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Violating Sanctions

An American Woman’s Listening Tour Through the Axis of Evil

Steaming, Syria-Style

The Author By Kelly Hayes-Raitt | July 1st, 2008 | Comments 4 Comments »

Slinking behind the heavy carpet curtaining the doorway between Damascus’ blinding, dusty “old city” and a dark, primordial hall with a drizzling fountain in the middle, Sandy, Sally and I hoped to melt away our travel fatigue in one of Syria’s famous hamams.

The Turkish Bathhouse, open to women only before 5:00 pm (after which it becomes men’s domain), is tucked among shops selling intricately beaded and woven scarves, gracefully curved pewter kettles, fragrant zaatar-sprinkled flatbread soaked in olive oil, and cellphone cards.
Blinking, we three women of a certain age crept down the ancient stone stairs into a high-ceilinged, arched room, built in 1027 AD. Carpeted benches on raised platforms lined 3 of the walls. Women in various states of fleshy exposure lounged about, little children in soggy underpants ran amok, and the robust woman who took our money and wore a ratty skirt and a sodden towel that couldn’t even pretend to cover her breasts tried to upsell us to buy the whole spa package, loofah included. Another woman with well-placed tattoos and an unhooked bra cupping just her right breast came over to translate. She turned out to be the massage therapist. We ordered the works: Steam room, massage, exfoliating scrub, soap and scrub, and drink. Total cost: 280 pounds (about $5.50).

After locking our valuables in a dented metal drawer that could be opened with a hearty sneeze, we shy novices mounted the stairs to one of the carpet-covered benches and stripped to our modest bathing suits. We slipped on the provided open-toed wooden clogs, wrapped ourselves in the glorified dish towels and followed the women and children through a labyrinth of hallways into a primeval series of misty rooms.

Gingerly, we slid along the marbled yellow, orange and white floor into the actual steam room. Our small room had a hissing fireplace on the far wall churning out steam faster than a San Francisco fog roll-in. We sat on slick stone benches that had been sat on by four centuries of sweating women.

It was hot. Really hot. After sweat-staining even my underwear during my first weeks in Damascus, I didn’t know I still had this much water in me. My knee caps sweat. My fingernails sweat. My eyes teared. My earlobes grew hot. Sweat beads dangled from every possible outcropping like hanging chads on a Florida ballot.

After enduring this luxury until my lymphatic glands threatened legal action, I slithered into the larger room that featured 3 built-in floor level stone sinks with modern hot and cold spigots. I had been watching a naked, steam-enshrouded woman dousing herself with water and playfully splashing with her child. It was beautifully Degasesque. Two other women soaped and scrubbed each other while their children squealed and slipped on the marble floor.

Sally had preceded me and already scoped out her sink, rinsing herself with water scooped by a dinged metal bowl. Taking in the action of a water fight that had been slowly building among the children, Sally, who didn’t know her way back to our hotel without me, committed an insane act and lobbed a bowl of chilling water at my shoulders.

Stunned, I reflexively turned away, and into a full-face stream of incoming warm water pitched by a 3-year-old with uncanny aim. I sputtered something about diplomacy and bacteria and no gills and … More water came from all sides as the children seemed to multiply miraculously like loaves and fishes.

I declared war. Obviously, economic sanctions were not teaching these hoodlum toddlers who’s their daddy, and it was time to ratchet up my response. Sally, meanwhile, had taken cover in the next room to receive her abrasion scrub. I was left to defend the republic, and sprang to action filling and refilling my metal bowl, flinging water into the far corners of the bathhouse.

We declared cease fire when it was my turn for the abrasion scrub. Just my luck, the children — and their mothers — followed me into the adjacent drippy room and watched as a massive woman stuffed in a wet cotton dress clinging to her jiggly flesh motioned for me to take off my bathing suit top and lie down on the slimy floor. She loomed over me, taking masochistic pride in the dustball rolls of dead skin her scraping was producing from my now screaming arms and belly. She finished, or so I thought, then motioned for me to flip over. Lying flat on my face, my boobs crushed against the unforgiving stone, she dug her barbed loofah into my back and legs, scraping like she was cleaning a fish to serve an honored guest.

Several epidermic layers later, I woozily crawled my way back to the war room to rinse off the collateral damage.

Next, it was time for my massage. Sidestepping the tortuous skin exfoliator, I entered a small room just big enough for a narrow leather bench more like a gymnast’s vaulting horse than a massage table. The right-cupped woman with the tattoos, bra now intact (I’m certain of this because this was all she was wearing), motioned for me to lie face down. With all my Nadia Comaneci-inspired grace, I hoisted myself up. My waterlogged arms failed to hold my weight and my soggy leg followed my slippery descent. Luckily, the room was so small, I was saved by the wall behind me from toppling over in a mushy heap.

Determined to prevail, I bearhugged the table, throwing my left leg up in an ungainly move that nearly knocked out the masseuse. Imagine a steamed clam trying to grip its way back into the shell.

Table finally tamed, I lay face down, preparing to be pampered, pummeled, pulled and pressed. The one-cupped therapist slathered me in thick oil, spent exactly 23 seconds rubbing my back and shoulders before deciding to assess my overworked calves’ pain threshold. Too dehydrated to resist, I prayed her attention span would continue to be Ritalin-short.

Topless, skinless and now lame, I hobbled to the shower to wash off the oil and complete my traditional bathhouse experience.

Sandy, Sally and I reconnoitered in the lobby. Sans wooden shoes and supplied with fresh dry towels and hot sweet Arabic tea, we compared the softness of our forearms and marveled at the unselfconscious cultural exchange that happens when women shed their abayas, tankinis and preconceptions.
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4 Responses to “Steaming, Syria-Style”

  1. Norrean Says:

    The imagery was wonderful, I saw it all, and felt it all while grateful for the vicarious nature of this adventure. No Syrian steamers for me, I was done at “slimy floors” imagine the genrations of epidermic layers…yuk. I need my Pepto now.

  2. Carole Hayes Says:

    Thank you for sharing this liberating experience. I would have loved to experience it!

  3. Robert Mensch Says:

    Sounds like a great way to let off steam!

  4. Christopher Hatton Says:

    How appropraite Kelly, myself and two member of the band are about to go swimming and Sauna (every Thursday night), although we always have a lot of fun and there is plenty of laughter in the Sauna I know for a fact even our better days do not measure up to what you have just experienced, sounded great fun.

    Remember the steam bath in Hebron, next to the CPT flat (closed because of the Israeli Occupation), you know I want to get that working again don\’t you……… now that would be a clean act of non-violent resistance.

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