I’m lying prostrate, face down on a marble floor and I’ve just been pummelled and molested by a grotesquely fat man with a moustache for the third time in ten days. God this feels good.
No, this isn’t Chariots on Shoreditch High Street; it’s the authentic Arabic hamam experience. And I think I’m mildly addicted. Male pampering in the UK is understandably considered the preserve of the mega-vain metrosexual (or the downright homosexual), but out here in the Middle East it’s a no nonsense, meat and two veg, alpha male pursuit. Honest guv.
Here’s how it goes down…
Step1: Enter through a concealed door (usually hidden in some souk or other) and hand over the cash. In Syria two full body massages and unlimited use of the baths will set you back around a fiver. Throw in an extra £3 and they’ll whip out a cut-throat razor and deal with your facial hair too.
Step 2: Get your kit off. A specially trained towel expert (see below) will be on hand to conceal your modesty at all stages of the process. He’ll take your shoes and valuables and within seconds you’ll find yourself wrapped in swaddling, as vulnerable and confused as a newborn baby resolved to accept its uncertain fate.
Step 3: Hang around a bit. At the height of the Ottaman Empire Hamams were social centres, used for parties before weddings, births, high days, holidays, etc, and the waiting areas are suitably luxurious. Think Oriental palacial splendour rather than Fitness First sauna. Expect fountains, mezzanines, mosaics, chandeliers and trinkets galore.
Step 4: Enter the chamber. Hamams are generally divided into three interconnected rooms: hot, warm and cold. You’ll be handed an empty plastic bowl, a miniature loofah, a bar of Aleppo soap and directed towards the hottest room in the house. In the more touristy places you might find one or two weedy white boys sharing your steam room, but for true authenticity you’ll want to be crammed in with a group of obscene large, hairy, local men. With a bit of luck they’ll be gobbing on the floor and shouting at each other too. Middle-aged Arab dudes really pull off the obese look. These 20-stoners don’t have an inch of flab on their body; just vast, rotund bellies perched upon disproportionately spindly legs that allude to previously toned physiques, now suffering from years of persistent abuse at the dinner table. Over here big belly = big respect.
Step 5: Splash and clean. After sweating it out in the sauna it’s time to amuse yourself beside a sink for a while. The protocol seems to be to fill it with hot water and throw it over your head, then repeat the trick with the cold tap. It’s way more fun than it sounds.
Step 6: Prepare yourself. You’ll soon be beckoned into another hot chamber, where a preparatory lathering is on the menu. It should be a relaxing moment but the feeling of impending doom is palpable as you watch another customer take a punishing from a suitably large, aggressive masseur. You’re next.
Step 7: The sandpaper treatment. With a couple of hasty gestures you’ll soon find yourself face down on a slab of marble, primed to be scrubbed so aggressively you’ll feel as you’re being attacked with an electric sander. This will last approximately three minutes, at various points during which you’ll be manipulated into new and uncomfortable positions. It hurts. A lot.
Step 8: The beating. Depending on the institution you’ll either be transferred to another masseur across the room or stay right where you are. Removing his sandpaper glove your master will then administer a light lathering, before proceeding to iron out any misplaced tendons with a forceful, persistent technique that wouldn’t be out of place in an Abu Graib interrogation room. He’ll attack your back, neck, arms, hands, fingers, thighs, calves, toes, chest, face, head, roughly in that order. All but your most intimate corners and crevices are attended to (back in Ottoman times even those were for the right price) and after five minutes a sharp thwack on the back signifies the end of your session.
Step 9: And relax. It’s back into the grandiose waiting area, into the care of the towel man again. A few flicks of the wrist and this time you’ll be wrapped head to toe in cloth, looking like a Sultan, only with significantly fewer underage girls at your mercy (I’m generalising). Here you’ll sit recovering for as long as it takes, drinking tea, smoking shisha, feeling dazed, confused and unambiguously radiant, contemplating what the hell just happened to you.