What's It's Like to Be Bathed By a Stranger At a Hammam Spa
Would you hand over this super intimate task to someone else?
I'm sprawled on a warm marble slab wearing nothing but disposable underwear. Dressed in a peshtemal (a thin, towel-like wrap) and turban, my bathing attendant Deepa has lathered up an organic olive-soap froth like fleece on my skin. This is Talise Ottoman Spa in Dubai, in the hammam room, which could be a page out of an Islamic art history book, with its wall-to-wall veined Turkish marble and the turquoise, gold, and deep red frescoes on the high-domed ceiling. The setting is extraordinary, the pampering is top-of-the-line.
But I'll admit: I'm pretty tense.
Hammams, or Turkish-style bathhouses, are popular in Dubai, a city in the United Arab Emirates known for its multicultural population, high-roller nightlife, and over-the-top wellness industry. They're typically situated inside spas that offer the usual treatments (massage, facials, etc.). Of all the hammam rooms in the city, Talise Ottoman Spa's is widely considered the most luxurious and the most authentic. The spa is inside Jumeirah Zabeel Saray, a hotel that pays homage to the Ottoman Empire. Think: shimmering crystal chandeliers, Turkish velvet sofas, intricate tile mosaics, and replica paintings from the Ottoman palaces. Hammams, too, come from the Ottoman Empire. Tracing back to the 14th century, they allowed Muslims to perform their ritual cleansing. Like a number of once-spiritual practices—for example, temazcales (sweat lodges from Mexico) and foot washing—hammams have been absorbed into spa culture.
"Are you ok?" Deepa asks, pausing after dumping warm water over my head from a copper bowl.
I've been having all kinds of reactions that I now realize are audible: little squeals of surprise and moans of pleasure and nervous chuckles.
"Yes!" I say with the enthusiasm of someone who can't articulate her feelings.
I'm probably better than ok. As advertised by spas, hammams remove dead skin cells, improve lymphatic drainage, and improve circulation. One study shows that hammams both increase psychological wellbeing and decrease physical pain. (It makes sense, considering massages offer similar benefits.) But I'm having trouble getting past the fact that someone is cleaning me.
An hour ago, I was still an adult who had never been bathed by another adult. In those more innocent times, I hit the steam room and then made my way to an oversized hot tub dimly lit by a sprawling chandelier. As I soaked, I checked out the hareem majiles (private post-hammam recovery rooms) encircling the jacuzzi, thick curtains swept to the side of each doorway like hair tucked behind an ear. Other spa-goers were relaxing on the day beds in thick white bathrobes, snoozing or chatting quietly with friends.
I was hot-tubbing by myself, which is how I roll. I'm a freelance writer who frequently writes about travel, and that means I fly solo more often than not. I'm often scrunched into an airplane seat with my laptop, I can't relate to people who fear dining alone in restaurants, and I have a million travel hacks. (Ex: Dab toothpaste on your mosquito bites to immediately stop the itching and shower with your dress to steam the suitcase wrinkles out.) I suck at returning phone calls, but I have a perfect score on Airbnb. In other words, like many women, I'm intensely self-sufficient. Maybe to a fault. I sometimes wear earbuds even when I'm not listening to anything, just so my neighbor on the plane won't engage me. But now, apparently, I was going to let a stranger exfoliate my butt cheeks.
Deepa ushered me out of the jacuzzi, took my hand, and led me into the heat of the hammam room. We walked to the marble slab in the middle, traditionally known as the "navel stone," where she folded a towel into a cushion for my head. Once I lay down, she began to wash me. And I, the person who considers the whole world my comfort zone, realized I had a hang-up.
Through the centuries, hammams have drawn people from all socioeconomic classes. Originally opulent architectural masterpieces built for sultans, they're also practical options for people who don't have hot running water in their homes. (Those who go to community hammams, rather than spa hammams, and don't want to pay for a spa attendant are welcome to wash themselves.) Divided by gender, they function as social hubs. Imagine a weekly ritual where you, your mom, grandma, sisters, and girlfriends get to hang, device-free (because there's water everywhere), chatting and laughing and getting scrubbed down. That's some diehard girl bonding. And I love girl bonding! I also love massage, and at the moment Deepa is massaging my whole face, hairline to chin. Holy crap, you don't realize how much you need a jaw massage until you're getting a jaw massage. (See: What to Know About Facial Cupping)
So why can't I completely relax?
In the West, we outsource all kinds of basic tasks because they're time-consuming (we send our laundry out, hire home cleaning services) or because the modern world has just made us lazy (no one actually needs someone else to clip their toenails), but we would never outsource our bathing. From ages five to 90, we're supposed to do that ourselves. Even the rich and famous take their own baths. In the sexually repressed Western world, if there were such a thing as paying for a bath, it would probably be eroticized and, in turn, stigmatized, like a high-end rub-and-tug. I flash back to that scene in Coming to America when a woman surfaces as Eddie Murphy bathes and says, "The royal penis is clean, Your Highness."
As Deepa scrubs my chest with a kese, or exfoliating mitt, I see that I've been viewing our dynamic through a particularly American lens. In other parts of the world, like the one I'm lying in right now, getting my boobs washed, this dynamic is commonplace. It's existed for hundreds of years.
Once I identify the source of my tension, I'm able to shed it with the dead skin Deepa has sloughed off of me. To be fair, releasing tension isn't so hard when someone is shampooing your hair, briskly massaging your scalp.
Maybe my independence, or my insistence that I'm independent, is another cultural construct. Maybe there's nothing wrong with letting the guy sitting near me on the plane put my suitcase in the overhead. Maybe there's nothing wrong with delegating, with venting when we're stressed, with slowing down and checking in with ourselves and those around us. Maybe it's not so bad to just chill out and accept the help people offer. Maybe a little more human-to-human connection—even if it means forfeiting intense independence for a second—can help combat the widespread loneliness that's seeping into our culture.
At the end of the session, Deepa covers me in an all-natural honey, lavender, sesame, and mint full-body mask. After the final rinse, she ties a parting gift around my wrist: an evil-eye bracelet handmade in Turkey.
I dry off, wrap myself in my peshtemal and head to one of those hareem majiles. I stretch out on the day bed, sipping water and feeling light and floaty, as though all that dead skin and cultural bias had weighed ten pounds. I touch my face and arms. They're so soft, I don't even recognize them.