Hammam – an experience in full…frontal


In 2011, I officially caught the travel bug. My first solo adventure started in Egypt and took me through the Middle East and into Europe for four months. During that trip, I was lucky enough to be able to travel through one of the most amazing countries I have visited so far – Syria. Fast forward to a couple of months ago, I wrote a travel story for a competition, and my entry was included in their recently published book. I thought it might be an interesting read for some – so here it is!

(you can visit http://www.stringybarkstories.net for more info on this competition)

Direction Damascus!
Direction Damascus!

Damascus, Syria, April 2011 – three undeniably western women wind their way slowly through the markets of the old town, passing stalls exhibiting slashes of vibrantly-coloured scarves floating in the breeze, shelves filled with sticky sweets and an absolute excess of shimmering and strung jewellery. The door our tour leader eventually stops at appears to be no more than a hole in the wall, draped with a dark, heavy cloth, which she peers through quickly before giving a nod and motioning us to follow.

The room itself is large, ornately decorated but not over-adorned, and is shaped a little like an amphitheatre, large steps descending onto a lowered platform, with a scattering of women sitting or talking quietly with one another.

I have just stepped into my first hammam, and this one is about as authentic as you will find. Cue some hand-gesturing and fragments of Arabic and after handing our money over we are shown to a corner where we strip down to our underwear and deposit our clothes into small plastic bags. Wrapped self-consciously in towels, we are then ushered through a door into the hammam area. But before we can take in the heavily scented air or the hazy stone walls surrounding us, our towels are whipped away from us with ferocious practicality. The three of us turn to each other mutely, eyebrows raised and with vaguely bemused glances. At that moment, I think we all silently decide to leave our conservative ‘western’ values on nudity at the door.

Of course, this is where the fun starts.

The first step is to rid our bodies of toxins which involves baking ourselves in a tiny cupboard filled with thick steam, in one of the hottest experiences of my life (only eclipsed a few years later by an experience in a Russian Banya). We can barely see each other through the dense, white, hot mist that clings and claws at us as we struggle to breath. At length we are joined by a large German lady who seems completely at home, despite the fact that she doesn’t seem to speak a scrap of Arabic or English. She’s the only other non-local there apart from us.

When we can stand it no longer, we emerge, gasping as our bodies, sweat soaked and beet-coloured, wilt and then reenergise in the outside, cooler air. We are each given a small bucket and instructed to sit on the stone floor near a tap, where we follow suit and fill our buckets, pouring the warm water over ourselves and ridding our bodies of the sweaty sauna. By this point we’ve decided to strip entirely, given our underpants are completely saturated and we are the only ones wearing them. The room is filled with naked Syrian women, of varying shapes, sizes and ages, sitting contentedly next to their own taps. Some are sitting quietly, others are chatting animatedly, all are enjoying the experience and none of them look even the slightest bit out of place or uncomfortable. By this point I have simply ‘forgotten’ I am sitting naked on the floor with two people I met only a week ago. I am just enjoying the different scents, smells and sounds of the hammam as the women go about their standard routine of washing.

Hammams are common in many cultures around the world, their origins tied to religious rituals and the basic human necessity to get clean. Once frequented by the rich and poor alike as their only means of bathing, they are more often these days used as a social gathering for locals, or in other cases, a luxurious experience primarily aimed toward tourists. A visit to a hammam is a process. It happens over the course of some hours and is not intended to be rushed or stressful.

Before long I’m summoned by a frightening-looking lady who forcefully coaxes me to lie down on a large concrete slab. I have no idea what to expect and I’m half-petrified, giggling in anticipation as the lady welcomes me with a giant, gap-toothed smile that is either menacing or super-friendly, I’m not sure which.

And then it starts.

The lady begins by dumping buckets of water over me, splashing and sloshing in furious arcs as she cackles, speaks loudly in Arabic and chants strange sounding syllables together with the other workers. Then she goes to work on me with the ugliest loofah I have ever seen, literally scrubbing me to within an inch of my life. It’s at the same time vaguely unsettling and alarmingly satisfying. No part of my skin is spared as she scrubs and splashes and sings and cackles. It is literally one of the most deliciously awesome, experiences of my entire life. My eyes are wide as I watch, fascinated, as what must be literally years of dead skin is flayed from my torso, my thighs, my upper arms, my entire body. Finally, after a final, glorious and possibly overly-generous dousing of water I’m done, sent back to my spot on the floor as the others take their turns.

Skinned and smooth, we’re handed hunks of coarse, sweet-smelling soap with which to clean ourselves and we then wash our hair, following the example of the other women around us.

Finally, our towels and clothes are returned and we emerge back into the original room, smelling fresh and with the skin of three week old babies, pink and soft and tender. We feel cleansed and detoxified, relaxed and at peace. But the sight before us has drastically changed. There now seems to be a full-scale party underway. Powerful Arabic music booms in the background, as girls and women, all in various stages of undress, prance about, dancing, chatting, singing and shrieking with laughter as plates of dolmades, sticky pastries and other treats are passed around. We’re stunned by just how free they are, how completely unrestrained and high spirited, in comparison to the conservative-appearing, yet always classy Syrian women who walk the streets, covered from head to toe. And now it is us westerners that feel conservative, in our attempts to cover our bodies and our awkwardness as we struggle self-consciously to interact with these happy-go-lucky creatures, comfortable and safe in their own environment.

And as we leave the hammam and walk down the street, our sodden underpants tucked neatly in our handbags, feeling the wind waft seductively up the bareness beneath our long skirts, we feel deliciously naughty in this apparently conservative culture. We feel, I suppose, having had an insight into what the Syrian ladies wear beneath their traditional attire, much like they do – and it’s an amazing, free feeling.

A brief afterward

Sadly, at this point in 2011 the country had already started experiencing moderate levels of unrest and it wasn’t long after we left that they essentially ‘closed’ the borders to tourists. Having now seen photos of some of the charming restaurants and spiritual refuges I’d visited in all their magnificent glory, reduced to rubble, it saddens me to know that these beautiful places filled with history and tradition, are now erased forever. Though I feel honoured and humbled to have been lucky enough to enter into their culture, however briefly, and experience the warmth and kindness of the Syrian people first-hand.

The beauty of the Syrian people and their country made this one of my all time travel highlights.
The beauty of the Syrian people and their country made this one of my all time travel highlights.

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