Posts Tagged ‘stories’

After a long and painful day of recovering from a party down on Falaky Street, Rumi and I decided to go out and live the dream and find Cairo’s last remaining Turkish bath.

Steam dreams of luxurious relaxation

Turkish baths once dotted the medieval city aplenty: an Ottoman take on what was a Greco-Roman practice that has been described as “the wet version of a sauna.” Bathers move from progressively hotter rooms together, sweating out the dirt from their pores before being scrubbed down violently with a loofah, massaged, and then rinsed with cold water. In the past, every neighborhood in Cairo had a hammaam (please note the double m) and the fires that were used to heat the baths also cooked the neighborhood fuul in giant tin pots. Steam baths were a social activity that was completely gender segregated, and as a consequence, social taboos were generally removed. People spoke freely, and the women’s bath was an oft-discussed subject of orientalists’ speculations.

Presently, however, the hammaam has fallen into disrepute. Rendered unnecessary by modern plumbing, the steam bath has become the whispered haunt of (gasp!) homosexuals, who are supposed to meet in dark liasons to rub each other with various oils. This, not too long ago, was actually kind of true, as Flaubert writes:

It’s at the baths that such things take place. You reserve a bath for yourself (five francs including masseurs, pipe, coffee, sheet and towel) and you skewer your lad in one of the rooms…

Thought I doubt that Egyptians stay away from the last bath in Egypt because of Flaubert (what a reason that would be!), I suppose the reputation has stuck. Friends have had some rather rude encounters with gay men who were more than a little too pushy in a couple of places, and as a result, the bathhouse is something to be a little cautious of (besides, who knows what would happen to your wallet while you soaked up the steam). Either way, Rumi and I were determined not to face the bath alone (just in case things turned out seedier and more unpleasant than we were expecting); always good to have a friend around when you find yourself in unknown environs wearing only a thin cotton towel.

To get to the last operating bathhouse in Cairo (known as 7ammaam al-Malatili), walk down al-Mu3izz Street on the northern side on the way to the mosque of al-Hakim, past Bayn al-Qasrayn, until Amir al-Gyushi Street, which opens up on the left. About a hundred yards down on the left side is the bath, which is not much more than a hole in the wall about several steps down from the street level. All the locals know where it is, though, and it’s not difficult to find.

But it’s a dump.

Brightly painted on the inside, with light coming in dimly from glass-laminated holes in the roof, the reception room is manned by the hunched Muhammad Ali, who gives you a winding sheet and a pair of plastic slippers, points you to the changing room, and guards your phones, wallets, and watches. Once you strip and wrap yourself up in the sheet, you shuffle down a cracked, soggy corridor to a waiting room on a dais, presumably for the steam room to be vacated, and watch the cockroaches scuttle. Not for the faint of heart.

The floors are cracked, mildewy marble that has clearly seen better days, and there’s a faint sucking sound like that of a drain as water, dripping everywhere, seems to flow down to the narrow slots in the floor.

The steam room is a tiny compartment, filled mainly by a little pool of scalding water. You attempt to sit beside it in a modest fashion, and soon give up. It’s heady and the air is thick, though certainly not fragrant, and you begin to soon sweat profusely. Flaubert goes on:

I was alone in the hot room, watching the daylight fade through the great circles of glass in the dome. Hot water was flowing everywhere; stretched out indolently I though of a quantity of things as my pores tranquilly dilated. It is very voluptuous and sweetly melancholy to take a bath quite alone, lost in those dim rooms where the slightest noise reverberates like a cannon shot, while the naked kellaks call out to one another as they massage you, turning you over like embalmers preparing you for the tomb. (From The Letters of Gustave Flaubert)

After about twenty minutes, your eyes start to get heavy.

At that point, a crooked-jawed man in ratty pants and a wet flannel shirt motioned us out one at a time with his loofah to the central room with an octagonal fountain in the center (not running, and black), motioned for me to lie on my stomach, and proceeded to rough me up with a smelly loofah mitt and soap. He flips you over. Repeat. He flicks his cigarette against the wall, and motions toward the cold shower in the corner. I rinse. Rumi goes next. Soaking wet, and wrapped in wet sheets, we return to the dressing rooms, where Muhammad Ali tosses us giant, rough towels, and we dry off. We pay, collect our things, and are off.

Not exactly Flaubert (NOT what I was hoping for, either), but you couldn’t help but want to ask, “Serious? That’s it?” A pleasant massage. A room filled with gossiping men and incense. Perhaps tea. Music. An oud player, even? Orientalist, yes; but perhaps that’s my soft spot for the occasional indulgence taking over. Instead, it was all rather matter-of-fact.

Despite the smelly loofah, we both felt quite clean.

Afterward, we trotted off to the Arabic Oud House behind the Hussein Mosque for a concert. Free.

These towers can be seen built on top of apartment buildings, offices, and slums alike: all to house the Egyptian country squire's delicacy: the noble and tasty pigeon.

Later, in the spirit of the Arabic jathr, or trilateral root, we decided to have hamaam (please note the single m) for dinner. Supposedly a pharaonic dish, pigeon is considered one of the finer Egyptian foods. My assessment: frustrating. Pigeons have remarkably little meat and are destroyed in the process of eating them (forget the knife and fork). The Gad restaurant by al-Azhar serves up a ma7shi variety, stuffed with cinnamon-spiced buckwheat rice and the head of the humble bird still attached. It’s a little disconcerting, but once over the initial shock, not entirely unpleasant.

Hammaam (a bath) and hamaam (pigeon). Quite a night.

Last night in Egyptland tonight.



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First term at the new job is wrapping up: I’ve finished the requisite chapters in the book I’ve been teaching from in each class, and that gives me leave to “play” a little in the last classes. We’re still doing the boring-as-water-boiling review session (and they’ve got final presentations), but I do want to pause a moment from my earlier frustrations and give you a peek into the classroom.

For mid-term presentations, the students had to present on either their most difficult day or an emergency (that’s what the book says, boss). I’ve really been digging this autopilot thing, it’s quite nice, even though we often go off on tangents as I try to update the colloquial sections and inform them of new idioms. Anyhow, presentations:

Wael, a man of about fifty, presented on how a man high on hash T-boned the taxi that he, his pregnant wife, and his daughter were in somewhere outside of Green Plaza Mall, and how he couldn’t tell his wife that their daughter needed an 80 grand-surgery to fix her hips.

Mohamad Hafiz, who works for Al-Salaama Hospital in Azarita, told us how, when he was living in the middle of nowhere in Saudi Arabia with his parents at the tender, impressionable age of 10, saw a family of ghosts living downstairs and couldn’t sleep or eat for two weeks. Apparently, while watching television late one night, Mr. Hafiz saw one of the doors open and the lights flick on; in drifted a man in a white galabiyya and his children. They stood their and watched him watching TV. Then, they drifted out, the doors closed behind them, and the lights shut off. Years later, he said, his father and mother said they had a similar encounter. Spooky.

Hassan told us how, when he was sixteen, he got drunk and flipped his motorcycle over a car when he was riding with his gang — his MOTORCYCLE GANG. On the Corniche. His friend riding behind him apparently had to get a metal plate in his head.

Reem, who has three children (and looks fantastic, I might add), told us of how her last son was born prematurely due to her pregnancy too soon after her caesarean section, and had a kind of birth defect that shut off oxygen to his brain when he was breastfed. A month of struggles in the hospital, and he was okay afterwards. She said it was one of the happiest days of her life when she could take him home.

Mina apparently has a kind of nasal polyp fungus in her lungs that has prevented her from breathing properly as a child. When she underwent surgery, the doctor discovered it was much more widespread than initially anticipated, and that she might have to undergo a disfiguring surgery to remove more polyps from her sinus passages. He closed her up and prayed. When he had finished praying, he brought her out of anesthesia and sent to a specialist in Cairo, where she underwent fiber-optic surgery instead. No disfigurement — but gosh, the girl kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time she was telling the story.

At the end of the class, I was drained. So many stories. And the entire time, everyone was laughing! It was as if the dragon had been defeated (it had), and that the valley had been cross (it was), and there was nothing more to fear from the story itself. And while I my heart was breaking for them, they kept saying, “Why are you saying you are sorry? You didn’t do anything!” I suppose it is an odd expression.

Last night, same class: I decided (since so many of them are asking me anyway) to give them a musical education. I played them a sample of country music, punk, some jazz, some metal…and let them assess the state of Western music beyond Celine Dion.

The biggest hit? Andrew Bird.

No, I’m not kidding. Half the class was begging me, “What is this? This is beautiful! What is the song called? Do you know the lyrics? Who is he?”

I nearly cried with joy.

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