It makes sense that the word Hammam is from the Arabic root, hmm, meaning heat. I really love that, such a universal reaction to warmth, saying it kind of warms your lips.
I didn’t really know what to expect from the Hammam. I’d heard of Turkish baths before and I was looking forward to the experience but while listening to Sister read out the descriptions from Lonley Planet there seemed to be such a wide range of differences. In the west a steam room or spa is usually a luxury but here it sounded like it was more of a necessity, not only warmth that soothes your pores but also the shower to keep you clean.
We decided to go for the cheapest place, they were all really cheap but this one was said to be used by mostly only locals and not to expect any frills. As we followed some back streets and walked through the trash filled parking lot to the spa we stayed silent, I don’t think either of us wanted to turn back so we quieted our uneasiness.
back of the Hammam
There wasn’t a door just one of those openings that has another opening behind it so you can’t see anything from outside, kind of like mall and airport bathrooms so no one has to touch a door handle. We walked in and immediately I take a photo of the ‘do not’ symbols, always interesting.
Do not sit on your bucket!
The woman behind the counter starts yelling then I realize why, there’s about 5 women perched behind her naked. I apologize, she shrugs. Sister asks about the prices, the woman walks to a back room with her hand up in the air in a sort of ‘you don’t know what you want, I do, so just listen’ sort of way. Sister and I look at each other with question mark faces, but we listen. She returns with slightly worn plastic buckets each containing a plastic mat, plastic sandals, a scrubbing brush, and a few small containers of what I guess to be shampoo. She mimes undressing and plucks at my shirt. Here? Oh, um, ok.
Luckily another woman comes in at this point, a regular by the looks of it, with her bucket and sandals in hand she waves then strips. Sister and I check in to make sure we’re both fine with this, we both say why not? So all of a sudden we’re standing in our underwear in what seems to be an old garage (with no lighting by the way), wearing sandals that seem to be owned by the general public, and following an old woman who obviously doesn’t speak English.
We shuffle through the dark hallway with the older woman and another woman, naked and very thin who seems to have been assigned to us. Slowly we feel the steam, it’s getting warmer and as my eyes adjust I see women perched around the room scrubbing and sitting. I feel relieved, every age of woman around me and no one seems uneasy in their nakedness. We must be the whitest and most confused people in here but we don’t get many stares at least not the rude type, more just curious, like the little girl in the corner who seems entranced by Sister’s blond hair.
The old woman finds us a spot, tells the thin woman something then hobbles off. The buckets are filled while we sit and try not to stare too much. Then, without hesitation the woman pours water over our heads and legs pulling us around like children. She tilts our heads and guides our backs then hands us each a handful of thick brown stuff and shows us that we’re to rub this all over. After she scrubs us down with the brush, a bit rough but she obviously knows what she’s doing. Then she gave us each an amazing massage and rinse, not shy about anywhere.
I could feel myself relax with everyone in the room, women wondered in and out filling buckets, lending each other soap, and chatting in Arabic about what I imagined to be the usual. It was nice after all the glares I’d recieved for my ‘inappropriate’ clothing and ordering wine at the bar. Finally it felt like we had all found a common ground, in body parts and sisters, aching muscles and collective hmmms.