I had arrived in Amman with rain pouring and temperatures hovering below 10°C. My large hotel room unimpressed with a weak air conditioning unit as the only source of heat outside a bed covered with thick blankets. When Jess called and suggested a visit to the hammam I didn’t need any more convincing.
I decide to walk the little more than 2 km from the Jordan River hotel, down King Hussein Street, up onto Jabal Amman, crossing Rainbow Street into the posher and quieter part of town, until I find the Al-Pasha Turkish Bath across the street from the Aliyyah School for Girls.
I regret my frugality while ascending the broken steps of the steep hill with a torrent of water engulfing my sneakers.
At one, Jess greets me outside, from the cab of a taxi.
We step inside into a different world: The entrance and main lounge is dominated by a large water fountain with ornate Arab details and brass lampions with colorful glass windows hanging from the round, see-through ceiling. Around it, the seating is arranged in pockets, allowing for separate group spaces. In cabinets and on shelves along the walls, a smorgasbord of antiques catches my eye: cameras, instruments, telephones,… revealing Jordan’s Ottoman and English pasts.
A male employee looks at us, points at his watch and says: “Only three hours!”
The hammam is usually men-only. But some days, it’s a women-only establishment from the early afternoon until 4 pm. If you want to visit as a group you can book the whole bath.
We are guided through a small door to the changing area.
The rain is pelting the metal roof of the changing room, dripping in in one of the corners.
A young woman, clad in a skirt, shirt and with a turban on her head, rattles down the treatment options: “It’s JOD25. If you want we have a very nice scrub with…”
I am too tired, too miserable in my wet clothes to listen. So I ask for a written menu.
She is confused. Why do I not understand?
I try to explain, I just need to read what’s what.
She still doesn’t understand.
I give up and pay the minimum JOD25 fee and proceed to peel my clothes off while Jess opts to add on a foot scrub for JOD3.
Another young woman comes in, sees my wet clothes and proposes I dry them in the sauna. I’m hesitant.
Five minutes later and in my bikini, I enter the hammam area: a big bubbly hot tub in the center, massage tables scattered between the pillars. There are no more than half a dozen guests, all female, here.
An older woman points me to the showers.
I shower and turn back to her. She shoves me into the steam room and hands me a plastic container with ice crystals on the outside and a straw sticking out.
Two girls conversing in Russian are already inside.
I feel my way to the bench embracing the hot air. A steady dripping from the condensation breaks the hazy silence.
The plastic cup contains a sweet hibiscus tea frozen to a slushy.
I heat up and sip to cool down. Heat. Sweat. Sip. Heat. Sweat. Sip…
Jess joins me.
Somebody shouts into the fog. “You’re next.”
The Russian girls shake their heads: “We’re not warm enough. Later.”
I get up, find the door and follow a smiling portly lady.
She points to one of the massage tables. “You lie down.”
I lie down and she proceeds to scrub every centimeter of me from the tips of my toes to my ears.
This is not my first visit to a hammam. Back in Fez, Morrocco, I had taken a pass on the opportunity to be scrubbed and subsequently got a good view of my travel comrades having their skin all but torn off while being tossed around like dolls. But this time there was no choice but to pay for the full package. I might as well get my money’s worth.
There is little to worry about: The scrubbing lady does not seem intent on finding out what’s hidden underneath my skin. Even with her very limited English, she finds the courtesy to ask me to extend a leg or and arm and to turn around so she can treat my backside.
After the scrub with a loofa glove, she applies soap and empties buckets of warm water over me.
The rain outside is a now million miles away.
When she’s done she points me to the hot tub: “Wait here.”
I step into the water. It is warmer than expected so I have to raise my upper half into the air from time to time. I wish I could have another hibiscus slushy.
Another lady calls me to another massage table.
She bids me to take off my top and lie on my stomach. She grabs olive oil from a tub and gives me a light top-to-bottom massage.
When she’s done she points to the shower and on to the sauna.
From somewhere another woman appears and hands me a towel.
The sauna is empty and cold because the door is open. I remember my wet clothes and fetch them from my locker to spread them on one of the benches next to large towels that have also placed there for drying.
With the door shut the temperature quickly picks up.
An elderly lady joins me. In a broad Arabic accent, she declares that she’s from the US. When I ask what she was doing in Amman she says that she lives here 6 months a year and 6 months in Florida. After a while she explains that she’s originally Iraqui but became a refugee 15 years ago, first living in Jordan and then in the US where she eventually acquired citizenship.
She tells me she goes to the hammam at least once a week. While there were many Turkish baths in Amman, the Al-Pasha was the best.
Jess joins us for a few more minutes.
It’s past three when I’m changed and have a seat on a carpeted platform with a giant aquarium on one end and a gas heater on the other. One of the ladies hands me a hot tea. I whip out Stephen King’s On Writing and read for a while.
Back in the main hall, the man that had greeted us a few hours ago has started to prepare the tables for the male patrons. It’s time for us to step back out into the rainy reality.
This post was in no way sponsored or supported by the Al-Pasha Turkish Bath in Amman, Jordan.