A Hammam in Damascus

By Namit Arora | Feb 2007 | Comments


Traveling 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 experience.

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 among the 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 of muck.

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 couldn't. 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!


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