There’s no time to waste in the hammam. Once you agree to the full package – steam, scrub and massage – you’re asked to strip, right there, at the reception area, where people come in from the street, enjoy a post-bath tea, and pay the cashier.
I pulled off my shirt and shoes and left it at that, waiting for the young man in the tight tank top, tribal tattoos and gelled hair to lead me to a more intimate ante-chamber.
Women can’t enjoy the services of this public bath in Tripoli, but nothing stops them from popping in and checking out the reception. It’s a round room with vaulted stone ceilings and a fountain in middle with plastic flower pots. Against the walls are benches upholstered in traditional cloths with ornate tea tables.
The young man pointed at my pants. I started to undo my buckle and hoped for a misunderstanding, for him to say, “No, not here, you lunatic! I want to know where you got those jeans.” But speaking no English, he produced a checkered white-and-red cloth, the kind that drapes tables at old Italian restaurants, and held it in front of me below belt-level. It was my cue to go all the way.
A pale Syrian man with a whisper of a teenage moustache appeared wearing a T-shirt and wet boxer-briefs. “You. Come,” he beckoned . A restored luxury hammam at the Beiteddine palace in Lebanon. . The inside of the bath is white, warm and moist. There’s always the sound of running water. A central round chamber leads to several private bathing areas, the massage room, and a steam room.
“First here,” the Syrian man said, pointing to the latter. Inside lounged a middle-aged man with the same checkered cloth loosely tied around his waist. “Marhaba,” I squeaked with the uncertainty that comes with greeting another naked man in an alien culture, and spent the time looking at everything except him. He didn’t say much, although he occasionally glanced at me, probably wondering what I found so interesting in the ceiling tiles.
After five minutes, the Syrian man fetched me and led me to a private bathing room. It was 3m x 3m with a stone sink near the marble floor. “Lie,” he said with a lit cigarette on a corner of his mouth. I lied. The floor was warm and wet. He slipped on a glove with an abrasive rubber pad and started to scrub. Little black slivers of grime appeared on my arms, chest, and legs. Seeing this job would need unconventional effort, he tossed his cigarette on the wet floor beside him.
He soaped me up, front and back. To reach my upper thighs, he yanked my loincloth between my legs hard enough to suspend my fertility, and got closer to me than any man ever did. Then he slipped on another glove that I’ve seen used to scour burnt lasagna from baking trays. It felt like I was being teased with a power sander. I feared it would shear my nipples right off, leaving me looking like a shirtless Ken doll.
“Now, massage,” the Syrian man announced, and took me to a steamy room with a cushioned bed. For the 15 miserably short minutes it lasted, it was the most wonderful massage. Deep and vigorous, right at the sore spots. I swore never again to pay $60 to be tickled for one hour by a dainty blonde at a spa. Even if it means having her hands this close to my balls. The Syrian man stood me up, rinsed the soap off, wrapped one towel on my head and another around my shoulders, and left me at the central chamber. My skin never felt smoother.
Another man came to greet me, wearing a tight blue T-shirt that articulated his gym habit. “Good,” he asked, looking severely into my eyes. “Yes, good,” I said. “Gay?” I looked at my right, hoping that my brain would analyze the question and detect a dropped syllable, an indiscernible lilt, an accent further distorted by the bath’s acoustics, anything that would contradict what I thought I had just heard. I had nothing. “No, no. Not gay,” I replied. The man clicked his tongue and rolled his eyes like a teacher about to lose his patience with an exceptionally slow student. “No, no,” he grumbled. “You like hammam?” “Yes.” “Then tips. OK? Tips for me, for other man.” This struck me as the most opportunistic face-saving manoeuvre ever. I was impressed.
Back at the reception, I awkwardly slinked back into my clothes underneath the wet checkered cloth. The Syrian masseur brought me sweet tea and a cigarette. The room was pleasantly cool. Every worker who passed smiled at me and it made me think of the man’s question inside. Nonsense, I thought, swatting away the suspicion.
They’re just friendly and happy that a tourist came to their business. I must have misheard him. After all, this is a business at the heart of a major Muslim city.
Written by Roberto Rocha