from my travel journal: 3 may 07
Yesterday I also went to the hammam, to seek out a hot shower. When I reached the top of the stairs, I was greeted by some surprised stares. I was thrilled I went up the right stairs because men also go there. Maybe there’s only one entrance but the times designate who’s there? I’m grateful I went at the right time. The other thing that I quickly learned was that the women don’t speak French. It’s the language of commerce. Why would they need it? I immediately felt frustrated that I couldn’t communicate except by gestures and smiles.
I figured out that I was already in the change room because a few of the women were only in robes, and piles of clothes hung on the pegs around the room. I decided to stand and wait to pay, also to wait to get my bearings. I came to understand I should completely disrobe there. A sweet woman gestured that the “douche” was through the steaming, clambering doors. I asked her about paying but my French was no use. Her kindness buoyed my courage and I got completely undressed except for my thin hostel towel wrapped around me.
Then I pushed through the steaming doors and walked into a wall of sound – splashes, laughter, shouts, kids’ cries…. It looked like I had walked into prison. The watery hallway had metal doors opening onto it. Behind each rusty, cream-coloured door was a shower room with a tiny window at one end, with plumbing pipes hanging in front of it. The rooms were longer than wide and they were brightly lit by bare bulbs, emphasizing their colourful, somewhat moldy tiles.
I turned at the end of the hallway. Dark, wet seal-like kids’ heads appeared behind the swinging doors. Huge breasts. Buckets of water. And a short, somewhat withered Arabic woman, who came hurrying towards me, reprimanding me in Arabic. Those sights informed me I should have left my bikinis on. I saw Botticelli-like breasts, hips, thighs, but all above large pairs of nylon briefs.
The woman hustled me right back out to the change room. There my change-room friend confronted her in Arabic. I think it’s because of the waiting-room woman–I did hear “douche.”–that the woman from the showers resignedly led me to my own shower cell. She demonstrated how the basic levers on the pipes turned the hot and cold on. She also screwed on a shower head. Sadly for me, she seemed to know some Spanish but I mimed that I knew only a teensy bit.
All of that, and the shower ended up being just a meagre drizzle once she left. The pressure at our hostel was better but at least here the water temperature didn’t fluctuate as much. It stayed warm without any freezing-cold gushes.
When I was dressing to leave, I could feel eyes on me. Guess I was a bit like a zoo animal. And I was curious about their bodies too. Considering whom I saw, I’m about the size of an Arabic teenage girl. The woman from the showers was less guarded about her stares. And I think I was the topic of her loud conversation.
I was happy when I got a smile from her because I could say “shukran” (thank you in Arabic). And I’m still happy I went. I discovered where the women are – in a steamy, watery, communal world. They share so much. There’s so much intimacy. They are incredibly loving to one another in their gestures. Plus all ages work, play, wash together. I’m almost envious. I bet that sharing gives them a good perspective on life.
Their lives are hard. They spend so much time lugging stuff. They take their laundry and the children to the river. And they have to cart those clean clothes, plus toiletries and kids, again, to the hammam. No wonder Paul and I have only even seen most women in transit. The other indoors’ time must be when they are cooking and cleaning.