In Syria, the steam bath, or hammam, remains a focal point of socializing, even among working women and busy families.
“The hammam is of the best of the good things in the world,” proclaims Abu Sir in one of the tales in “A Thousand and One Nights.”
For some, the purpose of a visit to the hammam is primarily for cleanliness. But for most visitors – religious or otherwise – it is simply a pleasure.
In Hammam al-Bakri or Hammam Nour al-Deen in Damascus or Aleppo’s Hammam Yalbougha al-Nasri, bathers walk in wooden clogs from the domed, highly decorated rest room – lined with pegs and colorful carpeted benches – to the al-Wastani rooms, tepidly heated and used for an often painful scrub and massage.
A steam room, al-Jawwani, and a smaller room once reserved for shaving, adjoin. Back in the rest room, bathers drink tea and prepare to dress for the world outside.
Originating with the Romans and Greeks, the hammam in the Arab world is linked closely with Islam; cleanliness is a command of the Koran. Initially open to men only, the importance of the cleansing ritual meant women were soon admitted – during separate hours – and the weekly visits became important social occasions outside the house.
Despite modernization, traditional customs persist. Women’s hours fall during the workweek, despite the fact that more women have joined the labor force.
Rites of passage – such as a birth or the day before a wedding – are still celebrated in the hammam.
And then there are the normal visits to catch up on the latest gossip. Men debate current events over narghile (water pipe) and tea; women picnic with their children as they lounge in towels.
“In here, there is nothing between any person and another,” says Um Moussa. “Rich, poor, Muslim, Christian, Syrian, foreigner.... We undress, we bathe, we talk, and we laugh.”