[ed. A hamam is a public bath used in countries such as Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan.]
(Swans - August 29, 2011) "Hey if you really want to enjoy washing yourself you must go to hamam," Safa said without thinking. The idea came to her suddenly one day in Roshan's house. Roshan had just come out of the bathroom after a shower, with a towel wrapped round her head to dry her hair.
"Aha, that is a forbidden area for me," Roshan said.
"Why, because you are too posh?"
"Don't be silly. I can't go because my mother doesn't want to go there and I cannot go alone."
"And why doesn't your mother want you to go?"
"Oh Safa, you ask too many questions. But if you want to know, she says that she doesn't like public baths."
"I see, so she is posh."
"Safa, please give it up. None of us is posh in our house."
"Prove it then."
"What do you mean?"
"Come with me to the hamam."
"I told you mother would not allow me."
"She won't allow you if you go alone but if you come with me she will accept."
"I am not sure."
"Leave it to me. I will talk to your mother."
"Oh you angel from Nijrab. Only you could influence my mother, because you can't do anything wrong. You are an angel."
"Stop being sarcastic with me. Tell me if you want to go or not. But I tell you it would be great fun."
"And you promise to talk with my mother. In that case I am always ready for adventure; in this country there is nothing for women apart from going to hamam or to that ridiculous park that is reserved for women."
A week later, with the light of the day having not yet spread its wings, Roshan and Safa were walking carefully making sure not to fall in one of the potholes or hit a stone or other objects with their feet that would have made them trip. They were walking on the narrow streets to the hamam. They got up with the azan of mullah and without wasting time, each took their bags prepared the night before and left. First Safa was in the courtyard and some minutes later Roshan appeared. Getting up that early was a new adventure for them and walking with still sleepy eyes proved to be difficult. In their bags they had everything that was needed. Both mothers helped them to pack. Towels to dry themselves after washing as well as a black honeycombed stone to scrap the sole of their feet; leef or body scraper; kisa, another body scraper; gel-e sar shoy, the brown mud for hair; rooi shoya, the white mud for face; soap; shampoo; small containers for water; and clean clothes to replace their dirty clothes were the contents of their bags.
For the girls it was a double celebration: celebrating their independence on the day on which the country was celebrating its independence as well. It was a public holiday. For the first time they were away from the house going to a public bath without being accompanied by their mothers. Roshan never had been in a hamam before and she did not have the need to go to such place. In her house there were nice bathrooms and she could wash herself wherever she fancied.
The walk had taken less than 10 minutes. They came to the entrance to hamam, a small door only wide enough for one woman to pass through at a time. As soon as Roshan entered the heat hit her face.
"Better get used to it, Safa warned. "This is only the entrance hall. Inside is much hotter but you'll love it."
"May you suffer from heat of hell, Safa, for bringing me here," Roshan laughed.
"Come in, don't block the entrance," the ugly woman shouted at them from behind the counter where she collected money. She had yellow teeth, affected by smoking chilim.
"Don't shout we are coming," Safa responded to the angry tone.
"Listen madam, you have to use your brain. You and your friend standing at the entrance, blocking the way for people to get in and out."
"OK, OK. How much to get in?"
"Is it your first time at the hamam?" the woman asked impatiently. "You should know how much it is. Nothing has changed."
Safa saw that Roshan was uncomfortable. "Don't worry Roshan, these women always act like this," she whispered. "They must sound tough and impolite to control women. They are harmless." She put the money down on the counter to pay for both of them.
Just then, a woman entered with three children -- two girls and a small boy, certainly young. The woman behind the counter switched her attention to the newly-arrived customer and shouted: "you should have brought his father as well."
"He is less than 6 years old. Okay, next time I will bring his father too," the customer explained.
"He looks more than 6 to me."
"Look, he is not circumcised yet. Trust me he is only 6 years old."
"I don't want to see his body. This is the last time and I mean it."
"You are harsh, Nazo. I am a regular customer."
"Regular or not regular, rules are rules. I can't allow young men in here. It will damage our reputation. This place is for women only and very young children. Look how your boy is looking at the women."
The poor boy indeed was looking around scared, not because he was interested in observing women's bodies. He was embarrassed and shocked by the argument.
The entrance hall was where women changed clothes. Both Safa and Roshan started to take their clothes off. Roshan felt like the small boy looking around at everything. She had to be careful, she did not want to break the rules and be accused of doing something wrong. And yet she was fascinated and inquisitive. Someone brought them two lungs. Safa showed Roshan how to wear it. It was like a towel but larger to wrap it around their body while they were washing. It covered from breast downward to the top of the knee. Safa explained that the piece of cloth was only symbolic. Sometimes the women inside the hamam would take the lung off to pour water on themselves or when they were massaged by hamam attendance. There were plenty of hamam attendants around for massaging women and Safa suggested that they must have massage as well.
"No way that I show my body here," Roshan protested.
"No one would be interested to see your body, you silly. They will be all busy scraping the dirt and dry skin from their body. Looking at you will be waste of time. They need to go back to their home to deliver their clean body to their husbands, who are waiting for warm clean bodies to return home," Safa joked.
"Ha, ha, ha, you idiot!"
They went inside the hamam and the noise of the place hit them. It was dark all around. The only place that was providing a bit of light was the top of the dome where a circled glass was placed to provide light and to keep snow and rain away. It took some time for their eyes to get use to the place and finally to see that stone benches were provided at the edge of the hamam for the women to sit on them. There was very little space left on these benches, but they managed to sit in a corner not far from the two huge stone containers that provided hot and cold water for washing. Women were gathered around containers, splashing water on themselves. Some women were lying on the floor with their relatives or a hamam attendant rubbing their backs, giving them a massage, or getting the dirty skin off their body. As soon as they sat, Safa took the initiative and brought hot water to Roshan, threw it on her body and started to scrape her back. Some time passed and finally the daylight reached the top of the dome where the glass was. Now they could see each other. Roshan also got used to the place, brought water, threw it on Safa, started to scrape the back of Safa, and yet continued to look around. She was impressed by seeing women lying on the floor completely naked with the hamam attendant on top massaging them.
The lung or the piece of cloth that was provided by hamam keepers was as good as not having any clothes on because as soon as it became wet, it revealed all the curves of the women; everything became visible in a more poetic way apart from the private parts, which were left to the imagination. There were pretty women, ugly women, fat women, and slim women and the amazing thing is that they were all looking at each other evaluating their beauties.
The women would soak up a big chunk of gel-e sar shoy in a small pot and then dissolve it in the copper lagan by rubbing it against the smooth finish of the lagan to turn it into a thick paste, and then they would apply it to their hair like shampoo and then rinse it off with warm water. This was Afghan women's natural shampoo.
One could smell a combination of humidity, sweat, aromatic soaps, and those yellow, high-clay-content mud chunks of gel-e sar shoy.
A woman tripped over another woman who was lying on the floor, and fell.
"You kicked me," the woman said on the floor.
"Well, it's a stupid place to lie there."
"Are you blind?"
"No I am not blind but I didn't know that you could spread your legs so wide open."
"Don't talk to me like that, you whore!"
"Go away you kancjani. Last night you were fucked by all men of Kabul and today you are here to wash your filth."
"Wa wa wa. Aren't you the one who was kicked out of the house by her husband because you were caught with the donkey on top of you?"
"No I am the one who saw men marching towards your cunt. It was just behind this hamam during the daylight. I was the one who saw your filthy cunt open, open, and open like a tunnel and men were driving in it. Remember?"
The laughter and jeering encouraged the two women to continue their row. Helped on by their audience they shouted new accusations. Roshan was fascinated; she thought indeed it was so much fun to be there.
Safa and Roshan were busy helping each other and helping themselves to wash when Roshan saw a middle-aged woman coming towards her. Her heart sunk thinking that she had done something wrong and the woman was about to pick a fight with her.
"Are you Roshan?" the woman asked.
"Yes," Roshan replied.
"Don't you remember me, you silly girl? I am your aunt. I have been to your house many times. How are you?"
"Salam aunt. Sorry, the place is very dark and I could not see your face properly."
"Oh never mind. How is your mother? How is your father? And how is Golo?"
"They are fine. I just came with my friend for the first time to this hamam," Roshan looked at Safa. Safa thought it was time to pay her respect.
"Salam. Yes I insisted that she should come here," Safa said.
"I am glad that you did that. Otherwise even I was going to forget the face of this angel," the woman replied.
"You know this naughty girl may not remember, but I am the best friend of her mother and I have been to their house for lunch and dinner many times. Of course, at that time this naznin was only a small child."
Roshan was clearly embarrassed, hoping that the woman could not go on talking about her childhood. Normally rude people would say: you don't remember but when you were a small child I cleaned your shit. But the woman did not follow that thread of conversation.
"Yes I see that you are new here and don't know how to wash. Let me rub your back."
"No, no aunt, I don't want to trouble you," Roshan begged.
"Nonsense girl, and don't be shy with me. I have seen all of you."
Roshan realised that the woman would start to talk about her childhood and make her embarrassed in front of Safa. So she let the woman work on her back and the woman with the leef in her hand continued to scrape the dry skin off her back. Age seniority mattered a lot in Afghanistan and people who were older used this power frequently on younger people. Those young people who did not oblige would be condemned to being impolite. Roshan had never been impolite to any older person in Afghanistan. So despite her displeasure she let the woman to continue rubbing her back and when she left Roshan even managed to thank her not only once but ten times, as it was the custom of the country. Cleaning Roshan took a long time and the woman was perhaps enjoying being helpful. When finished, she told Roshan that she looked like a princess and if she goes to any house she would be the light of that house, and she wished that would be her house.
When the woman left Safa asked, "was she really your aunt?"
"Don't act as if you are stupid. In this country every man who is older than us is our uncle and every woman is our aunt and you know that."
"Of course I know, but no artificial aunt of mine ever came to rub my back. Are you sure this is not your real aunt?"
"Yes she is. The aunt who appeared in our house when I was so little that I could not remember her and after that she disappeared," Safa said impatiently.
"Sorry, I was just teasing you, but I must admit that this woman is a different aunt or perhaps she has some kind of different agenda."
"What kind of agenda?"
"Well I don't know, perhaps your mother and she broke their friendship many years ago and now through you she wants to renew her friendship. Did you notice that she mentioned coming to your house again?"
Later the two girls went to the area where they changed their clothes and wore clean ones but before that Safa rubbed olive oil on Roshan's body and Roshan did the same to Safa. Now the two women with smooth warm bodies were on the street going back to their houses to deliver their bodies to themselves, not to their husbands, as they had none. Was it good to remain without a husband and enjoy single life, or to have a husband and wash your body for him to feel your warm skin? Time will tell.
It was now late morning; the sun was shining, some shops were closed and some were open and there were not many pedestrians on the streets because it was independence day. Shops would be open in the evening and people would pour on to the streets to go to chaman where there would be fireworks and entertainment such as musicians playing music in camps that were built for this purpose, all around chaman.
"So how was it?" Safa asked.
"How was what? Oh you mean the hamam?"
"Of course you absent-minded queen."
"I don't know what to say. It is scary but fun."
"Most of scary things are fun."
"Like being kissed before marriage. You like it and yet are scared because if you get caught you will be punished and pay for the rest of your life."
"I think going to hamam made you mad."
"Do you want to hear about fun and fear in hamam?"
"Again you and your stories."
"Do you want to?"
"Okay go on then, at least I'll forget my hunger. I am so hungry. We stayed there for a very long time."
Okay. Many, many years ago there was a man who looked exactly like woman, with no hair on his face or legs and he even had small breasts to go with his female appearance. His name was Noso and was working as masseur in a special hamam where the daughters and wives of rich and influential people, including the daughter of the wazir came. Noso was very happy giving massages to rich women and touching their body. He also realised that some women enjoyed receiving massages by him too much and ask him to go further and even touch those parts that were kept for husbands only. Of course they didn't know that he was a man but almost every special woman was asking for him saying that her touch was special. And he really, really touched them with care, a touch that was enjoyable for both parties. But one day calamity struck the hamam and the most expensive jewel belonging to the daughter of the wazir disappeared. The women in charge of hamam searched everywhere but they could not find it. They went through other women's belongings but it was not there. Finally they decided to strip-search all women one by one taking their lung away. Noso was almost dead. He was shaking with fear and knew that the time had come for him to be known to the king and for his sins he would be immediately put to the sword. He started praying in his heart and promised to Allah if only this time he saved his life he would never do the same thing again and at that moment he fainted. Women were distracted by this new incident and turned their attention to him. At the same time the real thief found an opportunity to leave the jewel somewhere that the searchers would see without knowing who had left it there. It was at that moment that they found the jewel. Some minutes later, Noso also opened his eyes and left the hamam, never to return again.
"What a story," Roshan said.
"Yes, hamam has many stories."
"Do you think there was a Noso in the hamam today?"
"Yes sure, it was your aunt. Did you notice how she was enjoying touching you?"
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About the Author
Bashir Sakhawarz was born in 1960 in Kabul, Afghanistan. He left Afghanistan two years after his country was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1979. He studied in the UK and after graduation worked in countries such as India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Kosovo, England, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Belize for organizations such as the EU, the UN, the Asian Development Bank, various NGOs, and the Red Cross. He is the author of seven books in Persian. His English works appeared in Language for a New Century, W. W. Norton & Company (2008), Images of Afghanistan, Oxford University Press (2010), and Proceeding of the Ninth Conference of the European Society for Central Asia, Cambridge Scholars Publishing (Nov. 2010). He currently lives in Geneva, Switzerland. (back)