BEIRUT: I’m alone in a small, steamy room. It’s technically a hammam, but there are none of the usual trappings of the ancient Middle Eastern bathhouse: no jostling semi-naked people, no overflowing plastic buckets of water to carry, no hot and cold rooms, no treacherously slippery floor to navigate.
That sort of hammam still exists in Lebanon – there are several dilapidated versions in Tripoli and one in Sidon – but they are no longer for women. Once a place where women could meet as equals, wash together and catch up, they have now fallen out of fashion.
These days, only men frequent Lebanon’s few remaining public baths – the accepted wisdom is that if you’re a woman here and you want a scrub and a chat, your only option is a spa. Which brings me back to that small, steamy room.
I’m waiting for Joelle, one of two attendants at modern-day hammam Kotch who have been specially trained by a Turkish connoisseur. The Ottomans essentially took up the mantle of “hammambassadors” from the Romans, who took it from the Greeks before them, so I should be in good hands.
Traditional hammams involve several different rooms with varying temperatures of water and buckets to douse oneself with. There are usually private chambers off the main room for those who prefer to be alone, but most just pick a slab of stone to sit on and get on with washing themselves.
The main chamber has a central “tummy stone” for giving (very public) massages and scrubs, an occasionally undignified experience for unaccustomed recipients.
Kotch, located near Beirut Port, does away with all of this.
There is only one hammam room, big enough to fit a large one-person tummy stone and Joelle as she moves around and does her work. Instead of working my way through a logistical bathing maze, the whole things comes to me – it’s rather like being in a glistening, blue-mosaicked cocoon.
The treatment, however, is much more traditional. The mitt scrubbing is rough, really rough, and removes more layers of skin than I cared to know could come loose.
The body wash is done in a way I’m told is traditionally Turkish: The soap is whipped up in a pillow that is spun round and round until the inflated pillow is oozing foam. The ballooned fabric is then tied at one end and used as an incredibly relaxing massage bubble.
This is followed by an exfoliating rub, a hair wash and a generous slather of moisturizing cream – a slightly fancier experience than the average hammam in Tunisia or Morocco.
Just over an hour later, I feel reinvigorated and very relaxed.
What’s missing in all of this is the social aspect; hammams are meant to be busy, bustling places. There is no central resting room in which to undress and enjoy a snack with friends. Instead, I change in and out of my toweled robe and slippers in a private changing room.
“The idea is that you can come on your own, get your own masseuse, and have a totally private experience,” explains Eliane Tabet, Kotch’s general manager. “We wanted first to do a private sports training area, but when we saw the old Lebanese house [in which Kotch is based] we decided to go more traditional.”
Untraditionally, Kotch also has a private nail spa and minigym. Personal trainer Wadad Mougharbel says the health benefits of a good scrubbing are undeniable.
“It opens the pores to let toxins out,” Mougharbel says. “Scrubbing regenerates the skin.
Also, we only use organic products made here in Lebanon.”
For most, however, Kotch’s $85/hour hammam treatment will be out of reach.
Further, the exclusivity of Kotch is pretty much the antithesis of the traditional public bathing experience.
Luckily, Verdun’s Hammam al-Agha on the other side of town has something approaching the answer. Instead of the clean minimalism of Kotch, every inch of the more chaotic Al-Agha is dedicated to the world that once was.
Oriental-patterned seating built on rows of wooden drawers borders a large reception area, which centers on a marble fountain complete with tiny fish spouting water. Rusting scimitars cling to the walls, and basins of colorful soaps sit beside rows of wooden pearl-inlaid tables, where customers start their visit off with a coffee.
“Women need hammams to relax,” says Hanna Tabbara, one of the managers at Al-Agha. “To relax, and to be with other women.”
Unluckily for those women, Al-Agha is only open to them on Mondays, a nod to the incredibly male domain that Lebanon’s hammams have become.
“More come in winter,” Tabbara says. “But mostly it is to get ready before weddings or for Mother’s Day.”
Inside – past the unappealing massage rooms right by a solitary urinal – is the main hammam room, a riot of marble, broken bits of jugs hung on the wall and cheap stone engravings of semi-naked women.
Although some of the touches are tacky, the overriding sense is of a bona fide miniature hammam. The hot rooms have been replaced by a sauna and a steam room which flank a cold plunge pool-cum-Jacuzzi – unusual for a Middle Eastern bath but well within the Roman tradition.
Metal bowls perch on the edge of marble bowls that line the sides of the room, perfect for taking a shower after you’ve finished switching between the hot and cold water.
Just off this room visitors can enjoy more of the traditional hammam treatment: a scrub, wash and rinse. No soapy Turkish massage balloons here though; with the more authentic setting comes a less fancy approach to the treatments.
Still, with an entrance fee of LL25,000 and treatments from LL10,000 and up, you’re much more likely to be able to indulge yourself.
Whether you will see any other women there, however, is less predictable. When The Daily Star visited it was completely empty.
“I would like to set up an all-women hammam in Beirut someday,” manager Tabbara says.
Let’s hope Lebanon’s women remember the joys of sitting down and sweating it all out together first.
For reservations at Kotch please call
01-442-262. For Hammam al-Agha, call 03-170-852 (women’s day) or 03-013-032 (any other day).