My back’s been killing me for a couple of days. I think it’s due to the uncomfortable seating on the ferry and then lots of walking around the souks here in Tunis, and the sites at Carthage yesterday. What better excuse to visit a hammam? These Turkish style steam baths are a feature of life in Tunisia. Some are men only, some are women only and some are for both with different times for men and women. I’ve been to Turkish baths elsewhere, in Istanbul and in Budapest. It’s quite scary when you don’t quite know the ropes and don’t want to make a cultural faux pas. It has to be done though, and afterwards you feel not only very clean, but privileged to have visited a world behind the veil.
I chose one that would be easy to find my way to through the myriad alleyways of the souks to Rue Sidi Ben Arous, one of the prettiest streets in the Medina (old town). With hammams you evidently have the choice between atmosphere: old, crumbly and none too clean, and brand new and clean. I went for atmosphere of course, and a women only hammam. For the women they provide a meeting place away from an overtly male dominated society. The minute I stepped in off the street through the dark green and red doors, I was right in the middle of it. A tiny crowded anteroom which served as a chaotic changing room, rest area, cloakroom and reception, oh and hair removal area too. No separation between these activities nor a place to put your stuff other than a hook on the wall above a mother tending to her small children.
I knew that not many older women speak French, and even paying the entry fee and for a massage proved difficult – the money for the massage went directly to the masseuse not the proprietress. I felt just a bit self-conscious with everyone’s eyes on me and nearly ran away. Fortunately, one friendly young student spoke some French and helped me through. And everyone was helpful in spite of the language barrier. I was referred to as ‘la dame anglaise’, and looked at with curiosity. They obviously don’t get many foreigners here.
So suitably disrobed (down to knickers), I went through a scruffy door into the small domed steamy water running down walls and floors hammam. The tiling was shabby and the paint peeling from so much water vapour, and the floor sloped to allow the water to flow through and drain away somewhere. Light shined in through a square in the ceiling onto half naked women of all ages, shapes and sizes going about their ablutions with blue buckets of water. No showers here – you gathered some buckets and filled them up from a huge vat of scalding water in the inner hot room to which you added cold to get your preferred temperature.
My student friend and another young girl who said she didn’t speak much French, helped me fill and refill these. You then found a space on the marble benches and sat with your feet in one bucket while you soaped and rinsed yourself from another. All the while the hot steam was doing its work and you washed again and again. One of the girls shared an orange and fetched more water for me. I think they were worried that I would scald myself if I did it.
After a while, when she considered me to be ready, the massage lady beckoned me to come and lie on a marble bench in the thick of the crowded cooler outer room, and scrubbed me with a loofah mitten and soaped me down and did it again. She then sat me up, washed my hair and threw several buckets of water over me. It quite took my breath away. Instructions were all in sign language with a ‘ca va bien?’ every so often to make sure I was ok.
After this I rinsed myself further and went out to get dressed, managing to find a raised area that had been freed up. My new friend introduced me to her mother who was there waiting for her and they wanted to know about my visit to Tunisia and were thrilled that we would be going to Tatouine, the town they were originally from. The daughter translating the mother’s questions, they fed me pastries and taught me more Arabic words.
I felt very relaxed and very happy to have had this experience and my back does feel a bit better. It was a rare chance to meet women, that I hope to repeat during our time here in Tunisia. Next time I will make sure I bring oranges and pastries to share.
Somehow we need to learn some more Arabic and Tunisia has a different form of the language from Egyptian Arabic, for which we have an audio course, and Moroccan Arabic, for which we have a phrasebook …
On the way back to the hotel across the other side of the Medina, I called in at a café I had passed earlier – a less traditional more contemporary one – and had a refreshing glass of mint tea with pine nuts served by a charming young woman.
Being out in the souks on my own and now really knowing which way to go, obviously gave me the edge over our first faltering foray. I didn’t attract too much attention and when one stall holder stepped out to show me a scarf and I whisked by with a ‘non merci’, his companion said ‘non, elle habite ici’ – no, she lives here. And even after a few days, it really feels as if we’re starting to settle into the swing of things.