Argentina, at the start of the twentieth century, was undergoing a period of rapid growth. The British had opened up the country with the construction of railways and this allowed the agricultural industry to flourish, especially the sheep industry, with the export of meat and wool. But Argentina was a sparsely-populated country and there wasn’t enough manpower to keep up with the rate of progress. The government recruited men from Europe, often paying for the passage and offering accommodation, and floods of young men came to make their fortune. Consequently, there was an imbalance in the population – there were not enough women to go round. Brothels appeared all over the major cities, especially in Buenos Aires. And men had to work on their dance skills so that they could attract the attentions of the woman they desired. Tango was danced on street corners, in tenement blocks – and also in the brothels, where men got to practise their steps to live music.
Prostitution was legally regulated at the time, but, of course, there were mafia associations that exploited prostitution illegally. The main one was Zwi Migdal, a Polish operation that ‘recruited’ in Europe by telling the girls, or their duped families, that they would get domestic work and good husbands. Their awful training often began on the ship, and then they were sold in ‘Remates’ – basically meat markets – held in a seedy bar in Buenos Aires. They were paraded naked for the pimps to buy them. This was referred to as ‘la trata de blancas’ – white girl trafficking. Thereafter, the girls were virtually slaves, with no documentation, no money and no language to escape. The girls were expected to ‘see’ up to 300 clients a week and were given cocaine to achieve this feat. They were not well-looked after and often ended up in syphilis institutions. These Polish brothels were concentrated in the Boca area of Buenos Aires, especially around Calle Junio.
In contrast, there were legal ‘casas’ called French brothels, were the girls were often from France or the Mediterannean. The girls were well-fed and had regular medical checkups. They were expected to use prophylactics, and were usually drug-free. The girls were still not free to leave but conditions were better. Clients had to pay more to visit these casas.
That’s why, in Water Will Find its Way, Nairi ends up in a French brothel. I wanted to show that her suffering is more psychological than physical. She suffers because she thinks she made the wrong decision in leaving her country – she can’t get over leaving her daughter behind. The thing is, that the Armenians, like the Jews, didn’t honestly believe that another nation was trying to exterminate them, they didn’t understand it was a genocide in course. So they all believed that they would be back home and things would be back to normal in no time.
The excerpts from Nairi’s marriage diary show the Nairi that existed pre-genocide – happy, optimistic, in love, well-educated, comfortably off — so that the reader can understand just how far she fell.