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Dinner with Svetlana, version 2, 2009

Text on the pots

The newly painted ice-cream colour walls of the Café Naderi, in downtown central Tehran, flicker with light cast from the giant glass baubles which hang by a thread from the ceiling. Even the panes of the vast French windows have been cleaned. The garden looms through the sunlit mix of dust and smoke like a miracle.

I'm waiting for another English traveller to join me. I've had enough battles with this café to risk coming in on my own. To be fair, they don't want to throw me out any more than I want to leave, but the religious police have been waging a war against them for as long as I can remember. As far as they are concerned, the police I mean, a woman on her own in a café is a prostitute.

They are not alone in thinking this. I've been thrown out of restaurants and teahouses all over Iran. I'm not being singled out. Most Iranian women of my age wouldn't dream of entering such places alone - with another woman maybe, but certainly not alone. I had hoped the rules would be bent for me. I'm obviously foreign, I reasoned, I'm travelling alone and I need to eat.

Well the rules were bent from time to time, which is how I found out about my new identity. I had become not just a prostitute, but Russian as well. It was the endless parade of creeping males quietly asking if I was Russian and alone that gave it away. So how did Claudia become Svetlana? It didn't take long to work it out. Iran, like much of the Middle East and Western Europe had become a primary destination for traffickers who were supplying Russian women to the burgeoning sex industry. I was identified as part of the trade.

I talked to two journalists in Tehran, one Iranian, and one English, both of whom denied that women from Russia were being trafficked to Iran. I spoke to the UK ambassador, who denied it also. I talked to Iranian women, who told me it was “everywhere.” Only one Iranian man was willing to speak. He worked in the Gulf. “They bring them in on boats,” he told me, “I've seen them. They're all over the Persian Gulf. It's because of the nuclear industry, the gas fields, and the war. It's a big, rich, isolated market, perfect for traffickers.”

Dinner With Svetlana is a bilingual piece. The Farsi is mine, it's beginner's Farsi. I am pictured along with Svetlana in a divided, mirror image. Svetlana, as it turned out, followed me home. I am often thought to be Russian here in England as well, also a primary destination for trafficked women, and another gold mine for traffickers. Where I live in London , many women are trafficked from Eastern Europe to supply the ‘saunas', bars and nightclubs. Svetlana has allowed me an insight I might not otherwise have. Trafficking is not so distant, not so “other” as we may fondly wish to believe.

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Remembering Atefeh 2011
This Twittering World 2011
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Shattered 2007

Collection of Princesses 2006
Dinner with Svetlana 2005/6



Dinner with Svetlana