|El Arbaa Turkish bath in Cairo|
Ansari Street where the Hammam is located, is a tiny alleyway in the back street and we were definitely way off the tourist track. Men smoked the sheesha and drank tea on the sidewalks of unpaved streets, women walked around with bags full of produce, children asked what our names were and where we were from. Many people shouted "welcome" and invited us to sit with them for tea. It is nice to feel so welcomed and notice that people are so happy to engage with us.
But we were so out of our usual environment that at one point Peter said: “you don't belong here girl.” But I knew we would find the Hammam, and my excitement at being in a place not commonly visited by tourists got me even more thrilled walking on those narrow alleyways. After agreeing on how many “rights” and “lefts” and “straight ahead” in both English and Arabic from kind souls along the way, we found ourselves in the middle a maze. Despite the specific directions we got, we realized we were lost again, when a local woman offered to walk us to our destination. We were only a couple of blocks away but could not find our way with the street names written in Arabic and unfamiliar surroundings.
Mr Hag Mohamed Al-Mesri, the owner, was drinking tea near the Hammam when the kind lady entrusted us to him. He speaks no English, but a neighbor helped translate the hours of operation for men and women, the services provided and the price. As it was already around 5pm, men's hour, we told him we would be back the next day but accepted his invitation to drink tea with him.
Hammam El- Arbaa means literately Wednesday, because it used to be open only for brides and marriages that usually take place on Thursday. It is 500 years old and there is no signs of renovation since then.
The next day, I must have arrived at peak time as there were several women in the large room that precedes the treatment room and baths. I was told to go in the next area, get changed and get into the hot tub.
As I entered the treatment room, I noticed a large slab of marble in the center with a small fountain in the middle. Three women were very busy scrubbing and applying a red paste on the bathers. The original dome roof must have collapsed long ago and presently it has fiber glass panels. Adjacent to it are four open changing areas. The steam and cold bath rooms are in a cave like area also around the place where the treatment room is.
To my surprise, towels are not provided and I didn't bring any bathing suit. Thankfully, I had a scarf that offered some degree of modesty. Later on I used it as my towel. I usually do not wear anything at the baths but out of respect to the women who mostly wore underwear, I used the scarf to cover myself.
With my red scarf around my waist, I was directed to soak into the hot chamber – basically a round jacuzzi with a stemming hot shower in the middle maintaining the water and room at high temperatures. The next stage was a ritual known as takyyis. I was vigorously scrubbed on the marble slab in the middle of the room along with other women, with a scouring pad and plenty of vinegar. After I washed off the dead skin under a shower, it was time to have the red paste spread over me. I was told it is a mixture of rose petals and the blood of an animal, but I couldn't get which animal. The smell is mostly of rose and it felt really good. After a few minutes I was told to wash it off and was pronounced finished with the treatment.
I thought I communicated to them that I also wanted a massage, but I was told that the masseur did not come today due to the protests in Egypt. Maybe there is a masseurs strike going on along with bankers, transportation drivers, state workers and others. Or maybe the specific employee was still recovering from the “Victory” festivities of yesterday. I was disappointed to hear that. In place of the massage I went back to the steaming water and then to the cold bath a few times. It is amazing how this process is reinvigorating. After the treatment, I met Peter at a nearby cafe and we walked to Islamic Cairo in search of Sulfi Dance, but that too is not happening tonight due to the lack of tourists in town.