The International Writers
Hammam in Damascus
in India, for all the personal growth it brings, is a dust, soot,
and sweat laden experience. Even after a bath, rubbing a random
spot on my arm produces little black streaks of muck. One gets
used to it but during such moments I have often recalled my visit
to a hammam in Damascus in Feb 2001. I was traveling alone and,
on a whim, dropped by at a hammam near my hotel. It was one unforgettable
© Namit Arora
I had signed up for the hour-long, full-service option for about $6, including
tea in the end. It also came with a personal attendant to navigate me
through the many chambers of the hammam. Without a lingua franca, we had
to rely on gestures. The deal began with my undressing and putting on
a white cloth "modesty wrap", mandatory at all times. I remember
thinking of a remark by Herodotus on the non-Greeks of his day: "For
barbarians [or barbaros, a Greek term for all non-Greeks,
who all sounded like bar-bar to Greek ears]
it is reckoned
a deep disgrace, even to a man, to be seen naked." Old habits may
die hard but right then they suited my Indian sensibilities just fine.
I was first led to a small, furnace-hot sauna chamber. Just as I had begun
broiling in my own sweat, the door opened and an orderly tossed a half-bucket
of water on the heating elements in the corner, at once turning some of
it into steam and nearly scalding me. I rushed out with a yelp; my personal
attendant appeared, knowingly smiled, and led me from this "hot room"
to a much larger "warm room", which had a few people milling
about through a mist-like steam. There were taps and washbasins along
the wall, where I self-administered the first of many soap-n-wash treatments.
A few minutes later, I was taken to a squatting pot-bellied man in a small
room for the "hard scrub" treatment. He asked me to lie down
on the floor flat on my belly. Through a film of soapy water, he proceeded
to first scrub me with a camel hair brush, and then with something that
felt like a steel wool scrub, the kind I use to get the toughest cooking
stains off my pans. He extracted layers and layers of hidden dirt along
with, no doubt, some of the epidermis, and proudly showed it to me. Look!
he would grin. By now I was tingling all over, pink and sensitive. I was
led to the warm room again to wash off the soap and the clinging bits
The final step was a "power massage", a fine display of controlled
ruthlessness. I wondered if the masseuse was practicing an act of personal
vendetta against a relative on me. He rubbed warm oil and asked me to
relax but the pain from his ministrations was so sharp and sudden that
I couldnt. A final trip to the warm room and it was finally over.
Emerging clean and spotless like china from a dishwasher, I sat in the
sumptuously decorated main hall wrapped in thick towels and sipped a syrupy
tea. It was now that I felt wonderfully relaxed, with a delicious ache
all over my skin. Though very glad for the experience, it had also clarified
one thing for me: better the muck on my arms than a hammam again!
© Namit Arora March 2007
Prose writer, travel photographer, and Internet technologist, Namit has
lived in four countries, visited dozens more, and now divides his time
between San Francisco and New Delhi. He is currently at work on his first
novel. For more information, visit www.shunya.net
shunya at shunya.net
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