Oct/Nov 2007   Travel

Any Old Antwerp Night

by Chika Unigwe

Antwerp is a maze of frustratingly identical streets. Navigating the city is a chore, and locating the street we are looking for—even with Jan's near perfect sense of orientation—requires nothing short of a miracle. We go round and round, lost on streets sutured with tram lines and with names that point to the country's Roman Catholic legacy: St. Pietersvliet, St. Paulusvest, Kloosterstraat—streets named after saints and convents and monks.

This could be any old Antwerp night. There are people on sidewalks, on the streets, in restaurants. I am almost ready to give up, have told my husband—driver and companion—at least three times to get us out of there and on the highway back home when he says, "I think I've found it." "It" being the Antwerp tolerance zone, the Schipperskwartier. The Holy Grail we are in quest of tonight.

It is a few minutes past one a.m. when Jan parks close to Harbis, a take-away kebab restaurant on Huikstraat, and brings out a tortured map. He traces street names with an elegant, long finger, mouths the names to himself, folds up the map and announces that we should get out of the car. "Don't leave anything in the car, schat," he warns me. I am always forgetting things in the car: my hand bag, my sunglasses, my phone. Some years ago we drove down to Milan to visit one of his former classmates. Worn out from the thirteen-hour drive and pregnant with what is now our oldest child, it was all I could do to drag myself upstairs to our host's flat. The next morning the car was gone together with everything I had forgotten to remove: a library book, my winter coat, and the very first jewelry Jan ever got me—a set of gold earrings and pendant he had made for me in the Niger Republic. I don't think he has quite forgiven me for it.

Tonight, I only have a handbag with my notebook and a pen in it. I drag that out from under my seat. We walk past the restaurant. It advertises chicken fried to incandescent gold, pizzas and kebab that make the mouth water. My stomach churns, but not from hunger, as we have driven straight from a friend's birthday party in Leuven. Outside the restaurant, there are wide awake customers lining up for a bite, mainly young girls in short skirts and their male companions in denim. I am almost cold in my trousers and coat and wonder how anyone could bear to wear a short skirt in this weather.

We come into a cobbled street populated mainly by men, and the first thing that catches my eye is an elegant building with arrogant lights spelling out its name into the darkness, the silhouette of a long-legged lady in high heeled shoes sitting atop the last letter, her buttocks pert. Villa Tinto. This is the poshest brothel in the area. The Schiperskwartier—translates to the shippers' quarters—is the government-controlled red light district of Antwerp. The Villa Tinto was built in January 2005, designed by a celebrity designer, Arno Quinze. It is said to be Europe's most high tech bordello. It has 51 suites, safes to store cash, a biometric scanner which identifies the workers, an on-site police station, a panic button under the beds for the girls' safety, and a control room manned by a fellow prostitute. It is the district's pride.

Beside the villa and across from it are more modest blocks of flats. I think to myself that the block of flats must feel like Cinderella, step-sisters to the sophisticated Villa Tinto. The flats have huge display windows edged with blue and red lights. In the middle of the windows are high stools. It is the beginning of the night, and business is evidently slow as most of the stools are still occupied by girls dressed in only lingerie.

The few women that there are on the street hang on proprietarily to their men, dragging them by the hands, holding them close. The single men stop and gaze at windows, ogling the prostitutes, occasionally walking over to a window to talk and haggle. When the girls notice a straggler, they rap on the windows with their rings in an attempt to lure him in. I gaze in the windows and look for a friendly face. For someone who might be willing to talk to me. I see one, sitting on her stool talking animatedly into a mobile phone. I wonder if she is calling home, telling them, Yes, I'm fine. Yes, it's cold abroad. Yes, I shall send money by Western Union tomorrow. In the window beside hers, separated only by a partition, is another black girl. I catch her eye, but she looks at me and looks away. I go a few windows further, trying to build up courage. I am nervous, but my need is stronger than my nerves, so as soon as I spot one that holds my gaze, I walk up to her window. She is framed by a multitude of red and blue lights. She is the colour of my teak coffee table when it has just been polished. She is tall, shapely, and one of the most beautiful women on display. She looks like she might be in her mid twenties. She is wearing stilettos—silver, I think—and brown underwear. Her black hair extensions are fringed at the front, covering her eyebrows, but long at the back, way past her shoulders. She reminds me of Naomi Campbell. She opens her window a bit when she sees me approach. "Hello," I say. "Do you speak English?"

"Yes." She says it like a question, and I know she is wondering what I want.

"Where are you from?" I ask.

"Nigeria," she says. I wonder if I ought to speak pidgin English. I have somehow got it in my head that if she is a prostitute, then her English must be poor. My pidgin sounds false, so I decide to stick to proper English. "I am a writer, and I was wondering if I could ask you some questions."

"Go ahead," she says. Her voice sounds educated. I am surprised. I will find out much later, from another source, that quite a number of the Nigerian prostitutes have university degrees.

"How much do you pay for a booth?" I have always wanted to know.

"Five-hundred and fifty euros."

"Per month?"

"Per week." Her voice is flat. I open my mouth in shock. Five-hundred and fifty is a lot of money for a week's rent.

"And how much do you charge?" I do not even have to think about this. It seems the logical follow-up question.

"Fifty-five euros."

"Per night?" I ask. She looks at me like I am a nutter and says firmly, "No. For every 25 minutes."

Fifty-five euros is the starting rate, usually for a blow job. The price goes up depending on what the customer requires, and how. And anything done without a condom attracts an extra fee. As does a French kiss. A trick who wants the full works can expect to part with over a hundred euro at the end of his 25 minutes. I also find out later from another informant that Nigerian prostitutes are known for trying to exhort more money than is agreed to. "They nag and nag until you cave in!" On a slow night, a girl can do two tricks. On a good night, seventeen.

"Do you live here?" I ask, wondering how much room there is beyond the window.

"No," she says. She lives in one of the suburbs of Antwerp. She comes to the Schipperskwartier to work from around midnight to six a.m.. Her neighbour, a leggy girl who looks Mediterranean, walks over to her and complains that it is cold. "I'm sorry," she tells me. "It's cold. I have to close the window." I tell her I have enjoyed talking to her, ask for her phone number so that I can call her up during the week for another chat that I am willing to pay for.

"No," she says firmly. "No, I don't give out my phone number." She pulls the window shut.

We walk the length of the display windows and turn into the Oude Maas, which is where 't keteltje is. 'T keteltje is a café that has been in the news for harboring illegal Nigerian prostitutes. In 2004 it was raided, and over 30 were arrested and repatriated. At the door, a man of about Jan's height—6'7—casually stands guard. He is dark, but not in the way Nigerians are. There is a grayish tint to his skin, like a blackboard that has not been properly wiped. I decide that he is Senegalese. He says hello to us and moves aside to let us in. I wonder if he thinks I am a new girl, and my husband, a client on the prowl. The café is subfusc and altogether rather tacky looking; it is dimly lit by a constellation of colored squares, one inside the other like a Matryoshka. Its walls and ceiling are panelled in dark wood. Along a side of the wall, there are men sitting on high stools. Opposite this wall is the bar, where an indeterminate number of men are sitting on bar stools, drinking beer from long glasses. Interspersed between them are women, mostly sitting between the thighs of the men. Behind the bar is a jolly looking man, the proprietor, who smiles a welcome at us. Jan and I order some drinks. In the stomach of the café, there are a few tables around which men sit, drinking and smoking. Women hang around their necks. An overweight young woman with an impressive chest, in a small t-shirt that leaves her mid-riff exposed and tight jeans, clears a table of its empty bottles. The café is a study in contrasts. All the men are white. All the women are black. All the men have their own hair. All the women have hair extensions of varying lengths and colours. A majority of the men appear to be over forty. A majority of the women appear to be under twenty-five. At the rear of the room, a woman sits by herself behind a table. She has a tiny mobile phone in her hand and is tapping one foot self assuredly to the boom boom boom of the music playing above the din of the different conversations in the room. I walk up to her.

"Hello, I'm Chika. I am a writer. Do you work here?" I think my voice is friendly, engaging. I sit on a long bench opposite her chair and place my drink on the table.

"Yes, I work here." Her English is hesitant. Maybe I should have started off in pidgin, I think.

"Where are you from?" I yell above the music. I wonder if I should offer her a drink. It is frustrating not knowing the café etiquette.

"Nigeria." She shouts back.



"Where are you from in Nigeria?"

"Bini now." She smiles at me, patronizingly, like I have asked her a dumb question.

A white man will tell me on another occasion that many of the Nigerian girls in the Schipperskwartier are from Benin City. "You have a reason for this?" he will ask. I will tell him that I don't.

"Which country are you from?" she asks me, passing her phone from one hand to the other. Her nails are beautifully polished. I tell her I am Nigerian, wondering if she can see the dismal state of my nails in this light. I hope not. I curl my hands to hide my nails in my palms, nevertheless.

She repeats her question. I think it must be the noise, so I shout louder, that I am Nigerian. "Yes, but which country in Nigeria?" she asks, and it dawns on me that she means to ask which region I belong to.

I tell her I am Igbo. She smiles again and asks how long I have lived in Belgium. I tell her almost ten years.

"And you say dis is your fest time here?"


"I don't believe you," she says.

I tell her she is under no obligation to believe me. She ignores me. I don't know if she understands me. She asks another question. "And you say you want to write a book?" I nod. It is easier than yelling. "About us? You'll use pictures?" She is almost frowning. I try to explain to her that it is a novel I am working on, that I am collecting research for my characters. She listens politely, and when I am done, she asks, "You'll use our name?"

I say no. No names. No pictures. "Why you want to write a book about us, now?" I tell her it is not about them per se, just people like them. "My character works in this café and I want to get her right." The look on her face is one of amusement. I feel like I am losing her. I try again. "I want to tell a story," I say lamely.

"And you tink it's necessary?"

I tell her that every story is necessary.

The music is loud, and the shouting is making my voice hoarse. A girl disentangles herself from a man's legs and starts to dance in the middle of the room. Her movement is fluid, and I am jealous of so much flexibility. I cannot dance to save my skin. We watch her, and nothing is said for a while. The Bini girl whose name I do not ask, speaks again. "You say you never come here before?"

I assure her that I have never.

"And where you live?" she asks again.


She says she doesn't know it. I tell her it is not far from Antwerp, "Twenty-five minutes' drive on a good day."

"You are married?"

I answer in the affirmative.

"And your husband, he is a white man?"

I say yes, he is.

"Where is he?"

I signal for Jan, who is at the bar, to join us. He comes over. I introduce them. Jan sits beside me, sipping his coca-cola, his eyes fixed on the TV opposite. She looks at me and says somewhat conspiratorially, "Your man look good. You people marry ten years ago?"

I nod.

Her eyes shine in triumph. "And you say never come here before? Ten years ago, things were better here."

I am quick to tell her that I met my husband in Nigeria. She gives me a disbelieving smile. I decide it is time to ask my own questions. I ask her where the girls that work in the café live. She tells me that they live in hotels around the area. I ask if they are cheaper than the window girls. She says no. "The girls here are more expensive oo." There is pride in her voice. I ask how come all the men are white. She says black men find them too expensive. "The window girls are cheaper. Black men say we cost too much. They complain." I shall also learn that the girls do not like black men because "they don't come quick."

An old man passes us by on his way to the toilet. He is stooped, and his steps are slow from age. He does not look a day younger than seventy. I wonder uncharitably if he is on a weekend break from his retirement home. I ask her if he is also there for the girls. She laughs and says yes, he is. I ask her how come many of the men are old. She lets out another peal of raucous laughter and tells me, "Old men are the best. They pay. Young men just want to be lover. Who want to be lover for noting?" She laughs again, gets up. She swings her hips to the bar and sits on the thigh of a skinny, bearded man. She puts one arm around his neck and whispers into his ear. I take that as a signal that our talk is over. There are many more questions I want to ask. I want to know her story. How she ended up in Antwerp. I want to ask if she knows about the auction houses in Brussels where Nigerian girls are sold off to pimps. I have heard that the girls come in with bands billed to perform at one of the many music festivals. Once in the country, the "manager" holds an auction in a private house. The girls are paraded naked, their vital statistics announced, their willingness to please praised, their suitability for the job declared. All the while, the girls smile and twirl and turn like ballerinas. I want to ask if she can give me the phone number of a contact who can take me to one of those auctions. I turn towards the bar where she is, but her back is turned resolutely to me. I finish my lemonade, and Jan and I exit the café.


Previous Piece Next Piece