The hammam has been a part of Middle Eastern culture for centuries. My first experience of these steamy havens was in Iran, where scantily-clad women wandered though the misty haze, strategically placed mitts covering their modesty. I emerged flustered, skin gleaming, after a thorough scrubbing by a woman with biceps that could give most men a run for their money.
There is a traditional hammam in London called Casa Spa. I encourage you to visit when the stresses of life bring you down and you fancy something different from your usual spa treatment. Take a good friend, and enough money to tip graciously. This is a place where friends bond over laughter and idle chatter while they permeate in a room full of billowing steam.
You may be shocked when without warning, cold water is thrown over you, but how your screams will merge into laughter, especially as accompanying the splashing is a merry arabic song sung by the perpetrator. The charming Tunisian spa manager ‘Helen’ told me later that the words “Ya Habibi Ya’Allah” were sung during this circulation-boosting ritual because, “it’s good to say the name of Allah when there is a moment of shock”.
A black olive soap is then slathered over your body before a eucalyptus based ointment preps the skin for the vigorous exfoliation that is to follow. The therapist is armed with a coarse mitt and energetically pummels your body to shed stubborn dead skin.
My treatment was surprisingly satisfying and reminded me of being scrubbed down as a naughty, messy child. The whole experience in fact, had a somewhat parental/childlike ambiance. You are instructed to sit, stand, raise your arms, lie down and then of course there is the obligatory splashing with freezing cold water, in spite of your pleas. I couldn't suppress my laughter when one girl’s request to, “please have a bit more time,” resulted in a ruthless dousing and evil laugh of the therapist. Us Middle Eastern women don’t do unnecessary, static politeness. We mean business.
Clay masks are applied after the scrubbing to purify the skin, aided by the effects of the steam. My hair was then smothered in a conditioning honey treatment and my friend languished in a zesty lemongrass foot spa.
I felt a meditative sense of calm as we were led to a decadent harem-style relaxation area. As we lounged on the opulent bed, propped up by gold quilted pillows, we were served fruits and fragrant Moroccan mint tea. Our divine foot massages induced a blissful doze before we finally left this glorious place, with a few more peals of laughter at the distant screams of the newly splashed.
The Exotic Rural Spa experience for two at Casa Spa costs £149 and may be booked here
From my column in yogamagazine.com