Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan: This verdant town is home to some of Afghanistan's greatest treasures: It is the birthplace of the celebrated poet Rumi, and the site of one of the country's most storied mosques. It is the first Afghan city to have been connected with another country by rail.
Among all of Mazar's distinctions is a more dubious one. It is also Afghanistan's unofficial capital of prostitution - so much so that "going to Mazar" has become a byword for Afghan men looking to pay for sex.
Partly, the phenomenon is owed to the city's culture, which is considerably more forgiving of vice than is the rest of the country. Alcohol, though still illegal, can be found without too much trouble. Women, largely confined to the home, can be seen socializing with men in Mazar's public parks, a rare sight even in Kabul, the capital.
But as much as anything, a business boom has fueled the sex trade in Mazar, local officials and aid workers say.
In recent years, the city's economy has flourished as its proximity to Central Asia and its relative peace and stability have transformed it into a trading hub. Buildings are springing up across the city, as local and regional companies set up shop.
"Mazar is a big city, and compared to the other provinces a lot of prostitutes work here," said Nilofar Sayar, director of a women's rights group in Mazar that offers job training to sex workers. "There are lots of businesses, which means lots of money and customers."
The flourishing of prostitution here casts a glaring light on the contradictions of the male-dominated Afghan society, where even the implication of immorality can mean death for women. The sex trade has existed in one form or another for decades, even under the ultraconservative rule of the Taliban. But officials here say the rapid spread of mobile technology has made the business easier to manage and harder to detect, allowing prostitution to expand.
Corruption is another factor that keeps business booming. One of the interviews conducted with a prostitute for this article was coordinated by a police officer who is a client.
The business is conducted in the most secretive ways, and few are willing to talk publicly about it. Almost all of the women involved are driven to desperation by poverty.
Prostitutes often wear all-concealing chadors, making it impossible to recognize them, and even the logistics of the business are shadowy. There are few, if any, actual brothels.
Years ago, brothels operated in the open here, typically as hotels, where men could visit without fear of scrutiny. But a few years back, Atta Mohammed Noor, the powerful governor of surrounding Balkh province, ordered a crackdown. The brothels all but disappeared.
In their place, a decentralized network emerged. Women now host clients in a series of apartments across the city, or sometimes in their own homes, according to aid groups and women involved in the sex trade. The point of contact is typically a man who orchestrates the meet-ups by cellphone.
This has made the business tough to infiltrate for those police officials eager to crack down. The deputy chief of police in Mazar, Abdul Razaq Qadiri, threw his hands up when asked about prostitution in the city.
"You tell me where they are," he shouted. 'They don't exactly hang signs from their doors.''
The head investigator for the police refined his boss' explanation.
"A few years ago, we didn't have mobile phones, computers or the Internet," said Gen. Salahuddin Sultanis, the head of criminal investigations for Balkh province. "All this technology has increased relations between people, and it makes it hard for us to track."
Women trapped in the trade here share familiar stories. They are almost always impoverished and typically divorced or widowed, struggling to support a family. Sometimes, their own families force them into prostitution, to help pay the bills or to support a husband's drug habit.
Most know that once they start selling themselves for sex, they risk death if they are discovered, and sexually transmitted disease if they are not.
Married at age 13, Aziza Jan turned to prostitution after her husband divorced her several years ago and left her to support six children, she said. Her family has no money to assist her, and her children are too young to work.
With a round face and an easy laugh, Aziza, 35, lives in a lavender-colored compound on a quiet street. She hosts her clients in a front parlor that is covered in carpets and pillows, with a wood-fired stove and a TV in a corner.
"My mother married me off at a very young age, which was a bad idea," she said as her young son clung to her legs. "She never calls to check in on us, to see how we're doing."
Embarrassed to talk about what she does, she insisted that most of her money comes from her work as a seamstress. Her oldest son is coming of age now, and she hopes he will be able to help ease the family's financial difficulties when he finishes school.
"Beyond all the hurt and pain, I try to keep myself happy," she said with a giggle. "I look at my children, and they are my joy."
In a few cases, the prostitutes are still married, but conduct business without their husbands' knowing.
Fereshta, a 25-year-old mother of three, said her life had begun to fall apart when her husband lost his construction job more than five years ago.
They were forced from their home and now inhabit a shell of a building with no windows or doors and struggle to feed themselves. To survive, she said, she felt that prostituting herself was the best option, given that women are rarely allowed to work in Afghanistan.
She learned about the business from her friends, who charge $30 to $60 for their services. She described a network similar to the one described by others: Customers call a contact, who then arranges a meeting at the customer's house or the woman's house. Her clients are most often single, middle-class men with money to spare.
"We never answer the calls of people we don't know," she said. "They have to have a solid reference."
Without the money, her family may starve. And yet if her husband were to discover what she does to put food on the table, the consequences would be dire.
"I'm forced to do this," she said. "If my husband finds out, he will kill me. But what choice do I have?"
© 2013, The New York Times News Service