Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Slow death of the ‘mute doctor’

Egypt’s traditional bathhouse culture continues to lose the battle against today’s luxurious spas, writes Rasha Sadek 

Al-Ahram Weekly

The sorry state of Egypt’s public bathhouses (hammam shaabi) may have reached the point of no return — unless somebody decides to do something about it. Negligence has taken its toll on Egyptian bathhouses, which were once, in the words of the 12th-century Iraqi chronicler Abdel-Latif Al-Baghdadi, “the most beautiful in the East, the most practical, and the best located”.

Nine centuries later, Cairo’s few remaining public baths are drowning in general indifference, forgotten by the government’s restoration plans. Once places of relaxation and ritual and known for their therapeutic virtues, the last bathhouses are struggling against problems ranging from neglect to demolition.

The practice of using heat to release toxins from the body goes back thousands of years. While studies have revealed that the ancient Egyptians built public baths, others take the tradition of public bathing to the Neolithic Age when nomadic tribes sought relief from the cold by soaking in natural hot springs.

The earliest bathhouse ever found was built in the Indus Valley in around 2500 BC in the city of Mohenjodaro. Constructed of baked brick, and called the Great Bath, this large pool was excavated in the early 1900s in present-day Pakistan.

The Romans adopted the practice of public bathing around 300 BC, and the bath became a vital part of society, visited by rich and poor alike. At the time, it was the only place to rinse off after a week of manual labour. Crowds of men and women bathed together as the bath was a primary place to gather and socialise. Roman emperors like Nero and Diocletian built huge bathhouses with libraries, playgrounds and gardens next to them.

The first Islamic era bathhouses were built in Egypt by Amr Ibn Al-Aas in Fustat. However, the golden age of public baths was during Ottoman rule. It was the Turks that gave the name of “the mute doctor” to bathhouses because medical practitioners there treated hammam-goers using medical herbs and aromatic oils for ailments such as arthritis, rheumatism and dermal diseases. Since the public baths were built to provide an experience of relaxation, the doctors treated their patients without speaking.

In the past, the bathhouses in Egypt primarily targeted merchants who travelled long distances and wanted to unwind from long sea and desert travel. Soon enough, governors and commoners joined in, and bathhouses hosted public and private celebrations, such as birth, marriage and circumcision occasions, as described by the 19th-century British orientalist Edward Lane in his Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians.

Today, however, public baths are struggling for their very survival. Very few hammams are still open to the public, though some are, including the Tuesday Bathhouse and the Margoush, Al-Shaarawi, Al-Abbaseya and Al-Malatili. The latter, located in Bab Al-Sheria, was built in 1780 and has been run by the Haj Zeinhom family for the past 200 years.

Although it is technically private property, the Al-Malatili is registered with the Supreme Council of Antiquities so the family cannot carry out any restoration work without a permit, whose requirements, the present Haj Zeinhom says, “are almost impossible to meet”.

“I used to request permission to repair things, but it took two or three years to process every time. There are no possibilities for improvement,” says the previous owner of the Hammam Sultan Inal, built in 1456 and located in the Gammaliya district of Cairo and now closed down.

Haj Zeinhom laments the sorry state of today’s bathhouses. “Despite their outstanding architecture and value in Egypt’s traditions, the number of hammams today is dwindling. During the Mameluke era there were 1,350 public baths in Egypt. The number has reached 16 today, but only a few of these have stood the test of time and are still functioning.”

 “Faith in the traditional bathhouses started to crack soon after the July 1952 Revolution. More and more Egyptians then managed to rise out of poverty and gain secure incomes. Electricity and running water were becoming more readily available, even in the poorest neighbourhoods. These factors led to the decline of the public bathhouse,” Salma Mohamed, a researcher in Islamic heritage, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“Most of the public baths are registered with either the Ministry of Religious Endowments or the Supreme Council of Antiquities, and alas their renovation is in neither’s plans,” she added.

In a 2009 interview, writer May Telmissany, co-author of The Last Hammams of Cairo: A Disappearing Bathhouse Culture, told the Weekly that “the Supreme Council of Antiquities should be doing more to preserve these architectural and artistic treasures.”

She gave the case of Al-Sukariya, “one of the most beautiful hammams in the city. The Supreme Council of Antiquities pledged to renovate it some years ago, but to this day it is in ruins.” It is still in ruins today.

Telmissany compared this to the situation in North Africa, where, she said, the authorities had taken a keen interest in refurbishing and restoring the hammams to their original beauty. “In the city of Tunis alone, each suburb has two or three fully-functioning hammams,” Telmissany said. “Tunisians and foreigners alike are free to enjoy the amiable setting of the traditional hammams,” these functioning as integral parts of the community “like social clubs and spas where people come to relax and socialise”.

The 500-year-old Hammam Al-Arbaa (Wednesday Bathhouse) located in Cairo’s Boulaq Al-Dakrour district has managed to survive thanks to its proud owner Mohamed Al-Masri. “Public baths have their own appeal to a certain type of clientele. Young people pay a visit to our hammam before their wedding night, in addition to foreigners from Europe and the US and some Arabs who like to feel the ambience of public baths.”

Al-Masri explains the “rituals” of the hammam. “It takes two hours. It begins with a hot shower for 10 minutes, followed by the steam room for 25 minutes, and then a cold shower to get rid of the sweat that blocks the pores. Next comes sitting in a hot tub and relaxation on a marble mastaba one metre high where a massage takes place. This is followed by a hot shower with water and soap for 15 minutes. It’s best to have a warm drink and fruit after the customer has finished because they nourish and refresh the body. The whole process is about the relaxation and rejuvenation of the body and soul.”

Women receive more pampering at the Wednesday hammam, says Um Azza, in charge of the women’s section. “Many women still prefer bathhouses to modern-day spas, especially in poorer areas and in preparation for their wedding night,” she says. The “rituals” in the women’s section are also different.

“The bride starts with a steam bath after applying heavy layers of oils, creams and fragrances to her body so that her skin will absorb them. The skin becomes lighter and the pores more open. Then she takes a cold shower followed by a cream mask made of natural herbs. It looks and feels like mud, but it is made of orange peel, squashed lemons, sandal wood and corn powder mixed with olive oil.

The body mask is applied for half an hour, and then her body is generously rinsed with rose water. Two women workers assist the bride. The first is called the ballana, who prepares the concoction and application of the body mask, the massage, cleansing and the henna drawings. The second is called the mashta, who takes care of the face and hair of the bride.”

Reham Rashid, 38, who prefers going to bathhouses to visiting modern spas and health resorts, explained to the Weekly that “the experience is completely different. It is more original in the hammams. The décor is authentic. The bathhouses are filled with classical Islamic embellishments. The doors are small and corridors narrow, which provides more quiet and keeps noise away.”

Amira Atef, 24, did not enjoy her one-time experience at a hammam, however, mainly because “when you tell them you are a bride they charge you LE250. If you don’t, you get the same service for LE80.”

But it is not only the public baths that give two different prices for their packages for women, as luxurious spas do the same. Yasmine Khattab, a 28-year-old bride, told the Weekly that she had booked the “bridal package” at a Heliopolis spa for LE1,400. “Later, a friend told me that she had done the same things at the same spa for LE650. The only difference between my friend and I was that I told them I was a bride.”

Friends of Khattab’s husband, Amr Ibrahim, had booked him the “groom package” at the same spa. “I don’t know how much it cost, but I definitely enjoyed the experience, especially the takees or Moroccan bath,” which includes the hard exfoliation of the entire body to remove dead layers of skin.

The Weekly compared the prices of a Moroccan bath at spas and hammams. It cost LE280 and LE30-80, respectively. But Khattab and her husband say they “would not go to a public bath despite the price difference.” In spas, “we don’t have to worry about hygiene or being harassed by anyone in or outside the hammam,” Khattab says.

There is a stigma associated with traditional bathhouses. While there are many songs, sayings and films about Cairo’s hammams, most of the references to them are negative. They are seen as seductive and beguiling, but sinful, a result of the mixture of seduction and chastity that characterises discussions of nudity in popular tales. Egyptian films featuring hammams have conjured up even more damaging images of degenerate behaviour in public baths, leaving a lasting impression on the psyche of many Egyptians.

Worse, in December 2014 police raided a Cairo bathhouse in the Azbakeya neighbourhood and arrested 33 men for “group perversion” and “debauchery”. Those arrested were loaded on to trucks and stripped naked, according to eyewitness reports.

The news was announced by a journalist, Mona Iraqi, who said she had been ready with her crew outside the hammam to film the arrests. She wrote on her Facebook page that she would be airing an exclusive on “a den of group perversion in the heart of Cairo”.

She had reportedly been tipped off about the raid and had arrived ahead of the security forces.

In January 2015, the courts found the men not guilty, and Iraqi herself was later sentenced to six months in prison for “libel, defamation and fabricating lies.” But the case nevertheless added to negative perceptions of bathhouses, reducing support for the idea that they need to be restored.

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