Whenever I visit a new country, I make it my aim to try something that I’ve not tried before. Whether that’s something simple like sampling the local cuisine or visiting a new museum, or something a little more extreme (cliff diving into a cenote or ziplining over a rainforest anyone?), I like to experience things that I wouldn’t really be able to do back home in the UK.
So when I travelled to Jordan earlier this year, while staying in the beautiful city of Amman, I decided to try something a little different: a traditional Hammam bath.
Although I’d been to several Arabic countries that offered the Hammam service, I’d never plucked up the courage to go for one, put off by horror stories of creepy men and wandering hands. Many of the accounts I’d read online warned of the way the local men view western women (in particular, white British women), so as much as I’d wanted to experience a Hammam bath, I’d always politely refused when offered.
That was until I made friends with some non-creepy, non-handsy local men, one of whose girlfriend worked as a masseuse in the Hammam…
What is a Hammam bath?
Also known as a Turkish bath, in Arabic culture a public Hammam is a steam room where people habitually go each week to cleanse themselves. A visit to the public Hammam usually involves a thorough soak, scrub and massage from an attendant, and a chance to relax, unwind and destress, while catching up with friends and family.
Much like the saunas and spas in Scandinavian countries, patrons are usually completely naked under their towels. So there are days that only men or women are allowed, and there are days when either sex can visit – but on those days men and women will still remain separate. Either the baths will have two sections, or it will admit men and women at different times of the day.
Because of the nakedness, although more than welcome in the public Hammam, many conservative westerners prefer the privacy of the baths that are available in some hotels and spas. That’s because in private Hammams you’re less likely to be tutted at if you decide to keep your bikini on – generally it’s considered to be cleaner if you opt for your birthday suit over a swim suit, though.
Now you know a bit more about what goes on at a Hammam, I’m sure you can understand my apprehension in trying one, despite reading about all the benefits the sauna service brings (and despite my insatiable curiosity about them).
So when the manager from the Pasha Hotel in Amman, Jafar, said he could arrange a private Hammam service for me in the spa below the hotel, with his girlfriend Diane as the masseuse, I jumped at the chance of trying the traditional bathing custom. I was introduced to Diane, and Jafar explained that she worked at the public Hammam during the day, so I knew I’d be in capable hands.
The way I saw it, getting semi-naked and being washed from head to toe by a semi-stranger was a much less daunting prospect than getting fully naked and being washed by a total stranger. So I agreed to a Hammam session with Diane for the very next day.
A Hammam experience in Jordan.
The following afternoon, after greeting Diane with a hug and kiss, she led me down the back stairs into the underground spa below the Pasha Hotel. As she opened the frosted glass door and we stepped into the grotto, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had no idea that this beautiful little tiled space of tranquility lay beneath the bustling hotel. It was warm and damp, with a faint smell of chlorine. It wasn’t the 5 star luxury of Nirvana Spa or the spa in the Hallmark hotel in Bournemouth that my friends and I once stayed in, but it oozed character and Arabian charm.
As she showed me to an area where I could leave my bag and undress behind an ornate wooden screen, Diane explained what she would be doing to me during the two-hour session, all the while apologising for her English. I told her she had absolutely nothing to be sorry for though; I don’t speak a word of Arabic (it’s one language that would definitely be handy to know when travelling) so I was so grateful for her effort. While it wasn’t a blocker between us, the language barrier did result in a few giggles, especially when Diane saw my facial expression change to puzzlement as she started talking about how she would cover my body in “Moroccan soup“…
After stripping down to my bikini and wrapping myself in the towel provided, I came out from behind the screen to find Diane was also bare. Her hijab was off and her long blonde hair hung over her shoulders, a towel pulled around her body.
I’m not sure if my embarrassment was due to being semi-naked in front of a stranger, due to wrongly assuming she’d have dark hair, or due to being naive enough to think that she would have remained clothed for the duration of the Hammam service, but I’m pretty sure I was blushing at this point. I hadn’t realised that there would be so much flesh on show between us – but having read up more on Hammams since being back, apparently this is common practice. So nothing to be embarrassed about if you do decide to go for a Hammam yourself.
Anyway, Diane then handed me a pair of flip-flops, pointing at my feet – but within seconds we both burst out laughing again. They must have been at least a size 8 or 9, and it looked like my chubby little size 4s were about to go snorkelling in flippers rather than into a sauna. We swapped them for some chunky wooden sandals, and normality resumed. Note, if you do go to the baths, always bring some flip-flops or suitable footwear (you don’t want to risk verrucas or other foot infections).
Prepped and ready, it was time to begin the service.
My Hammam experience started with 20 minutes in a small sauna. Because I was having a private Hammam, I thought this would mean I sat in there on my own – but as Diane ushered me in and plonked herself down on the wooden bench next to me, I realised this would not be the case. We sat in the hot, pine-clad room sweating the impurities out of our bodies (though I’m not sure I had much left to sweat after spending the morning walking all over Amman in search of colour), then after a minute or two of awkward silence, Diane and I began to chat.
The conversation started like any typical conversation with any typical beautician in any typical salon: she told me about her experience working in a public Hammam in Amman, and about how she’d previously worked in spas and salons in her home country of Syria. But as she started to open up, Diane went on to nervously tell me about how she’d moved to Jordan 15 months ago, after having to flee Syria for safety.
Until that point, I was completely unaware that she was a Syrian refuge – in fact I didn’t even know she was Syrian. I’d never met a Syrian refugee before, and it was a real eye-opener for me. Sure, I’d read the stories and seen the pictures in the news about how the country had been ravaged by war over the last six years. But actually meeting someone who has been so severely impacted by the troubles really brought the reality of the situation home. I was humbled.
Diane blinked back tears as she told me about how her, her two pre-school sons and her mother had to leave their home, their jobs, their whole lives in Syria, after her father and husband were shot dead. My heart bled for this young woman on hearing what she’d been through; but she forced a smile and told me not to be sad for her. She was just happy that her children were safe now. Her strength and courage was so admirable, and made everything I’d been through earlier in the year with my (now ex) boyfriend seem insignificant in comparison.
We were so deep in conversation that neither of us noticed that 20 minutes had passed. Our bodies glowed red and glistened from the sweat that was dripping off us, but still we sat there talking about our pasts and the present, our hopes and goals for the future and the differences between our two countries. It was clear that we came from two completely separate worlds, but at that moment, in that sauna in Amman, we were the best of friends.
I’m not sure exactly how long we were in the sauna, but as the conversation moved on, we started talking about typical salon things again. Then Diane took out a little bottle from under her towel. “Where had she been hiding that?” I was wondering, when she suddenly reached out for my hand and squeezed a blob of the pink gel from the bottle onto my index finger. She did the same on her own finger, then indicated to rub the liquid into my lips. Doing as I was told, I felt my lips tingle and begin to swell… what was this stuff? “Selfie mouth now” said Diane, smiling between pulling the perfect pout. It was then I realised that Diane isn’t just a statistic in the news, not just one of the thousands of Syrian refugees that have fled the country. She’s a hard-working single mother, she’s a normal girl who likes selfies and make-up. She’s human.
As she stood up and pushed open the sauna door, the cool, clammy air from outside whooshed in, and it suddenly became apparent just how hot it was in the little sauna. I got to my feet and followed her out, shuffling my feet in the wooden sandals while pulling the towel tighter around my body.
We moved into a small room, tiled from floor to ceiling. There was a tap, shower hose and bucket in one corner. Dominating the space was a huge grey block, topped with a thick slab of grey marble. Lined up along the edge of the slab were various lotions and potions, some shiny black things that looked like stones, and some coloured wash cloths. Diane beckoned for “my lady” to hang my towel up on a hook in the doorway, and lay down on the slab. Easier said than done though, I needed a little stool to climb up onto the “bed”. Cue more giggles, which quickly turned into shrieks on my part as I lay my hot body down on the ice-cold slab.
I lay on my back on the slab. Diane told me to shut my eyes and relax, as she softly padded around. She put on some soothing Arabian music, and began rummaging through the lotions and potions. Suddenly she let out a little giggle, and I opened one eye. “This is the Moroccan soup” she said seriously. The peaceful ambiance was broken and we were both in hysterics, making each other laugh with jokes about the soup “flavour”, asking if it contained “vegetables or meat”.
What she had actually had in her hand was a dollop of black Moroccan soap. This is the soap that’s normally used in the Hammam, but don’t worry if you have sensitive skin, as black soap is suitable for all skin types. It offers a deep, cleansing wash, purifying the skin by removing dirt and dead skin cells, leaving it radiant, nourished, smooth and moisturised.
Named after its black colour, the intensity of the colour of the black soap depends on the oils used in its production. It was first manufactured in Syria, mixing olive oil with vegetable soda, but soon made its way to Morocco. The basic recipe remained the same in both countries, but over the centuries has been improved by adding fragrant essential oils and Argan oil.
Diane began massaging the sweet-smelling liquid into my skin, and I felt myself losen up. Starting with the toes on my right leg, she worked her way up the right side of my body, then back down the left side. The soap was foamless, but made my body very slippery, and we giggled as I slid about atop the marble slab.
Once I was completely covered in the soap, it was time for a conditioning hair mask. This was the part of the Hammam that I was most looking forward to, as my hair was so dry and frazzled after a couple of weeks in the sun and seas of Cyprus and Mexico. Diane unwound my bun and combed the mask through my hair, before winding it back into a bun to soak in. She then walked out the room and left me to unwind, listening to the soft beat of the rhythmic Arabian music.
After what felt like an eternity, but could have only been about 10 minutes max, she came back, and with a gloved hand, began to exfoliate my body. She was scrubbing quite vigorously, but kept checking if everything was ok. After she’d exfoliated me from toe to top, then top to toe down my left-hand side, Diane flipped me over onto my tummy and she repeated the process again. It took about 10 minutes in total. If you go for a Hammam yourself, I’d recommend visiting the baths at the beginning of your city trip or holiday, otherwise you may find your fresh tan scrubs right off.
Next Diane grabbed the shower hose, and turned on the tap. Once the water had reached a temperature that was between frozen and scalding, she began to wash the soap off my body and out of my hair.
I thought this would conclude my Hammam experience, but once I was back wrapped in a towel and off the marble “bed”, Diane beckoned for me to join her on a bench. She pulled out that little mystery bottle of lip swelling gel again, and asked if I wanted some more. Sure, why not.
Then came body butter, which she rubbed into my arms and legs. I was told to wait, so sitting there in my wet towel, I watched as Diane walked over to a large dresser and picked up a wooden hairbrush. She came back, set herself down next to me, and began to comb through my dripping hair.
We sat there for another hour, both in our towels, drinking water and chatting. The Hammam was such an amazing experience, and I’m so glad I tried it. I felt like a pampered princess, clean and fresh. Moreover, meeting Diane was one of the best things to come out of my trip to Jordan. Those couple of hours spent together in the underground spa helped me in ways she’ll never know.