Some hammams are chic, some are antiseptic. Some are raw and real.
Sorrow pushes you down to the bone. It seeps into the marrow to scoop up the sweet. It leaves you lying there like a corpse with the world spinning its luscious web all around you, and you cannot move.
In this womb-like place, it’s dark and quiet. We are reminded that it’s hard to face the everyday all tied up and keep functioning with joy. This is not depression, it is a sense of being lost and thinking too much.
High arched doorways, ancient and crumbling.
Old women sit cross-legged on folded blankets wrapped in patchwork .
Wrinkled skin with a hand at the end covers the heart.
With big eyes, they enter the domed room painted with stars. They indeed strip and give their belongings to a small bossy woman, who gives them plastic slippers in exchange.
Towelled, they follow her into a steamy room with low light and marble floors. Buckets of water are side by side a handful of women of various shapes. Towels are placed on a hook, the women are motioned to sit down on mats with other bodies they do not know. The mats and the floor are warm and wet. Cross-legged like monkeys, they are lined up like See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil and Think no Evil.
See No Evil is taken first… down on a brown lap, head on a thigh, before she can say jack rabbit and “I ain’t doing that.”
A skinny brown woman with empty breasts and kind eyes takes a small bowl and dips it into the nearby bucket of warm water. She pours it over and over on See No Evil’s body. See no Evil has never been in a dark steamy room in a foreign county on the lap of someone she has never seen, naked. Not even when she was born.
The old woman rubs a handful of black olive oil soap all over her. More water follows, then she starts to scrub. Hand in a textured mit, she rubs vigorously, as dead skin rolls into black strings. She motions for See to flip over. Her dark arms are strong, but her face is soft. See relaxes into it, mind and body won over purely by the old woman’s nurturing gestures. More water was followed by shampoo, which was followed by a few more bucket loads of water. For a moment she was five and remembered when her mother used to spider her fingers through her thick hair. See opened her eyes carefully. She has just shed a skin.
Brown mother with breasts like sacks, motions for See to move to another mat. See looks mesmerized. She walks without question to the next mat where she is met by a cross-eyed woman in red panties, who motions for her to lay down again. Hear No Evil and Speak No Evil are still sitting cross-legged with curiosity. They look at each other as if to say, “What will happen next?”
The cross-eyed woman starts to massage. A hundred years, she has practiced her technique. She moves and flips and caresses the muscles with precision.
See lays wondering if she had just landed on Earth. For the last six years, she had resided on the moon. Out there. A snake with false teeth had just smiled and greeted her in her dreams. Her head finally felt attached to her body. She was happy to be back, but still a little jet-lagged.
Hear No Evil was next. She had said to herself, “I’m not sitting on that floor,” and then she was. Her scrubber was a bit intense, more like a laundress, breast looking more like atomic bombs and enough rolls around the middle to get lost in. Years of Hear’s skin came off just the same. Who ever scrubs the mother? Hear was the mother to everyone. She surrendered immediately and was tossed around like she was three. She forgot about the floor. She forgot her name. She forgot everything. Her strong legs were like willows bending in the wind. Her feet moved back and forth like windshield wipers. Comforted, her mind went to apples, baked apples in cinnamon and honey. She could no longer support her hesitations. They were lost, like moss hanging from a tree.
At that point, See wandered out of the room like a zombie and went where she was told and waited. Hear went to the cross-eyed red pantie’d masseuse. She melted into the floor with gratitude. Her attitude lost altitude. It had fallen out of the sky and broken into small beads of sweat and the nearest powder room was somewhere over the strait of Gibraltar. Meanwhile, Hear took a deep rest.
Speak was speechless. Far away from harmony and beauty as she knew it, she feared only for the sorrow of her family if they could see her now. What could be lurking invisibly on the warm wet floor, that might choose her for transportation? But, it was too late. She was motioned down on the mat. Hopefully, if she was chosen, it would not be too expensive to cure. Her insurance was limited. A sophisticated girl, legs folded to the side like Sophia Loren, water poured over her like a Raphael painting; lipstick still intact. It wasn’t long before Speak, eyes closed, was smiling through the falling water down her face, caution to the wind, happy, not sad, to be in unknown territory. It was new. A boundary crossed. After all, this was what she wanted. What she realized is that what she may lack in insurance would be made up by her assurance. This she had in spades. Maybe she would keep this to herself.
Think No Evil lay down with ease. It was not the first time for her. She willingly gave herself up to the scrub. She willed the release of 50 years of grief. She was not worried about the floor. She was worried that she might have to live with herself with spooned out marrow. She wanted to surrender, become reborn, find out what was left of sun-bleached bone and sinew.
The moist dim room felt like honey, dark manna, spread thick and antiseptic. It was healing something, perhaps a deep wound, a heart punctured with poison arrows. Deep tangible sadness, that didn’t even feel like it was all hers, rose like cream to the top and the pores opened up and the skin sloughed and sloughed. She was raw and felt very vulnerable.
She sat up, took a few deep breaths, opened her eyes and floated over to the red pantie’d wonder, who put the muscles back on her bones and got the blood flowing again.
The next thing she knew, she was lying flat again in another deliciously steamy room, spread eagle on dry warm marble.
Her other monkey friends were there too. All They could do was nod and smile. A week in the woods solo, would not have done more for their souls.
Refreshed and renewed, they threw their towels over their shoulders and walked out of the hammam like they owned it.
They left sorrow, fear and hesitation on the floor and threw a bucket of water on top to wash their sins away… before someone else sat down.
Author: Peggy Markel
Editor: Katarina Tavčar
Photo: Author’s Own