A hamam in Iraq: The tradition of going to a public bath is dying out this century. (photo: ماريو تاما)
Even at 65 years old Basra local, Salman al-Haza, still comes here twice a week. He knows the winding way through the shops and as he enters he passes beneath a faded sign that desperately fights for the crowd’s attention: It carries the name of the city’s oldest public bath, the Hamam al-Husseini.
The Hamam al-Husseini is the oldest of three public baths in Basra. Hidden in the old Ashar market, its entrance between spice and herb stores, and dating back more than a hundred years, it has almost been forgotten by a younger generation.
But al-Haza knows exactly where it is. He goes down a flight of stairs to a low room, with a domed ceiling that boasts a central skylight. There he greets Ali Abdul Hussein al-Abadi, the owner of the public bathhouse.
In the 1990s we used to start work at five in the morning and we had so many customers. We also worked a lot during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s because we had so many soldiers coming in.
The pair are friends and both have a fondness for the old way of washing. “I don’t like to shower at home,” al-Haza says. “Modern bathrooms are just not as comfortable. Here I call the masseur one day before I visit and we make an appointment. There is no other place I would rather be. I feel relaxed and the masseur makes me comfortable. It’s my personal time.”
“It changes people’s moods when they come here and it is also healthy,” notes al-Abadi. “Even though unfortunately people just don’t appreciate these kinds of places anymore.”
Today, al-Abadi thinks that not as many Iraqis are aware that the hamam even exists. “We only get about four or five customers a day,” he laments.
That is despite the fact that this particular hamam may well be one of the oldest in Iraq. The ancient bricks and the crescent and star symbols and crowns indicate that it dates back to the Ottoman era; some of the historical trappings were destroyed in the 1990s in a fire. But documents the family owns show that the hamam was first built by an Iraqi who lived in Turkey, who was inspired by the concept of the Turkish bath. He sold it to al-Abadi’s grandfather, and then it was handed down to al-Abadi himself.
Many of Basra’s public baths have disappeared over the years, including some that date back hundreds of years. Local historians are aware of the importance of the Hamam al-Husseini and at one stage, authorities wanted to turn it into a tourist attraction in order to preserve it. Many famous locals came here to bathe, including governors and famous sportspeople. But the restoration never happened, al-Abadi says, “and one day all the places like this one are going to be gone”.
Ali Abdul Hussein al-Abadi, owner of the Hamam al-Husseini.
The hamams in Basra played a special role because private homes had no bathrooms for washing and no heaters. “There was no electricity and wheat chaff was used to fuel the fires inside the baths,” al-Abadi explains. The place was once heated by fireplaces beneath the main hall, in a cellar. The fireplaces are all still there but they are no longer used and groundwater has flooded the room.
“In the 1960s we would have to prepare for holidays and other special occasions well in advance,” the hamam owner recounts. On Fridays – the first day of the weekend in Iraq – extra staff would be called in.
“We used to start work at five in the morning and we had so many customers,” he continues. “We used ten tanks of fuel every day. We also worked a lot during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s because we had so many soldiers coming in.”
Al-Haza chimes in about how he became so fond of the public bath he still visits every week. As an ex-Iraqi army officer, he was under instructions to remain fit and healthy. “Those who were not had no chance of promotion,” al-Haza explains.
To stay fit, al-Abadi and his military colleagues dieted and then came to the hamam to jog in the heat. They would get a massage after their workouts.
“I’ve been a customer ever since,” he says.
Next, we meet Kashan Najim Abdullah, the longest-serving masseur; he is in his 70s. He is still working at the hamam even though he doesn’t earn a lot of money here anymore. He says it is better than staying at home, doing nothing all day.
Kashan Najim Abdullah, the longest-serving masseur at Hamam al-Husseini.
“When I come here, I see my friends and at best, I might work with three customers a day,” he adds.
Abdullah explains what makes a good masseur in the hamam: “He should be strong and gentle at the same time. He should know how to use the exfoliating wool for cleaning and he should be careful as he uses it on bare skin. For example, if he is too gentle the customer will not benefit. But if he is too rough, he will injure the customer. We also use other old methods to help our clients. For instance, we also use henna mixed with date vinegar to treat those who have headaches – we put the mixture on their heads for two hours.”
In a circular shower hall with arched walls and a heated bench in the middle, another Basra local, Badr Abdullah, a 50-year-old carpenter, is bathing today.
Abdullah has been coming here for a long time too. “In the 1980s the floor was always so hot you couldn’t stand on it if you were not wearing clogs,” he recalls. “We used to drink hot cinnamon after showering. Back then, you used to get really good cinnamon sticks.”
Bridal parties used to come to the hamam to clean themselves in preparation for the marriage ceremony, he says. Often all their friends and relatives would come too, bringing kebabs and fruit to eat while they were at the public baths together.
Abdullah starts laughing and then tells NIQASH about an incident on the evening before his own wedding. He said he wanted to remove the hair off his body but he did not know how. “So I took the hair removal paste and put it on my skin,” he says. “I didn’t know it had arsenic in it and I didn’t know I was supposed to put it on dry skin. After a few minutes I took a hot bath and my skin started burning. The pain was so bad I started screaming and I was running around naked, yelling,” he remembers, chuckling. “I had to postpone my wedding for two weeks after that!”
He must have made an impact because al-Abadi also remembers the incident. “Badr really scared us all when he started jumping around like that, naked. But we realized what had happened and my father quickly got some soft mud from the perfumers. He covered Badr with it and took him to a colder room.”
Al-Abadi says he knows of no other profession that is as honourable as this one – even though he believes it will soon disappear.