(Translated from the Arabic by Judy Cumberbatch)
The women arrive at the Hammam grey faced and leave sleepy and red-cheeked. They place their bundles on the benches. They take off their clothes and slip on wooden clogs, then enter the hot rooms of the Hammam. Mother accompanied by their children, young girls and boys under seven who have not yet transferred to the Hammam next door. Quickly…quickly…they hurry to reserve a good place to sit.
At the first curtain of steam, they pause and inhale deeply. The women push through them until they find what they are looking for. Somewhere clean, where they can sit down with their children and devote themselves exclusively and completely to the beautification of the body. Time passes by, unnoticed, as they sit in the gloom of the three interlocking chambers, under the arches and the domes which are like the cupolas of a mosques. One chamber leads to another.
First and nearest to the outside door and the changing rook is the cool room. Here, the old congregate, and those who are short of breath and the children. It is lighter than the other rooms and not so hot. The women here are busy and their chatter is distinctive.
Nabiha prefers the middle room. It is not as cool as the outer room nor as fierily hot as the inner. She only ventures there to fetch water. Amal runs about and starts playing with a groups of children in the outer room. The rest of the women crowd round the tap in the hot room. They remove their pails of water as quickly as possible, so as not to spend too long there.
A few women choose to remain in the hot room. They stand swaying, Allah Hayy, just like a circle of chanting dervishes. First to the left and then to the right. Allah Hayy. The masseuse kneads their flesh. Steam rises from the pails of water, from the ground and the women’s bodies. Their faces glisten and glow. Their bodies ooze sweat, which trickles down drop by drop.
– Shall I wash you?
– Please, God bless you.
First she soaps her with riqi soap, a light lather to remove the grease, then after a few minutes, she puts her hand into the black mitten and begins to scrub. Shoulders. Back. Upper haunches. She rinses her body and then turns to scrub the back of the woman beside her. Their bodies have an intimacy and friendship of their own. A silent language based on touch and a response of the senses. Naked bodies need no lengthy introduction. A harmony governs their nudity. A kinship unites them, the instant they are stripped of their clothes and enter the nakedness of the soul.
The young girls hate their bodies being scrubbed. they hate the mittens and loofah and soap. The Hammam resounds with the children’s wails. The women laugh as they caress the boys’ genitals, marvelling at the slight tremor which courses through their bodies, putting an end to their tears. The boys giggle, asking for more. A mother cradles her daughter and leaves the warm room for the cool to feed her near the outer door.
– Do you remember? She was a thin as a reed before she got married?
– All the girls let themselves go once they get married.
There is a constant coming and going. The women walk deliberately, fearful of slipping. The clogs clatter loudly across the floor. the babble of noise rises like steam and the words hang from the ceiling. Stray black hairs twist and snake their way down the drain.
– Next time..we ought to come at 9 o’clock.
– We would have been better off sitting next to the wall.
It is cleanest close to the wall, away from where the floor slopes down toward the opening to the drains. Bodies gleam, glisten, smoothly hairless. The overpowering smell of Dowa al Hammam* mingles with the scent of henna and riqi soap. The rough hair from under the armpits, the pubes and the legs slides down and with every douche of water, forms itself into little pellets which roll over the ground to the drain. The bare feet pick their way among the strands of hair. Pails draw near, pails move away. Some women wear their underpants, others are totally naked. there are bare breasts, full breasts, pendulous breasts, firm bellies, jutting out proudly, and bellies scarred with the stretch marks of six, seven pregnancies. Here’s a youthful body, And there’s a women whose stomach drapes over her pubes and the upper part of her thighs like a thick sheet. She is surrounded by her five daughters.
– What a shame. Look at her, like a slave. She rushes about day and night and what’s the use? She’s been pregnant nine times and he’s not satisfied and has gone and married someone else.
– The bastard!
The riqi soap melts slowly in their hands. The warmth of the hands and the warmth of the bath transforms it into a viscous jelly. Its pungent smell is familiar, a perpetual evocation of cleanliness.