August 18, 2005

Turkish Bathouse

So, the last time I visited Moussa and Leila, I had mentioned the adventure that Cari and I had the last time we tried to go to the hammam, only to realize once we got there that we had no idea what to do and completely wimp out! Leila was quite amused, and promised to take us sometime and show us the ropes.

Today we went, and it was fantastic. The place itself reminds me of a cross between a German-style schwimmbad and a high school locker room. You strip down to your underwear in a communal entry-room, then pass through some doorways to a steamy open tiled space which huge marble-tiled benches, warmed by subterranean heating. You put all your things (soap, shampoo, etc.) into a bucket, and grab a bunch of other buckets and a dipper and claim a spot. You fill your buckets with a combination of hot water (from a trough) and cold water (from a tap), and start getting wet and sweaty.

The main focus of the hammam process is the scrubbing. This is accomplished with a small, rough glove called a kursee, or something close to that. This feels almost like sandpaper, much rougher than anything sold in the U.S. In the wet heat, I imagined that it feels something like a camel tongue might, but Leila told me that traditionally birch bark was used for this purpose. You scrub all the dead skin off you body, asking a friend to get your back. Then you soap up, shampoo, and scrub again, all the while rinsing off with buckets full of hot and cold water. When you're clean and thoroughly relaxed from the steam, you wrap yourself up in a warm dry towel, and go back to hang out in the entryway until you dry off and your body adjusts back to normal temperature.

The travel guides describe the hammam as an "exotic, sensual experience." And that's definitely true. The sensation of splashing hot water, then cold water, then hot water, than cold is fantastic. Plus, although I would never have guessed it, the rough scrub-down produces the same intense physical pleasure as the guilty rush you get when you scratch a mosquito bite, except all over your body! But, you have to have a sort of Girl Scout-camp appreciation of the sensual. The concrete floor is dotted with hairballs, there's mold growing in the cracks between the wall tiles, and people spit their toothpaste (and phlegm) right on the floor. But if you're not prissy, it feels fantastic.

After weeks of feeling self-conscious about my body from so much unwanted male attention on the streets, it was really relaxing and nice to get casually naked in an all-female environment. The hammam is intended to be a social experience... you go there with friends and joke around and splash each other, or a big party will go with a bride the day of her wedding. In fact, it can even be a family outing. While we were there, three generations of one family came in: the mother, the grandmother, and four little girls between about three and eight years old, who seemed to think the two American girls were quite interesting.

A word of warning though... I'm not sure if this an Arab universal or specific to Tunisia because of the French influence, but local standards for the cuteness of lingerie are much higher than in the U.S. Everyone at the hammamm, from the teenagers to the old ladies, was wearing black lace or at least silk. So break out something nicer than your standard cotton undies if you don't want to be underdressed!

2 Comments:

Anonymous Imed Chihi said...

Hi Lea,

I'm a Tunisian living in the UK, I lived in the US for a while and I liked the interest shown to my description of the US by American work collegues. It's so nice to switch positions and hear Americans describing their experience in my home country Tunisia.

By the way, I think you had a slight mis-communication with your Tunisian friends: a "kursee" is a chair, so most probably your friend was pointing to a chair when you thought she was pointing to the rough glove :)

Great blog!

-Imed

September 04, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the scrubbing cloth is called kessa and not korssee as the later means chair.

April 27, 2007  

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