Success (and a little embarrassment) at the Turkish Bath
I’ve only been once to a Turkish bath, or hammam as they are called in Arabic. I don’t know that I’ll ever go again, but it was certainly an experience. The hammam I attended was the Hammam al-Nasri, located in a 14th century building in the charming old city of Aleppo, Syria. I don’t remember every single detail, but there are certain parts that really stick out. After disrobing and putting on a special towel, I was ushered into the steam room, where I was soon surrounded by billowing white clouds, which rendered it impossible to see anything more than a few feet away. After a while, I noticed that from the direction of the indistinguishable doorway I could descry a dark shape. In a moment, it had materialized in the form of a very large and nearly naked woman, who beckoned to me ominously. Summoning all my courage, I followed her into a somewhat less steamy room. She sat me down on the floor in front of her, and lathered up my hair. Then she took off my towel (my only attire), had me lie on the floor, and scrubbed me all over. If you have never been given a very rough naked spa treatment by a female version of Hercules, you have never lived. By the time she decided I was clean, I was also thoroughly weirded out. When I emerged a couple of hours later, pink with the scrubbing, I was glad that I had been able to have the hammam experience. However, I decided that in the future my personal hygiene would remain, well, personal.
My only other hammam experience happened by accident. I was hiking with a group in Morocco, when we stopped for lunch at a small Berber village. Our very hospitable hosts gave us delicious melissa tea (which I later learned was lemon balm, and I cannot smell now without being transported back to that little Moroccan village). They also made us delicious couscous. When I asked if I could use the bathroom, I was surprised to be taken out of the house, through the village, and finally to a wooden structure with a low door. A little apprehensive, I cautiously pushed open the door. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness inside, I saw that the structure was full of women in various stages of undress, all bathing together in what was obviously the village hammam. There was a cascade of giggles, and they enthusiastically waved for me to come in and join them. Evidently, my host had been under the impression that I had experienced a sudden hankering to take a bath. I was impressed with the hospitality, but politely declined in favor of a visit to that other kind of bathroom, the one I actually needed. I had previously known that the Arabic word hammam meant both a regular bathroom and a communal bathhouse, but this was the first and only time that the ambiguity ever affected me personally.
I’m not sure whether he was moved more by my account or Lonely Planet’s glowing recommendations, but ever since we moved to Tunisia, Tony has been longing to visit a hammam. He mentions this desire to everyone we meet, including random shopkeepers and taxi drivers, many of whom have offered to go with him. Finally, inspired by our visit to the colossal Roman baths in ancient Carthage last week, he decided that the time had come. One of his friendly shopkeepers had recommended a particular hammam, and even given him a map of it, showing what to do in each room. He also gifted Tony with a set of little papers written in Arabic, one for the taxi driver with the address, one for the masseuse to explain that he wanted to be scrubbed, and one for Tony himself with the hours of the hammam. The hours were important, because certain hours are set aside for women to bathe, and others for men.
Having chosen one of the times on the list, Tony set off in high spirits, although a bit nervous. When he arrived at the address of the recommended hammam, he only saw a small door in a wall. So he loitered around watching it for a while, but nobody went in or out. Finally, he plucked up his courage, opened the door, and walked in. However, he was quickly compelled to turn around and walk back out, forcefully shooed by a vociferous and indignant old lady. Unfortunately, there just happened to be a cafe full of men across the street, all of whom watched the entire proceeding with great interest and obvious amusement. One of them helpfully pointed out the obvious to Tony, that he had tried to enter the hammam during the women’s hours. Apparently, his shopkeeper friend had been somewhat less meticulous about his information than he had seemed. Tony later also realized that he had walked in the back door of the hammam, which I am sure further underscored his apparent disreputability.
Chagrined, he didn’t go back to the hammam for a couple of weeks. I thought he had given it up altogether. But no! Last Friday, armed with the real, true hours of operation for men, he went back to the hammam, this time through the front door. Apparently, it went off without a hitch, unless you consider the masseuse severely straining his client’s back a hitch. Tony’s masseuse sounded like an even more vigorous scrubber than mine. Tony reported that he kept piling up the resultant dead skin on his chest for him to see. Eww. In any case, something about the whole process of sitting in a room sweating with strangers and having all his skin scrubbed off unaccountably ended up appealing to Tony. We spent yesterday afternoon hunting down all the little hammam accessories for him (soap dish, scrubber glove, water dipper, mini shampoo bottle, backpack, money purse, etc.). And he’s back at the hammam (a different hammam actually) as I write this.
Update: he just got home, and says this second hammam is even better than the first. This time, he got in on the back scrubbing. He says they all scrubbed each other, and it was more of a “neighborhood hammam” experience, whatever that means. He now considers himself conversant with the inner mysteries of the hammam, so if you happen to need a guide for your own personal Turkish Bath experience, I’m sure he’d be happy to oblige.