Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Bodily pleasures: Hamam Sahara Wellness

The entrance was inconspicuous and we could have easily walked pass or mistaken it for a restaurant with its yellow and green lurid signs. It was only the sign of sahara wellness that suggested this was not another Turkish restaurant tucked behind Düsseldorf train station.

Even on entering, there was no suggestion of what would greet us beyond the entrance. A male odalisque reclined fully clothed in his opulent splendour and watched Saudi music clips on a wide plasma screen, while we made our enquires. There were five of us, would this be ok? What treatments were available? Should we have booked?

For a Sunday in Düsseldorf, we opted for the royal treatment. This was to be an indulgence that will take over five hours.

On arrival, we are given robes and a silver tas (bowl) containing liquid soap of mud and olive oil and a kese, scrubbing mitt before being lead into the inner sanctuary of the hamam. Inside, it is a labyrinthine of titled rooms. As we pass through each room, the perfumes of rose, lavender and rosemary evoke the pleasures of a perfumed garden. Each room is a quiet sanctuary of mosaic titles, of brilliant blues and yellows that dance in the familiar arabesques of Arabic art.

The ritual of washing begins with a sauna. Wrapped in a pestamal, a traditional checked cloth worn at the haman, any feeling of tenseness dissolves. The steam is gentle and warming and after twenty minutes, we emerge relaxed. We then wash, before being lead to another treatment room where our treatment begins.

First we are scrubbed. Lying flat on a titled bed, any dead skin is removed by the rigorous of rubbing of skin beginning with the face and then the arms. The experience is strangely lulling given the coarseness of the mitt. My limbs become heavy and seep into the titles beneath me. No English is spoken; I only know when to turn when I am gently repositioned. Clean again, I am rinsed before being soaped.

Bags of fine bubbles are opened and spread over the body in layers. This is not a fine film of bubbles but more like a bubble bath without water. My skin enlivened by the scrubbing is alive to every sensation as the bubbles dissolve as I am massaged. A nagging shoulder and neck pain immediately feel better and the almond scent of the soap reminds me of childhood baths. All I can hear are faint sounds in the distance and the sound of running water.

Between treatments, we retire to the relaxation room to drink sweet Moroccan tea. Hamans were traditionally places to fulfil the Islamic practice of cleanliness as well as to mingle, socialise and gossip. The idea is just to sit quietly, despite the German magazine scattered on small wooden tables. We recline. I sit in silence, while the others talk lazily and drink tea. We are told to rest for twenty minutes before our next treatment.

We are taken to another wash room, modelled on the wash areas outside Mosques and lead to a cold foot bath. The water is icy cold but slowly warms to body temperature. The stone bed in the next room calls and so we lie beneath man-made stars on a bed-like temple. The heat from the stone emanates through the titles and again my body is lulled to sleep only to be awakened for a massage. I am lead downstairs past the reclining male odalisque to a small treatment room.

For the next forty minutes, I am massaged from foot to head. Time ceases to exist and I am lost in my own body. My limbs are weightless and I am docile in my movements. I am simply turned but my body folds into the pressure of the massage. I am all surface, a receptacle of touch. It makes me several minutes to regain consciousness and I am unsteady on my feet. I meander back to the stone bed to allow the heat to return to my body.

On the way out, the male odalisque offers us fragrant perfume of rose and sandalwood. ‘It’s to relax you'. Personally, I don't feel that I could be any more relaxed. I am also offered a brochure on Islam. I confess that I don't speak German but that I'll come back. He agrees.

Mintrop Str.21
40215 Dusseldorf
T: +49 2 11 271 3321

A special thanks to the beautiful Inga, Mish, Maya and Jane for being such lovely bathing companions.