Inner and outer beauty: hammams

Hammam Al Andalus in Granada, Andalusia

 I have been reading about beauty. A former student of mine, Guy Baum, has just published a novel entitled The Beauty Pageant, available through Amazon. He texted me about it and I felt I had to read it if only to acknowledge our former tutor/student bond. 

I have enjoyed it, and I thought that his idea of a contest about inner rather than outer beauty was quite compelling. Unfortunately, the tie-up with a Beatles reunion concert, meant to be the prize, really did not do it for me. I must be one of the few people in this world who is highly weary of Beatles songs.  But the beauty (no pun intended) of fiction is that authors can vent their imagination unrestrainedly.

The other book I read is ostensibly about looks and the performance of beauty in salons located in three different cities, Cairo, Casablanca and Paris.  Three Faces of Beauty is an ethnography by Susan Ossman, which I found by chance in a library. 

In a very nuanced account she examines how fashion images, from a variety of media, are reproduced and enacted in beauty salons. "By observing salons as scenes of instructions, Ossman reveals that beautiful bodies evolve within the intertwining contexts of media, modernity, location, time, postcolonialism and male expectation". Though written two decades ago, Ossman's study still resonates. 

What really interested me were the sections on the hammam in Paris, as well as in Casablanca (Casa)  and Cairo. I am familiar with hammams in Rabat and in London, as well as in Turin and in Seville. The ones outside Morocco are not exactly 'traditional' hammams such as the ones you may still find in the Rabat Medina - but, be careful here,  'traditional' hammams too have evolved.  

Casa Spa, London

The one in London I like going to is called Casa Spa,  and it offers a variety of packages. It is not a place you go to for bathing if you cannot do it at home (which more or less everyone can, over here), but then from what I saw in Rabat, many hammams there are structured like a Parisian or London hammam, also with packages. I remember the one I went to in Rabat last October, where the package included massage and the assistance of a washer, whom I tipped handsomely for her services throughout the whole session (the tip was expected).  I provided my own shampoo and conditioner (I use special ones, my hair needs extra care). There were plastic buckets and I was given two for my exclusive use while in the hammam,  my own Kessa glove, which I still have here in London and my own black soap, and oil. 

At Casa Spa, you begin by waiting for at least 20 minutes in the hot room, then pretty much as in Rabat the washer (here called therapist) comes to get you and scrubs you, exfoliating your skin. You can add massage to this, as an extra. You finish by cooling down in the relaxation area, sipping mint tea.  Going to the hammam is a ritual which, according to Ossman, was earlier linked to sharing news and companionship, whereas now, even in the Middle East, and certainly so in its displaced version in European cities, the hammam is linked with the therapeutic effects of cleansing and relaxation. 

I am not Moroccan nor am I indeed from the Middle East. But ever since I encountered the 'steam baths' in Istanbul, aged 17,  I have always sought them, wherever I was - mostly in London, as it happens.  Initially,  I only went there for deep cleansing.  I  never had problems about being naked among other women, but I always sought some privacy. In some hammams, you have to keep your knickers on, anyway. Men and women have separate sessions, though some European hammams have 'mixed' or 'couples' sessions on specific days.

(If you read accounts of European women travelling to the Middle East in the 19th century or even the early 20th century they all seem to be shocked by the nudity eg Sophia Poole, who wrote about her travels in Egypt). 

 Then I increasingly began going to the hammam - Turkish baths in London, Stoke Newington, as used by the Turkish community, till I discovered Casa Spa - for deep internal cleansing, a symbolic clean to purge myself of my thoughts and bad habits. This is why I often go to the hammam at the start of a new year, or when I feel I need to renew myself. In Rabat last October I went there at the end of my stay to leave something behind, it was highly personal, I had encountered setbacks and wanted to remove them all from my psyche. I will be going to Casa Spa pretty soon, as the new year has started and I need to feel renewed. I am standing at a crossroads at the moment, I need to make decisions (but that's another story for another post)

In the hammam,  I celebrate the encounter between my body and water, in ways I could not do in the home environment, where I do not have the space. I love splashing hot water all over me.

I have gone to the hammam with a female friend (in London) and with my sister (in Turin). In Seville, I was in a mixed session, which I actually found a bit awkward, though I had my own space. 

 For me the best experience is when I can be there alone, with my thoughts.  When I was in the Rabat hammam, surrounded by mostly local women - I had chosen a hammam halfway between a 'traditional' (ie poorer) one where I had to go with my own buckets and soap, and a hammam attached to a Riad or a luxury hotel where you would be entirely cut off from anyone else.  In the hammam I chose,  the women there,  were not socialising. I had gone on a weekday. Some women did not even ask for the services of a washer, they would scrub themselves. Some shaved their legs and armpits, which meant one had to navigate the space carefully and choose where to sit. There was little chattering, except perhaps in the dressing room, when we all came out of the last wash.  

There is a whole literature on the hammam, to which Ossman refers, but it really seems to be discussing a hammam of the past. I am not even sure one should be thinking of the hammam as a quintessentially Arab tradition. The Romans had baths and they were preserved by the Arabs, when they fell into disuse in Western Europe, since the idea of preening the body contrasted with Christian religious views of the body as a source of sin. 

Thermae Bath Spa

(The Roman baths in the city of Bath are a case in point. Today a Thermal Spa, which I have visited, offers visitors a Roman bath-inspired experience in the 21st century with calidarium, tepidarium and frigidarium. The Ironmonger Row baths in Old Street, London, offer that too. They are another haunt of mine.)

Ossman discusses hammams contrasting them to beauty salons and thinks of them as transitional places in the construction of beauty.  You don't perform fashion in a hammam but you do so in a beauty salon. 

Roman baths, Bath (I am one of the Roman ladies in the film made by the Roman Bath Museum) 

I think that in many ways the ethnography done by Ossman needs updating. I know hammams have a strong link with orientalist views of middle eastern women, that conservative Muslim men were most anxious about regulating what went on in the female hammam, that there were male fantasies of lesbianism taking place in the hammam...  But the hammam in the 21st century has evolved. It is a postcolonial and postorientalist hammam.  It is still an all-women space and this takes on different nuances depending on the location. 

 In its displaced version,  the hammam is where inner beauty is sought and cultivated. It is also a  space no longer confined to women of any particular community, even though the first hammams in European cities were linked with Middle Eastern and Arab migrants. 

For me, going to the hammam is a ritual. If I feel troubled, if I feel weighed down, I know I need to visit a hammam. I have all the paraphernalia at home, I could scrub myself, soak in water, shower profusely, drink mint tea after I get out of my bath experience, at any time of day or night - I am a night owl anyway. But it's not the same. I need the hammam environment for my peace of mind.

What is inner beauty?  Well, even inner beauty, like the outer, physical one,  is underpinned by diversity. I guess, however,  it is predicated on feeling some kind of harmony within oneself. 

I wish that ethnographers would reconsider hammam culture. The hammam of orientalist paintings, in which male voyeuristic fantasies of female sexuality dominated never existed. The hammam has transformed itself but rather than just seeing it as the threshold to the beauty salon, as Ossman does,  perhaps it should be reenvisioned as part of an intercultural grooming culture that focuses on inner, rather than outer, beauty.