Steam Heat

Who enters the Turkish bath will sweat.

– (Turkish proverb)

The British blame it on the Turks and the French, naturally, on the Arabs. For all I know, other nationalities are having an accusing finger pointed at them as well. I am talking, of course about the origins of the Turkish bath, or, as our Gallic cousins would have it, le bain maure.

In Algeria, it is called either the latter or simply le hammam, the Arabic for “hot water bath.” It is a fusion of the Roman thermes, earlier Greek traditions and Arab and Ottoman influences, and has become an integral part of North African culture. The number of hammams to be found in a neighbourhood was often an indication of its wealth. Every town, every neighbourhood had its hammam at one time, but the habit of going there at least once a week has fallen somewhat out of favour and many public baths have closed their doors.


One of the reasons for this is that people nowadays prefer to bathe behind closed doors. In addition, the reputation of some less salubrious hammams has gone downhill, with rumours of men dressing up as women in order to take photos of the half-naked bathers, or a lack of maintenance and hygiene leading to the spread of infection.

The primary function of the hammam is the same as that of Victorian or Edwardian public baths — to enable those who do not enjoy the luxury of a bathroom or running water at home to keep themselves clean. In Algeria, there are many rural villages that have no water, much less hot water, on tap, so a weekly trip to the nearest hammam becomes a necessity. For some aficionados, nothing beats a weekly steam clean, even though they have bathrooms at home.

A hammam usually has two or three rooms — firstly, a kind of vestibule with daybeds pushed against the walls, in case someone is overcome by the heat, or simply wants a nap; then a warm-ish chamber and finally the hot room, (bit eskhouna),where the temperature varies between 40 and 60 degrees celsius, with one hundred percent humidity. A  low marble or tiled platform runs around the room, in which small washbasins are set at regular intervals, above which are hot and cold taps.

The hammam is usually open to women during the day, but turned over to men in the evening. I know this because our house, the Villa Robineau, was next door to a hammam and the male clients would line up in the evenings, waiting for the doors to open and whiling away the time sitting on the windowsills of the houses opposite, gazing avidly at our windows in the hope of catching a glimpse of us. I don’t know what they expected to see, but I suppose we were rather like exotic animals in a zoo — a Kabyle refinery manager and his European wife.

But the hammam is primarily a female domaine — a place of endless discussion, an intimate space where confidences are exchanged and where the perfumed billows of steam echo with the splashing of water, sudden bursts of laughter and murmured conversations. ” Ici l’oreille s’ouvre pour entendre glisser dans une caresse délicieuse, le chant du cuivre, de l’argent des coupes et des calices ciselés qui servent à puiser l’eau des vasques.  (Here the ear can perceive, sliding in a delicious caress, the ringing sound of the engraved copper or silver cups and chalices, used to scoop the water from the basins.)



There are a certain number of utensils necessary for a good hammam session — a small pail, a bowl, a wash mitt made of coarse flannel and a supply of savon noir (black soap), henna and ghassoul. The pail and bowl can often be objects of beauty; wrought in silver or copper, with delicate engravings on the sides. All of the beauty products are made from natural ingredients; savon noir from olive pits, which give it its dark amber colour; henna from the leaves of the henna plant, and ghassoul, a natural clay used for washing the body and conditioning the hair.


Epilation of excess body hair is achieved using “sugaring” — a little like waxing. All of these traditional beauty treatments are now readily available in expensive beauty salons everywhere in the world — at hugely inflated prices.

Henna application is usually done the night before. The difficulty with this is that henna paste dries rock-hard and I became used to seeing Fatiha sporting what looked like a helmet of reddish-brown clay on hammam days. You could actually knock on it with your knuckles and cracks would appear like those in soil after a long drought.

The best part of going to a hammam, however, is the massage or exfoliation of the skin. Once the steam has gone to work, the pores open and it is now time to start scrubbing. If you are lucky, there is a woman employed to do just that, or a friend can “do” the less accessible parts of the body. Dead skin and dirt just roll off the body, which is then rinsed before applying soap.

Above all, the hammam is a place where women can socialise without any male surveillance or class distinction. The Algerian equivalent of a hen party is usually held there, with the future bride, accompanied by the female members of her family, entering the hammam to the sound of chanting, youyous, and the derbouka drum. Afterwards, cakes and cold drinks will be served to everyone there, family members and strangers alike. Her next trip to the baths will probably be with her new mother-in-law.

The hammam can also act as an impromptu marriage agency, where mothers with sons of marriageable age can thoroughly inspect for physical flaws any prospective candidate for her son’s hand. This prospect actually makes my skin crawl, bringing to mind a nightmare vision of a livestock market, and my outraged Britishness comes to the fore.

I only went to the hammam three times during my years in Algeria and each time I was practically press-ganged into it. The first time was with a neighbour in Oran and we came home, both clad in haïks, because they were easier to slip on — the first and last time I have ever worn one, I might add. The interesting thing was that, wrapped up in my white sheet, I attracted far more glances from men than I did bareheaded and wearing European clothes.

The second time was in Algiers with a group of my sisters-in-law before a wedding. The memories of that outing are rather hazy, but I do remember giggling a lot.  The third time was with Fatiha when we first moved into the Villa Robineau and there was no hot water. Longing for a bath, I finally gave in to Fatiha’s cajoling and went next door with her to our neighbourhood hammam. I remember clinging to the last vestiges of my dignity by refusing to take off my knickers, turning my back on the curious stares of the other women and  crouching, in desperation, over one of the washbasins in order to splash cold water over my burning cheeks, red from a mixture of heat and embarrassment.

Although the hammam is not a Kabyle custom — Kabyle women preferring to meet and gossip around the village well —  T. quite enjoyed his rare visits there. He considered that the “European” habit of a quick shower was the worst of unhygienic practices. “You can’t really be clean unless you rub off the accumulated dirt,” he would say loftily, “Rinsing or soaping it off is not enough.”

I was obviously NOT dirty, as exfoliation didn’t work on me. No amount of vigorous rubbing would dislodge a single flake of dry skin. Quite frankly, I prefer to be “unhygienic” rather than wash myself under the prying eyes of a dozen other women, all wondering if European women were made the same way as them, and not in possession of a third breast, or six fingers on each hand, as rumour would have it. No, don’t worry — I’m joking.


Different Strokes

I stared at T’s hands in fascination. It’s true that they were beautiful – strong and capable-looking with a sprinkling of dark hair on the back and long, elegant fingers, but it was not his hands themselves that mesmerised me. It was what he was doing with them.

We were sitting in one of the university refectories during our first month together and I was watching T. peel an apple. I am not a peeler — I just crunch my way through apples, pears — you name it. I also make a great deal of noise while doing it.

But there was T, carefully peeling away every last sliver of skin, then — oh my goodness — cutting the apple into perfect crescent-shaped segments, divesting them of any remaining core, and finally scoring them across the back with his knife before popping them one by one into his mouth and chewing silently.

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MY mouth must have dropped open. I can perhaps be excused because I was in the first flush of love and viewed everything T. did through rose-tinted glasses. Having only been to a single-sex school, men seemed like a completely different species to me. Especially one as different as T.

I was constantly amazed by the natural grace with which he did everything; the easy physicality that probably stemmed from his judo training.  As far from the awkward, tongue-tied youths in my year as you could get. And in direct contrast to me.  With my legendary clumsiness, I was perfectly capable of tripping over a line chalked on the pavement.

He even slept tidily — never snoring, never dribbling — again unlike me.  He would lie there perfectly still, his eyes and mouth closed, not making a sound and looking a bit like those marble effigies on medieval tombs. I, on the other hand,  would thrash around in bed, changing position a hundred times a night and often waking in the morning with my mouth hanging open, my hair in tangles and my face stuck to the pillow.

But I couldn’t deny the fact that some of his other habits were rather strange. All right, the careful apple-peeling might be considered as personal fastidiousness, but what about him rubbing his eye and then dropping a kiss on his finger afterwards? I asked him why he did that and he gave me a puzzled look. Not only did he not realise he was doing it, but he had no idea why. Perhaps because an eye is such a precious thing and that anything that comes in contact with it must be acknowledged in some way? He still does it and I still don’t know the reason behind it.

Another habit that I didn’t understand was the way he would always tread down the backs of espadrilles or slippers as soon as he bought them. He would then proceed to  shuffle about in them instead of walking properly. I hasten to add that he didn’t do it with any shoes that he intended to wear outside. Only later did I realise that slip-on backless shoes (babouches) had been traditional footwear in Algeria and he had probably worn them as a child. But it still annoyed me. Most Algerians do this to their shoes, almost without thinking.

Other habits were less endearing. I was woken one morning by a loud snorting noise coming from the bathroom. We had only been together a couple of months at this stage, and this was the first night I had spent in his flat. In spite of the stringent university rules in place and my mother’s probing questions, we had managed to fit in a clandestine weekend between my returning to Sheffield after the Christmas vacation and the beginning of the spring term.

I lay there in bed, thinking fuzzily that perhaps a baby warthog on the loose had shattered the peace of a Sheffield Sunday morning. Then I heard the splashing. Going into the bathroom afterwards, I found the floor awash. Not only that, but there was water dripping from the walls and bathroom mirror and a few spots of SOMETHING clinging to the sides of the washbasin.

It was only later I found out that part of his morning toilette included clearing out his nose. Not much wrong with that, you might say. He would start by filling up the washbasin with water and throwing it all over his face and head. Then he would cup some water in his hand, snort it up, and blow his nose vigorously — into the washbasin.  I found out later that this was the preferred method of most Algerians, not just a personal idiosyncrasy of T’s. I think it probably has its origins in the ritual washing before prayers. T. didn’t pray, but  had obviously been taught this method by his mother.

For my pains, I had been subjected to a LOOK when he found out that I had used a dirty towel to mop up the puddles. Shrugging his shoulders, he turned to his flatmate and muttered something about the differences in culture. So it was all right to leave snot in the washbasin, but not all right to use a stained towel to wipe the floor?

Once in Algeria, I soon discovered that everyone washed themselves using this method.  When we had guests, I would clutch my hair in despair on entering the bathroom. I could just about manage to rinse out the washbasin after my husband, but drew the line at scraping off the crusty contents of anybody else’s nose. When I protested, T. would look at me askance and tell me that that was the only effective way to wash yourself — nose and ears and all. I was the one with slovenly habits, only using tissues and cotton buds.

Of course, this inevitably leads on to a more delicate subject – hygiene of the nether regions. Toilet paper is rarely found in Algeria. Most people use water instead, hence the omnipresent bucket of water in most Algerian toilets, sometimes accompanied by a small bowl to use as a ladle.

This posed a problem for me. Especially when the toilet in question was what is known in Algeria as a toilette turque— a squat toilet — one of those miniature torture chambers where there is no pedestal, just a hole in the middle of what looks like a shower tray, on either side of which are two small raised platforms on which to place your feet.  My innate clumsiness often had indescribable consequences. I leave the rest to your imagination.


These habits resulted in even more water being slopped all over the floor in the bathroom and the toilet. I became used to wading my way through the puddles and mopping the floor at least three or four times a day.

It was even worse when my mother-in-law came to stay as, of course, she had to go through the ritual ablutions  before each prayer. This sometimes resulted in her carefully lifting each leg in turn and depositing her foot in the washbasin to be washed. The bidet we acquired later when we moved to the Villa Robineau was quickly put to another use.

The fact that I continued to use toilet paper instead of water earned me the disapproval of my husband. I would cast a sideways glance at his curled lip whenever I bought the offending article at the grocer’s. He never said anything, but his involuntary look of distaste spoke volumes. He would stare at me until my ears turned pink under the scrutiny, but I would still buy the toilet paper.

Fortunately, though, we managed to achieve a happy medium, as in most things. I use water as well as toilet paper, and he is careful to rinse out the washbasin after use. We compromise, as most couples do. I still can’t bring myself to clean out my nose using water, though.


Always Judge A Book By Its Cover

My first experience of an Algerian wedding was, of course, my own. Most of the time, I had had no clear idea of what was going to happen next, and had just followed the increasingly bizarre instructions given me by the women in my family-in-law – “Sit here. No, stand there! Go and change your dress! For heaven’s sake – DON’T smile! STOP SMILING!”

The event and its eventual dramatic conclusion are described at length in my first book,  so there is no need to go over the painful details again.

I did notice, however, even in my befuddled state, that most of the women were wearing colourful traditional clothing with a great deal of jewellery jangling on their arms and around their necks. I didn’t know it at the time, but, as most of the women attending our wedding were family and close friends – all two hundred of them – they were wearing mostly Kabyle dresses and jewellery, famous for the rick-rack braid in many contrasting colours sewn around the hems, the sleeves and the neckline. The only sombre note were the black scarves, but these were embellished by embroidered edges and gold fringes brushing the side of the face.


A traditional Kabyle dress with Kabyle jewellery

Added to that were the brightly-enamelled bangles, anklets, headpieces with dozens of dangly silver droplets and necklaces sporting pendants as big as small dinner plates. The effect was overwhelming. If I hadn’t felt dizzy enough before, the clashing colours were enough to give me a violent migraine. But there was a certain beauty and joyous abandon in such excess.

Most of the younger women were carefully made-up, with scarlet nails and earrings dangling from beneath streaked, artfully coiffed hair. To my European mind of the time, it seemed strange that so much effort had been put into their appearance when it was strictly a female gathering. Not a man to be seen. In fact, whenever one made a hasty incursion into the room to carry out some errand, heads were lowered in modesty.

Except for the older women of course. They would stare boldly at any young male trespassing on their territory and send him packing in confusion, his cheeks fiery red, the butt of many a ribald jest thrown at his departing back. I looked at them with new respect. They were not the downtrodden women I had been led to believe existed in Kabyle society.

I also came to realise over the years that the more jewellery a woman wore  (often borrowed from other female relatives), the more sumptuous her dress, the more her status increased. It was very much a case of judging a book by its cover. Women were dressing for other women, not for men. They were out to impress the female members of their extended family, not some potential suitor.

What I also failed to understand at the time was that a wedding like ours served several purposes. It was an opportunity for the women to get together, to dance and sing to their heart’s content, to gossip and joke and finally – to cast their eyes over the young nubile flesh on display to see if there was any young girl suitable enough to be a bride for their son. Alliances were often made on the strength of a young girl catching the eye of any woman with a son old enough to marry. Mothers decided on whom their sons would marry, not the would-be grooms themselves. In effect, it was like having your own personal shopper.

Gradually I became familiar with the different styles of traditional dress, each region claiming that theirs was the best. In Oran, the material was often quite flimsy and see-through. The wearer’s modesty would be protected by an undergarment. The sleeves were usually puffed and the bodice ruffled and decorated with sequins or small pearl beads. The waist would be cinched in with a belt made of gold links – one of the most prized pieces of jewellery.


A traditional Oran-style  dress

We had quite a few of these dresses made for my mother-in-law during the years that followed, but the delicate lacey effect  of the dresses would often be spoilt by the jumpers she would wear underneath, the long, thick woollen sleeves poking out from under the frilly neckline. T’s mother had discovered the art of layering long before it became fashionable. Sometimes, to tease her, I would count the number of layers she was wearing. By layers, I mean dresses – one on top of the other.

The innermost layers  would always be the thermal vests and flannel nightdresses I brought back from Britain for her. She really felt the cold, groaning, “Iqqerḥ-iyi usemmid” (I’m cold, literally, I hurt from the cold), despite insisting at the same time that she was “a hardy woman born and bred in the mountains.” So when she was cold – which was practically all the time – she would just don another layer. To sleep, she would shed a couple of them.

The most spectacular dresses, to my mind, were the dresses from Constantine. Made of expensive velvet, usually in dark jewel colours such as burgundy, forest green, navy-blue or black, they had the most sumptuous raised gold embroidery around the neckline, sleeves and on the skirt. The sleeves were merely a wisp of floaty lace skimming the upper arms.


Traditional dress from Constantine

Traditional dress from Algiers was slightly less showy. A jacket made of velvet and decorated with gold embroidery, similar to the Constantine dress, would top a long skirt called a seroual. I don’t know whether it could  be called a skirt because seroual actually means “trousers” in Arabic, and the French name for them was “un pantalon arabe”  or Arab trousers.

This skirt, or trousers, would be a length of material passed between the legs and sewn together at the sides at knee level. I loved these skirts, finding them extremely elegant, besides allowing a flirty glimpse of the legs on each side. Some friends had them made into beautiful evening gowns, with a conventional bodice, sometimes even a halter neck, swooping down into a seroual.


But, for the ultimate in bling, the traditional outfit from Tlemcen beat the lot. Young girls wearing it looked rather like beautiful Christmas trees. This was not everyday wear, I hasten to add, but worn by Tlemcenian brides. Every small girl from Tlemcen would also have a studio photo taken decked out in all her finery.


I gradually came to appreciate all these lovely traditional outfits, once I had got over the shock of seeing women  wearing what seemed to be evening dresses in the middle of the afternoon, and what is more, sitting cross-legged on the floor in them. They didn’t seem to find it incongruous at all – it was perfectly normal to them.