A Trip Through the Tunisian Hammam

By Asma Smadhi | Oct 7 2013 Share on Linkedin Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google Share on pinterest Print

Tags: hammam ,medina

Screenshot from Férid Boughedir’s film, Child of Terraces.

Traditional public baths called hammams have stood the test of time in Tunisia, a renowned part of the country’s rich cultural heritage. Although the number of hammam-goers has decreased with the advent of modern home bathrooms, they still are a part of Tunisian life and can be found throughout the country, especially in older areas such as the Tunis medina.

Going to a hammam, however, should not be done on a whim. It requires planning in advance. A bag containing the following items ought to be prepared beforehand. While packing, make sure to include the following items:

1. A good exfoliating glove: This is used to scrape dead skin can be bought in the hammam or from different street vendors in downtown Tunis. The price should not exceed two dinars.

Exfoliating gloves. Photo credit: Asma Smadhi, Tunisia Live.

2. A scoop used to pour water: A traditional silver scoop can be bought from the medina for about 25 dinars, or you can substitute a much cheaper plastic one that does the job just fine.

Traditional Tunisian water vessel for use in a hammam. Photo credit: Asma Smadhi, Tunisia Live.

3. A bar of traditional green soap: This is similar to savon de marseille. It can be bought from various shops and markets.

Soap used in a hammam. Photo credit: Asma Smadhi, Tunisia Live.

Before going to any hammam, remember to verify the business hours of operations. Hammam schedules are sex-specific, meaning the same bath will divide its schedule between men and women. It would be quite awkward for a woman to stroll in when the hammam is filled with men.

Upon entering the building, brace yourself for an abundance of nudity. The changing area usually rests right by the front desk, meaning you are bound to see others in various states of undress.

People generally do not enter the bath fully nude. Men will wear either boxers or a traditional towel, called a fouta. Older women may don a towel as well, but younger women may simply wear their underwear.

Once you have adjusted to the nudity around you, taking one’s clothes off is the next big step before you can enter the rooms dedicated for bathing.

The woman or man in charge will hand you plastic buckets to put water in, and one of them can be used for carrying different bath items. The buckets are filled from the different taps, or sometimes even sources of springwater, found inside the hammam.

The architecture of a Tunisian hammam allows for a gradual change in heat between the different sections of the building. The degree of heat increases as one delves deeper into the hammam. Most are divided into three parts.

The smallest area, located in the far end of the building, is the hottest. Tolerating the hellish heat in this room, even for a just a few minutes, is a requirement. A westerner will find that this quite similar to a steam sauna. A lazy start to the hammam begins here, where bathers enjoy the steamy air and rub their bodies with green soap. This phase is essential to prepare you for the rest of the bathing process and to dispose of any oil on your body.

If you start to feel dizzy, it is probably time to leave this area and retire to the slightly less scorching room in the middle of the hammam where the real cleaning work begins.

If you want to have the fullest and most traditional Tunisian hammam experience, you can find hammam personnel willing to scrub your body for you, though you can always do it by yourself using the exfoliator you brought. Having someone else scrubbing your body might seem strange, but is surprisingly relaxing.

Once you begin to exfoliate, a surprising amount of dead skin will be scraped away, loosened by the humidity and heat.

Male hammam personnel also give their clients a massage, an extra service that (for some unknown reason) female patrons do not receive.

After finishing with this metamorphosis-like stage of shedding your skin, you will feel like a brand new person. Continue to finish the rest of your bath the usual way.

The most rewarding moment is saved for last, while drying your body and resting from the toilsome bathing ritual. Small sodas are provided and after the intense experience you have gone through, even a normal Coke will taste sublime.

The hammam used to have a much greater role in Tunisian culture. Ceremonial hammam trips were a key part of wedding traditions, where women would chant and dance together before having a long bath.

Before modern times, hammams also constituted a main meeting place for Tunisian women, making them a central hub for local gossip.

They could also be the basis for future marriages. Mothers would strive to pick future wives for their sons in hammams, where they could take a better and more thorough look at the potential bride-to-be.

While they are now a far less common part of everyday Tunisian life, the hammam is still a powerful experience for anyone seeking to relax a bit and have an unforgettable brush with the country’s rich cultural traditions.

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