Friday, May 4, 2007

A day at the baths

Steam, vinegar and an energetic masseuse -- Amany Abdel-Moneim takes a bath at one of Cairo's few remaining hammams

My mind was swirling with images as I made my way through the small alley that leads to the Hammam Al-Arba' (literally the Wednesday bath) in Boulaq Abul-Ela. Snippets from movies shot in public hammams, the fear of sharing a bath with other -- naked -- women and the idea of a stranger giving me a massage all served to heighten my anxiety. As I dodged the traffic, lingerie vendors and vegetable crates that littered the alleyway, I imagined myself lying languidly on marble slabs, massaged by attendants while being anointed with buckets of scented water.

While the hammams of Lebanon, Syria, Morocco and Turkey have retained their traditional illustriousness, there are few hammams left in Cairo. For those willing to leave their class pretensions at the door, however, a visit to one of the few remaining clean local hammams can be one of the cheapest forms of mental and physical therapy you'll ever find.

Hammam Al-Arba' is right behind the Foreign Ministry, before the ramp of the 15 May Bridge, on Al-Ansari Street. It is also known as Hammam Okal, the nickname of the new proprietor Mohamed Al-Mesri. "Hammam Al-Arba' was built 500 years ago. The original owners chose this spot because it was near the harbour of Wekalet Al- Balah where ships loaded with dates and rice would dock," explained Al-Mesri. "The sailors believed that the hot water of the hammam helps them getting rid of rheumatic pain," he added.

Al-Mesri took over the bath eight years ago. "At that time, the place was used as a hotel at night and a bath in the morning. The entire bath was roofed with domes, with small glassed-in openings to let in light. But I have blocked all the holes with red brick to give the bathers the sense of safety from prying eyes," he said.

His wife, Umm Azza, points out that, "It is called Hammam Al- Arba' because we used to open only for brides and marriages that usually take place on Thursday. But now we open daily and for all people females and males," she added.

It was Umm Azza who greeted me upon my arrival. She is also a mekayissatia (masseuse) and runs the female section with the assistance of two other women. I had expected to be treated by a heavyset woman wearing way too much gold but was pleased to find that Umm Azza was a slim woman with a smiling face and well-trained hands. She was also able to concoct a marvellous facial mask made from a mixture of honey, ground lupin beans (termis) and other special herbs. The mask abolishes all black spots, leaving the face shiny and smooth.

I was also introduced to my fellow bathers, Tahany and Laila. Tahany is a regular at the hammam and has very smooth and pink skin to vouch for her consistency. "I started to come here on a weekly basis after I gave birth to my son three years ago. The bath helped me get rid of the dark spots that marred my skin after delivery and the hot water and steam helped me lose weight," she recounted. Laila began to come to the bath regularly after her marriage. She confided that the effects of the bath make her skin "as smooth as a baby, which pleases my husband".

While my partners, in the pursuit of soft skin, seemed to be unaware of their nudity, I remained uncomfortable and unsure about the exact protocol of public bathing.

The first stop was a room called Al-maslakh. It was a large room decorated with plastic flowers, pictures of smiling babies and a surreal array of inflatable children's toys, not to mention a television, bicycle and swing. I was relieved to find out that these comforts are not meant for the bathers but for the amusement of their children. Beyond the maslakh is a changing room where I quickly wrapped myself in a towel and proceeded to the pre-hammam shower area.

Then it was on to the hot chamber, so called because of the deep square pool of hot water that sits in the middle of the room. The temperature of the water was disappointingly tepid at first, but a small shower of boiling hot water falling from the domed ceiling above soon raised the temperature and created a steamy atmosphere. This stage helps in opening the pores of the skin.

Then I was ready for the next stage: the ritual known as takyyis. I was unceremoniously laid out on the stone floor next to the steam room. The mekayissatia, using gloves as harsh as a scouring pad and plenty of vinegar, then attempted to remove as many layers of my skin as possible in the briefest amount of time. I took a deep relaxing breath and entrusted my body to the skilled hands of Umm Azza as she vigorously rubbed away the layers of dead skin. It was shocking -- embarrassing in fact -- to discover when she washed my body with soap and water that the runoff was filthy despite the fact that I had taken extra care at home to make sure that I entered the hammam in pristine condition.

If asked, Umm Azza will then subject your pink and shiny skin to a massage and afterwards you are encouraged to take a dip in hot and then cold water. It is nice to have this done for you, as one can be a bit "wobbly" after such pampering. In some baths your hair will be washed and many women wash each other's hair as a treat. After all, the hammam is not just about getting clean. "We consider the day we go to the bath as an outing. We meet our friends, get relaxed having our bath while listening to Umm Kalthoum songs. Then eat together after finishing the rituals," explained Tahany.

According to anthropologist Essam Fawzi, "Hammams have a socio-economic role. At the time when bathrooms were not a part of a normal house, the hammam was not merely a place to fulfil the Islamic precept of cleanliness, but was a place in which to mingle, socialise and gossip. Also men would discuss the latest court scandal or talk business and politics or even make trade deals." He further explains that hammams were an opportunity for young women to show off their figures and for older women to spot potential wives for their sons.

After being kneaded from head to toe, and coupled with the relaxing effect of all that hot water, you naturally begin to feel delightfully sleepy -- a feeling which signals the end of the hammam. You may either lie down and relax for as long as you like or you can go outside to the reception area, dry off and rest there.

Or, if you're up to it, you can engage in some sports to tone the muscles beneath your now gleaming skin. Al-Mesri created his own small gym, made up of a very primitive hand made treadmill and a couple of other exercise machines.

How to get there: If you are coming from 26 July Street heading towards Zamalek, right next to the Foreign Ministry and before going up the 15 May Bridge, take the first left to Boulaq Street. Keep going down Boulaq Street for several blocks until it opens into Sidi Abdel- Gayid Square. Once there, ask for Hammam Al-Arba' on 5, Al-Ansari Street.

The hammam receives women every morning from 10 until four, and men every afternoon.
For reservations call 575 7310 or 010 579 0560 and ask for Hag Mohamed Al-Mesri or his wife Umm Azza.

Tips for the adventurous:

It is more hygienic to bring your own towels and pumice stone.

You can also bring your own slippers, soap and whatever you might need to feel relaxed (oils, creams etc).

If you feel uncomfortable going in the nude, bring a swimsuit along. For men, it is a requirement.

If you prefer privacy you can ask for the khelwah (a private room usually used for brides).

You should try takyyis, but bring your own scrubbing glove. These can either be bought from the pharmacy or the traditional spice vendor for around LE25, and are made of camel's hair, fur, coarse raw wool or silk.

A steam bath and takyyis cost around LE25.

If you have a friend who is going to get married soon you can advise her/him to try the pre-wedding package which costs around LE75.

Most hammams can be booked for groups. Charge will be per person.

Young children are not allowed to bathe with their mothers. However, Hammam Al-Arba' did have some facilities to keep children occupied -- toys, a bicycle, a swing and a television.

It is not advisable to take a lot of money with you. Leave your valuables in your car or with the woman in charge.

Hammams in Cairo

Hammam Al-Tanbouli. Located near Bab Al-Sha'riya district, Islamic Cairo, next to Al-Tanbouli mosque.

Hammam Al-Malatili, also known as Hammam Margoush, takes its name from the street on which it stands at Al-Gamaliya district. Hammam Al-Malatili has a particular eminence after Ismail Walieddin adopted its name as the title of his novel detailing some of the variously illicit activities said to take place in the hammams. It was also the site of a movie adaptation of the novel.

Hammam Qalaoun, also known as Hammam Al-Nahhasin (the coppersmiths' bath). Next to the hospital near the mosque of Sultan Qalaoun.

Hammam Bishtak, located on Souq Al-Silah Street, opposite the southwestern corner of the ruined mosque of Mir Zada.

Hammam Al-Talat, two blocks after Hammam Al-Arba', Al-Ansari Street, Boulaq Abul-Ela

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