Secrets of the Hammam Al Ándalus
© David Felipe Arranz

In the West we’ve forgotten what it is to inhabit our bodies: we force them, bend them and mould them in gyms with a personal trainer, without concerning ourselves with their memory or natural balance, and without letting them wander, unhurried, in the moist, fragrant and secret paradises that present themselves to us, like the Hammam Al Ándalus

Every day we fatigue our bodies, despite their demands for intimacy and for the moisturizing repose that returns them to the voluptuousness of water and of the shapes and solidities multiplied in the timeless reflections of waves, candles and vapours. Indeed, bodies have a shape and a bone structure with a natural affinity to water and relaxation. This is why we willingly surrender ourselves to the Hammam Experience, relaxing our minds and spirits in a place inhabited by silence.

Some of us have also felt a fascination for the Arab world and have often come under its spell, as happened to Jean Genet or Paul Bowles —whose stays in Tangier have been described by the Moroccan author Mohamed Choukri—, or to Alberto Moravia or Juan Goytisolo, who devoted part of their writings to the literary “Mecca” of the Arab Mediterranean. Alexandria, Beirut and Tangier remain wrapped in a timeless mist and the luxury of dreams. One takes delight in “returning” there without having to travel, with the body free of clothing after drinking a glass of tea in a hammam, covered with a towel, walking through the veiled shadows of the ancient cistern’s brick vaults, and following the soft natural lighting on the marble along the path... like long ago when Madrid was the Arab Mayrit of alcazars and mosques.

The hammam has exceptionally pure qualities: it returns us to the docility of things and to the primeval rite that still lives within us without our knowing it. After crossing the threshold, the ablutions of the body take us back to minimum forms and maximum experiences, to contact with the essence of one’s own skin and the majesty of one’s torso —so thoroughly measured and judged by our vigorexic society— and to the awareness of one’s limbs, which recover the freshness they had gradually lost, little by little, on the city’s harsh pavement, without our realizing it. In Arab society, the “kessal” is responsible for filling the water buckets, giving massages and scrubbing the whole body with a glove, lathering and washing visitors, and covering their bodies with enormous towels. In the original baths, the “farnache”, or boiler room, is fuelled with wood. In our Madrid baths, we are invited, with delicacy, elegance and friendliness, to choose from among several fragrances.

More than one war and misunderstanding could have been avoided if politicians and diplomats had shared the silence of such an oasis for a few dirhams, amidst brown and ochre vaults sparkling with golden glints and the fleeting pale bronze glimmers of soft light. In effect, the miracle of pure rebirth occurs sometimes when one simply relaxes in the gentle water of a candlelit hamman.

The original hammam is formed by an anteroom where visitors rest, greet each other and chat. There they are received by the “gellas”, the attendant in charge of collecting the entrance fee, of keeping watch over the customers’ clothes and valuables, and of offering them lemonade, tea, combs and, above all, the gentle black “beldi” soap made from eucalyptus oil, although “ghassoul”, a natural clay preparation based on a formula kept by mothers and grandmothers, is also offered in the Arab countries. Three pools –one with cold water, another with lukewarm water, and a third with very hot water next to the steam room, form the preliminary circuit to be followed before the invigorating exfoliating massage. Everything is conceived to restore the subtle gold of life to the body and the soul.

David Felipe Arranz
(Valladolid, 1975), David Felipe Arranz holds degrees in Spanish Philology, Theory of Literature and Compared Literature, and Journalism. He is an associate professor of journalism at Carlos III University, where he teaches courses in Deep Reporting and Journalistic Research Methods. The author of several essays and of the short film El secreto de Lisi , he contributes to several publications. He also directs the cultural magazine  El Marcapáginas at Capital Radio, winner of the Silver Antenna Prize 2018.

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