Hammam as lieu de mémoire

My mother did her best to postpone my expulsion from the paradise of the women’s hammam. She would pay baksheesh to the tayyaba, the big woman in charge of the hammam, to turn a blind eye. But my 'expulsion' couldn't be delayed after I began to stare at the nude bathing women.

Samir Ben-Layashi, whom you'll hear on the podcast next week, has written an article for Diwaniyya about the social significance of the hammam, and about his boyhood experiences in his local hammam in Morocco.  

Read it after the jump.

Hammam as lieu de mémoire

The plethora of Arabic proverbs, stories and anecdotes that mention  the hammam, reflect the importance of this hygienic and social institution in the lives of Arabs, whether Muslims, Christians or Jews. 

The architectural and societal origin of the hammam is neither Arabic nor Islamic; it is Roman. The Turko-Middle Eastern form of hammam consists of a central basin  surrounded by small dark bathing rooms for intimate care of the body. In a North African hammam there is a changing room (galssa) in the entrance, and three connected rooms: the cold room (barid), the warm room (wasti), and the hot room (sukhun), where the hot water fountain (barma) is located. Both architectural forms are reminiscent of the Roman thermae or balnae

Arabs in pre-Islamic Arabia did not know of hammams, though they certainly had other forms of wet and dry baths, just as Jews in pre-Islamic Palestine had the miqveh, the Jewish ritual bath.  With the Arab-Islamic propagation in the seventh and the eight centuries, the Roman thermaes in Byzantium and on the southern bank of the Mediterranean Basin went through a process of Islamization. The baths ceased to be a public place were the two genders (and even the third gender) could meet, and became a place for ritual purification in addition to hygiene in its narrow functional sense. In both cases, the Islamization of hammam marked a shift from concrete and earthly pleasures of the body toward the abstract and celestial realms of religion, God and the Other life.

Anyone who grew up in the Middle East and North Africa region will have memories of the hammam. For males in particular, the hammam is the site of an important social rite of passage. Boys usually accompany their mothers to the hammam from the time they are one or two years old until they are seven or eight. Then they leave the world of women to enter the world of men. For females, the hammam experience is continuous from childhood to puberty and then to adulthood. Males, on the other hand, experience this transition as a traumatic event, an expulsion from paradise to an unknown and somehow menacing world for which they are not neither ready nor ripe. 

In Meknès, Morocco, in the mid-70s, I myself  accompanied my dear mother to the hammam until I was seven or eight years old — or even older; I don't recall. I grew up without a father, and so my mother did her best to postpone my expulsion from the 'paradise' of the women’s hammam. She would pay a bakshseesh (bribe) to the tayyaba, the big woman in charge of the hammam, to turn a blind eye. But my expulsion couldn't be delayed after I began to stare at the nude bathing women. My gaze was not sexual or erotic — I would not even call it voyeurism. It was the moment that I realized that the women in the hammam were physically different from the men I saw in the swimming pool. I had begun to consider myself a man and knew that as an adult, my torso would be flat and my hips would not have that oval form like a fish; as a man, I would have a slim shape like a snake. After the age of seven I became obsessed with notion of a snake and a fish coexisting in the same space. It seemed an unfair situation for both the fish and the snake. It was at this moment that I realized that my place was not there. 

I do not remember the transition as traumatic; it was more like moving to a new house. My mother was very anxious about my going to the hammam alone, without a father. I understood her anxiety only later: she feared the pedophiles at the hammam. She never explained this to me because it was (and is) taboo to even mention pedophilia. Instead, she warned, "If a man you don't know asks you to soap his back, say, ‘No, I am too tired from the heat.’ Then excuse yourself and get out to the galassa.” How could I have guessed at my mother’s real meaning? — I do not have any memory of eroticism in the hamman. As children and adults, we heard many stories of homoeroticism in hammams, but I have never seen anything of the sort: either the people who went there for sex were champions of discretion, or the people who told these stories had very fertile imaginations. I tend to think it is the latter. "How difficult life would be without the promises of fantasies,” says an Arab poet.  

- Samir Ben-Layashi


Diwaniyya Contributor

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing these stories Samir! Excited to hear the episode.