here, there, everywhere

First Visit to the Hammam

In Middle East, Syria on March 2, 2007 at 11:43 am

WARNING: there may be some content in here that makes people squeamish or they might take offense to.  This is my apology for any damage to your mental health.

I’m not a big fan of spas, I think it’s a little weird to spend a lot of money for people to slap seaweed on you or massage your face.  Nevertheless, the hammam (public bath) is a popular past time in the Middle East so I decided to go check it out.  I’d been once before in Turkey with a friend – we were the only ones in the hammam and I assumed I might encounter something similar here.  Not so…

Arab women have an aversion to hair anywhere on their body apart from the head so I thought I might get my hairy western arms waxed just to see what all the fuss is about.  The waxer looked as if she had just emerged from the steamroom, straggley hair plastered against her forehead, old track suit hanging yet clinging to her.  A cigarette dangled out of her mouth as she went to work on me, tut-tutting at the state I’d let myself get into.  They wax you in public, in front of everyone else who’s come in to hang out for the afternoon.  The portraits of the former and current presidents hang overhead staring down with creepy grins.  They don’t use hot wax here, instead it’s like a thick paste they rub between their hands to warm up.  Then they slap it on you and start ripping away again and again and again.  I’m gritting my teeth, the waxer grins and grunts with her cigarette lodged between the gap in her teeth where at least two other teeth should be but have fallen out.  She’s doing my forearms and then horror of horrors, she moves to my biceps and shoulders.  Now I know for certain that I do NOT have hairy upper arms and I try explaining this to her but she is convinced I must be cleansed.  Then she starts trying to rip it out of my underarms where the hair is too short.  I’m yelling “la la la la” (arabic for ‘no no no no’) but she must think I’m singing and makes it a mission to get rid of whatever is there.  Finally she quits and the next scary lady comes over and grabs my arm to lead me to the next stage of bathing…

She drags me through ancient hallways – this hammam is more than 800 years old – through the steamroom into the large hall where at least 40 women are lounging about in various stages of undress, throwing hot water on each other, washing their hair, and smoking.  This is where the women go to meet and talk, I assume they gossip and diss each other  but I’m not sure as I still only understand a few words.  Fruits and vegetables do not seem to be a popular topic.  I’m led to a smaller room where a young women is sitting with her mother and aunt.  They greet me with big smiles and begin to throw water on me.  Then one grabs my loofah from me and starts scrubbing my back with man-strength force.  After awhile the masseuse comes in to give me a massage.  This is no private room with pretty scented candles, Pachabel’s annoying Canon playing in the background accompanied by chirping whales, discreet and calm massaging of my back.  Instead I’m surrounded by chatty and yelling women, there is no music, the mother is still smoking, and I’m lying on my stomach while she pounds the crap out of my back.  I must point out, however, that this is the kind of massage I like, it actually feels like they’re doing something.  Then she starts yanking on my fingers, I don’t know why.  Then she pulls out my shampoo and starts washing my hair.  It smells nice when she’s done but it’s also in a billion knots.  Then some women from Lebanon try to take over our room and the aunt goes crazy on them.  You have to see a 70-something, toothless and topless woman running around tearing strips off people to know that this is not a North American spa.  So I took my leave and went out to change.

While I’m toweling off and putting my makeup on, the daughter comes out and we start talking in stilted English and Arabic.  Her mom also comes out and soon my purse is stuffed full of apples and oranges, and I’m drinking tea and eating pita with some olive spread on it.  I’m clean, smooth from finger to shoulder, I’ve made new friends, I’m fed, and I think I might just come back, minus the wax job.

  1. Al… look at it this way… at least you didn’t get a brazillian… thank God for small mercies… the pita and olive oil must be to die for! love,Suze

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