‘I Feel Like an Ashtray’

Prostitution Survivors' Poems on Display in Tel Aviv Tell Stories of Hardship and Hope

Vika, who turned to prostitution to feed her hungry daughter, says she started writing 'to break free' while coming off of drugs

The sex scene on Tel Aviv's Solomon Street, September 2017.
Ilan Assayag

Vika was born in Ukraine to parents who were teachers. She describes her mother as distant and her childhood as difficult. She married a Jewish man, with whom she came to Israel to live at age 24, together with their 4-year-old daughter. In Israel their daughter was diagnosed with a serious illness, and they also learned that the girl was not eligible for citizenship. Treatment of their daughter’s illness was very expensive, Vika says, and her relationship with her husband gradually deteriorated.

“I started looking for work, and I didn’t find anything. We rented an apartment and we were under financial pressure. I was helpless. One day I saw an ad in a Russian-language newspaper: ‘Looking for serious girls for a good income.’ Nothing about prostitution was mentioned. I thought that it was a regular ad. I came to a meeting with my husband and daughter, I was so clueless. The pimp took me aside and spoke to me vaguely – and he took me to a brothel.

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“He said to me: ‘This is the work.’ I refused. I went back to my husband and didn’t dare tell him what they had offered me. I told him it hadn’t worked out, it wasn’t suitable. I kept on looking for work. Our financial situation got worse. Our relationship went downhill. I separated from my husband and I was on the brink of starvation. My daughter was hungry. One day I told myself: ‘OK, I’ll give in to men so I can take care of my daughter.’ Every day I struggled with myself and I persuaded myself to give in to men – to sell my soul for money to take care of my daughter.”

Vika, now 51, is one of 10 women in the cycle of prostitution whose poetry makes up a unique exhibition currently on display at Tel Aviv University’s Sourasky Library for humanities and the arts.

“I started writing for the first time about three years ago when I was in a rehabilitation program for prostitutes run by the Social Services Ministry and the Haifa municipality. The poetry broke out while I was coming off of drugs and prostitution, when I had to clear a lot of thoughts, to express myself, to break free. I’ve written a lot of poems since then, all in Russian.”

I Was Born of Tall Grass

By Vika

“I was born of tall grass

Flowers named me

Winds spun me a coronet

And morning, it was so splendid

And I sang sang sang

I thought I was born to joy

I was born, I thought to joy

*

They buried me in the tall grass

Only a cold wind wept

Only wind wept”

(Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden)

The exhibition, open until the end of the month, was the initiative of Idit Rosen, a senior librarian at the library and a doctoral student in semiotics and culture at TAU, and Miriam Gvaram, a student of gender and African studies at the university, as well as an anti-prostitution activist. “The exhibition is meant to present the voice of the women themselves and without mediation, in the most dignified way, and not to present one specific narrative in their lives,” Gvaram says. “Society must understand that women in prostitution are also human beings and they have their own view of this world, words of their own to conceptualize prostitution and that their range of emotions and experiences is rich, and it’s worth reading how this world is reflected through their eyes.”

After Dr. Naama Scheftelowitz, director of the Sourasky Library, approved the idea of the exhibition, Gvaram started looking for and collecting poetry from women who had worked in prostitution. She posted a call on a Facebook page that helps women move out of the field, and she was also given poems that had been collected in the past by attorney Michal Leibel when she headed the non-profit Task Force on Human Trafficking and Prostitution.

So far Gvaram has collected 25 poems from 10 poets. Idit Rosen says that she was “amazed at their ability to write and their talent. I looked at this with the eyes of a human being and not a researcher. I was full of appreciation at the courage, the ability to transmit a very complex experience through words. It left me speechless.

‘I cried out loud but no one paid attention’

Vika’s first place of employment as a prostitute was at 49 Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv. “It was called a health club. I went in and sat with the prostitutes, but I couldn’t go in with a client to a room. I went one day, two days, a week, but I didn’t have the courage to go through with it. Until they decided that I’d go together with a prostitute and a client, and I would see what she does. She was like my ‘instructor.’ She spoke to me in Russian, that the client couldn’t understand, and she told me what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong. That’s the way they broke the barrier for me.”

Vika worked as a prostitute for many years, during which she quickly began using hard drugs. Her addiction led her to move to the area of the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. “No pimp in an exclusive place wants an addict who misses her shifts, or who shows up high,” she says. “That’s how the decline starts and you end up on the street.”

Remembering her time at the bus station, where she was trapped for years, brings her to tears, even now. “You’re in a never-ending cycle – getting into a car, getting out with money, running to the drug dealer. That’s the way it is, 24 hours a day. No break. Client, drug, dealer, client, drug, dealer. And all with insufferable hallucinations from the drugs: Someone who hasn’t experienced this personally can’t understand what hallucinations you have when you’re on hard drugs from the Central Bus Station. I got to where I had one foot in the grave. I lost consciousness from an overdose, and was brought in an ambulance to the hospital.

“Only God saved me from this thing,” she says, weeping. “I didn’t believe I’d get out of it. The truth is, I didn’t want to live. I did everything I could to die. But one day I heard an inner voice – ‘Get up and go.’ I head these words in a tone of love and strength and so I got up and got to the program, and started my rehabilitation, which has been successful so far.”

As for the prostitution industry in Israel, Vika says: “The country is full of brothels today. People don’t have any idea how extensive the industry is. The police and the state have no control over its expansion. Pimps lure in and hire girls 16 or 17 years old.”

Here

By Vika

“Here I am

Naked at the corner

And everything is visible.

Where am I –

Naked? At the corner?

Visible?

You didn’t see me

An infinite babushka doll

You thought you’d bought me

But what you bought wasn’t

It

I traded only in my pain

Now there’s no difference between us

Except the light

I see the colorful spectrum in blue

As black on grey

Can anyone condemn me

To live my fate?

Have you cast all your stones at others

Or is there one left for me?”

(Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden)

“Anybody who’s an artist or creator wants his creation to reach a wider public,” says Vika. “It moves me that my writing will reach people and maybe touch their hearts. Sometimes, people don’t have a lot of patience to hear about other people’s troubles. So if by the medium of poetry people can understand what I went through, they’ll understand something about the experience of prostitution, they’ll know that you can get out of drugs and prostitution, they’ll realize that one can come from darkness to light and change and it’s important to change because life is short and worth living, so this certainly moves me to tears.”

“The poems were written by them and are in their voices, they bring the reader to meet the woman herself and not some imaginary representation or with a writer’s fantasy about prostitution or with its usual representation in literature,” says Idit Rosen. “When reading the poetry, what prostitution really is becomes clear, its complexity and how it is experienced for them.”

The Ashtray Poem

By Miri

When I’m doing it

I feel like an ashtray, filthy,

Into which you toss your cigarette butts.

Because you who give me money for it

Are in fact giving me dirty coins

Change you have in your pocket

That no one wants or needs.

If I am an ashtray that means that

I am worth spit, I am transparent,

I am unworthy.

Say thank you that I even agreed

To contain you.

Though most times you did it

Even when I refused, loudly, quietly,

With extinguished eyes, with a silent scream.

But hey, an ashtray doesn’t even speak.

Nevermind scream.

And if I am an ashtray, I don’t have feelings.

I didn’t burn up inside when you stubbed out

The butts of your loneliness.

I wasn’t humiliated when you spat out your urges on to me.

Sometimes I get to thinking

I want to go see a doctor.

But not just any doctor,

I want a doctor who will cure me of the street,

You know, the street-type situation where I am.

Until I realize

The doctor, too, likes to smoke.

(Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden)

The exhibit will close at the end of the month. Women in prostitution and survivors of prostitution are invited to send poems to, poetrybysurvivor@gmail.com.