In Brussels the red light district is located in the area around the Gare du Nord. Most of the white prostitutes, Romanian and Bulgarian, work the Rue d’Aerschot, a 400-metre long street clearly visible from the railway, while the black ones sit in windows in the shadier back streets. They’re cheaper too. Getting lucky takes a simple nod at the ladies, getting an interview takes a lot more. After being turned down more times than a spotty four-eyed teenager in a discotheque, finally a Nigerian woman named Monique agrees to speak to me. The cost: forty Euros, the usual price for an unusual request.
Monique’s ‘office’ consists of three separate rooms. The front room, the one with the large window, is where she spends most of her time, waiting for a customer in a big, worn out brown leather armchair. The middle room, divided from the front by a semi-transparent curtain, has two chairs and a small table in it, you might call it the reception room. The backroom is where Monique earns her money. The bin next to the bed is full of dirty toilet paper; electricity cables lie crisscrossed through the room. It smells a bit musky; the only fresh air comes from a half-open door that leads to a small patio. In the corner of the room stands an old-fashioned heater with a pot on it. ‘No, it’s for humidity,’ Monique mumbles, when I ask if it’s used to boil water.
In her reception room, Monique offers me a glass of water. She has a very frail posture, and her limbs are oddly long. The white crocheted see-through dress she wears reveals a lingerie set underneath – it may well be a bikini but being a man, it’s hard for me to tell the difference. I can see that Monique is on edge; it is obvious she doesn’t trust the tall white guy sitting opposite her. She is 28, and from Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. Seven years ago she moved to Brussels, the capital of Europe.
‘Can you tell me, how did you become a…’ – I stop to ask myself if there’s a nicer name for it – ‘working girl? Can I call you that, what do you prefer?’
Monique shrugs her shoulders and takes a sip of her Spa bottle. ‘Anyway you can call it, no problem. I don’t know what I felt, I guess it was because of the money. I speak a little bit of French, but if you’re not able to speak or write it fluenty, it’s impossible to find a normal job.’ Sadly, this is the story of many African women, but Monique adds another reason: ‘It’s a good place to come. Also, here you have a lot of white people, so I was like, “let me see what they’re like”.’
‘Ok. So the skin colour is different. Was that your reason for coming to Europe?’
Monique looks at me frowning, a bit disturbed by this obviously stupid question. ‘Of course. In Africa, you find that interesting, especially when you see white people on television. You’re like “oh, that’s a weird colour, maybe one day I would like to see these strange people”.’ Monique looks at me, dead serious.
‘Are most of your clients from here?’
‘From Europe, of course. I get clients from Belgium, France, from Holland – like you.’
‘Can you tell whether a client is to be trusted?’
‘No, you cannot tell by their looks. But when they come in and you hear how they speak; that’s how you know the difference.’
‘Between good and bad?’
‘Between good and bad, voilà. I only had a bad customer once, a long time ago. It was a Chinese man, or something. He came in for the regular stuff, so I said yes. Then, he asked me to do more for him. When I told him that for more he had to pay more, he yelled “No, no, no”, and immediately hit me in the face. I had a black eye but I tried to fight him. Luckily, there was this other girl that I work with sometimes. Together, we were able to push him out.’
While telling this rather scary story, Monique’s body and face remain almost unmoved. Not much seems to touch her anyway. Not the dangers of being a working girl, not this interview, and certainly not Europe. ‘I don’t care about Europe, honestly. I know Brussels is the capital of Europe and all, but I don’t really care about politics. You know?’
I guess. ‘Do you feel like there’s a lot of racism in Europe?’
That irritated look again. ‘Of course there is. It’s not like Europe is perfect. There’s racism everywhere, just like in every other country.’ She sits back, waiting for my response.
‘Have you been discriminated against, a lot?’
Monique shakes her head. ‘No, not me. Time’s up’. Monique eyes wander away from me and the conversation, into the dusky room. I’m off, I step outside, Monique checks her face and returns to her window, to her big brown leather chair.