13 June 2014

How I Came to Love the Hammam, and Other Tales of Life in the Levant

I've always thought hammams were kind of weird. Getting scrubbed to death by a burly old woman in a hot steamy room with other naked ladies? It's just not my thing. Recently, a friend described his utter and intense fear of the male attendant at his hammam, who scrubbed his cheeks so vigorously that he nearly drowned in the overflow of bubbles coming out of the sponge and pouring down his face. That, I said, is not for me.

But recently I've had a change of heart about the hammam. It came after a long and tiring day of driving in Morocco, during which a "scenic detour" had turned into a gorgeous and terrifying drive that involved driving on some of the worst quality roads I have ever seen with a slowly dwindling tank of gas. We finally found gas by way of a guy with a jug and a funnel and later completely trashed our rental car bouncing through the rocky Todra Gorge at dusk.


We arrived at our hotel, in the dark of night and smack in the middle of nowhere, exhausted and happy to have survived. A French Polynesian woman welcomed us warmly, showed us to the loveliest warmest room I could imagine and then said, "why don't you go have a sauna and a hammam, and then we'll have some wine and dinner for you when you are done." Looking back on it, it's one of those experiences that almost seems too good to have happened at all, as if I dreamed the whole thing.

I knew how to self-hammam because for several months in Damascus it had been my only bathing option. The bathroom in the apartment I lived in contained a square tiled room with a big water heater in the corner and a faucet and some buckets. My Syrian family instructed me on how to do the whole thing, the water heater made it nice and warm and steamy inside, and I'd vigorously scrub myself with a home-dried loofah sponge and local olive oil soap, ladling hot water over my head. It was a labor intensive way to bathe, but never have I felt as clean as I did then, rubbing the wintry Damascus soot out from between each toe. Afterwards, back in my room, I'd hear the sounds of the two youngest girls having their hammam together, often giggling and splashing water at each other, or singing popular Arabic songs.

Back in Morocco, sitting in the sauna, I thought back on those days in Damascus which seem like so many decades ago now. I'm older now, and less adventurous than I used to be, and the Syria I knew isn't there anymore. After the sauna, I went into the hammam, and carefully slowly spread the black soap over myself and scrubbed it away. This is the hammam I like, the careful slow rhythm of a common ritual.

Now whenever I see a hammam that has a self-hammam option (and good ones, with local clientele always do), I go for it. We were in Oran for the weekend recently and stayed at a hotel with a truly gorgeous tiled sauna/steam hammam facility, and I was the only one in the whole place. It only took me 7 years to put together that my bath ritual in Damascus was just like the hammam touted in guide books, but I'm glad to have found it again.

photo 1-8 photo-9

I didn't really think talk of hammams and recipes went together, but for some additional fare, I've been reading the following:
Photos from Qasr el-Bey, Oran, and the Bardo Museum, Algiers


teresacooks said...

great post. Loved the music links too.

teresacooks said...

great post. Loved the music links too.

Heather Woollove said...

Thanks for sharing 'The Unmothered'.
It's funny...Cheryl Strayed's 'Wild' is sitting on my dining table, just waiting for me to finish my current book. Hxx