low price, many Syrian refugees in Lebanon choose this option, given the alternative: desperate searching for terribly paid jobs.
Syrian war's effect
"There have always been male sex workers in Lebanon. It was common knowledge," says an outreach programme coordinator with Helem, a Lebanese LGBT-rights NGO. "But since the US invasion of Iraq, and even more so with the Syrian civil war, there are more of them than ever before."
That is because many of the 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon have a difficult time finding jobs, and end up severely struggling to provide food and shelter for themselves and their families.
In 2012, a study by the RAND Corporation showed among Lebanese and Syrian sex workers, about 40 percent and 68 percent, respectively, defined themselves as heterosexual.
Since the Geneva II peace conference is showing little progress and the Syrian war rages on, poverty-stricken Syrians in Beirut have little chance to see their future improve any time soon.
With many tourists avoiding Lebanon because of political unrest, the escorts may soon find themselves running short of clients.
Hassan does not know what will happen then. "When I left my country and struggled to eat, I thought it could not get worse. When I started at the hammam, I was certain it could not get worse. Now, I do not know what to expect."
A version of this story was originally published by Transterra Media.