July 13, 2005

The Old City, Part I

Today my roommate Cari and I decided we would go to the hammam, one of the Turkish bathhouses located in the old city. A little steam, a little massage, was exactly what we needed after our crazy first week. The guidebook we had promised an “exotic, sensual, and relaxing experience.”

We chose the one described as for women only (the others take women in the afternoons and men in the evenings), figured out how to get there from the school, and set out in the early afternoon. After hiking through most of the modern city, we got to the wall which encircles the old medinah, where the old-fashioned buildings, markets, and bathhouses are located.

This particular hammam was actually located on the exact opposite side of the medinah from where we approached. Friends had recommended we walk around outside of the old city to the gate closest to our destination, but we were in the mood for adventure and so we plunged right in.

It’s really hard to describe this place. There are no open spaces, just narrow walkways leading in all directions, or to dead ends, and you quickly lose your sense of where you are and where you came from and which way leads to your destination. It really is a labyrinth.

In fact, I have a new theory about that myth about the Minotaur inside the labyrinth that eats the Greek youths. I think it’s a Mediterranean version of Little Red Riding Hood, a cautionary tale told to little children so they don’t go wandering away from their parents in the forest. The labyrinth is the city, and little children are well-advised to keep close to their parents to avoid danger.

The things you see in the medinah are amazing. There are little shops that sell almonds, pine nuts, pepper flakes, cumin, and less identifiable things out of huge baskets, by the kilo or the gram. There are rows of flowing multi-colored tunics, piles of exotic embroidered shoes with pointy curled toes, elaborate silver trays, stacks of hukkah pipe tubes like colorful snakes, unidentifiable cheeses and other foodstuffs. At one point I looked to my right and there was a whole, very dead cow’s head hanging from a hook about five feet from my face.

As with any labyrinth, there are layers to the medinah. Near the gates are the most tourist-friendly areas: the souvenir shops, cobble-stone paved paths, polite shopkeepers. As you go further in you reach the paths lined with shops catering more to the locals: dry goods stores, clothing, herbs and meats and toys imported from China. And further back there are nondescript, semi-deserted streets where you feel like you really shouldn’t be.

At the middle level, we’re somewhat out of place, perhaps the only tourists around at that point, but not unwelcome or uncomfortable. At a store here I ask two boys minding their father’s store how much the men’s linen pants sell for. They tell me “ashara wa ashroun,” literally “ten and two tens.”

Now, I don’t know my Arabic numbers terrifically well, but I’m pretty sure this is not a number I’ve heard before, and I repeat it back to them to make sure I’ve heard it correctly, and try to figure out what it might mean. We have a bit of back and forth about ashara wa ashroun before I finally figure out it’s a colloquial way of saying “thirty.” By this point two adjacent shopkeepers have joined the conversation, which they think it’s hilarious. As we finally say thank you and continue on our way, calls of “ashara wa ashroun!” follow us down the route as the shopkeepers bounce the joke back and forth, putting me strangely in mind of Dorothy following the yellow brick road through Munchkinland.

At some point, the shops end, and the direction we think the bath house is in takes us through nondescript, dusty paths where there are more feral cats than locals, and no other tourists. We fall in line behind the only other woman we see and try to imitate her no-nonsense stride. But by this point we’re pretty much lost.

We duck into a doorway where we think we can consult our map without being seen, and as Cari has her back turned to the path, two boys who couldn’t have been older thirteen sidle up, and one of them expertly gropes her posterior, as they both set to giggling. This is an unexpected enough experience that it doesn’t immediately occur to her to knock the little brat upside his head. Encouraged, they follow us a little while longer, and try to talk to us despite our dirty looks. Spotting three men working on a truck, I go up to them to ask directions to the bath house, and the boys scamper off. The amateur mechanics direct us down the right path, and as we walk on we hear them speaking to each other about the strange experience they just had, encountering tourists in the middle of the medinah.

Besides the direction they pointed in, the one thing we understood of their directions was that we were looking for an “Arabic arch.” We understand this mostly because the Arabic word for arch is borrowed from the Latin. We walk down this narrow path, with blank, decrepit walls high on each side, past feral cats and the occasional sad wooden door leading to who-knows-what. Suddenly on the left we see a wide open arch in the wall, brightly painted. Inside is a tile entry way, and a door at the other end with a plastic shower curtain stretched across it. The hammam.

To be honest, I’m not sure exactly what we were expected. I think, kind of a big space, maybe a desk or counter where someone takes your money, hands you some stuff, and tells you which way to go. What we find on the other side of the curtain is a medium-sized open room, with ledges covered with fat naked Arab women on one side, and hooks holding their clothing, belongings, and black lacy underwear on the other. It instantly becomes clear to both of us that we have absolutely no idea what to do or how to behave in this situation. We stand in the doorway, stunned, for a moment, look at each other, and decide we’ve had enough adventure for that day, and really, how important is being clean anyway?


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