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Slipping into something more comfortable

‘We come here to rest,’ says Mara, combing olive oil through her long wet hair. ‘Here we can just take our time, relax and forget about the troubles outside.’ We are sitting with a crowd of half-naked Palestinian women in the steamy wet heat of Hamam al-Samra, Gaza City’s sole Turkish bath-house. The al-Samra is an ancient treasure, with thick walls, narrow subterranean corridors and a huge steam chamber heated by exposed hot water pipes. It is lit by beautiful old lamps, and tiny circular skylights that filter strobes of silvery sunshine across the walls as we scrub ourselves, and then doze in the heat like cats.           

Abu Ibrahim, who has managed the Hamam al-Samra for eons, swears it is almost one thousand years old. ‘This is one of seven ancient hamams in the Middle East,’ he told me as I paid my entry fee. His luxurious silvery moustache twitched as he talked. ‘UNESCO want to conserve this as a special site, but you know how the situation is here.’ 

So, instead of being done up and renovated, the al-Samra remains old and crooked and beautiful, as only ancient buildings can be. The sinks where we wash ourselves were carved out of rock and have slowly eroded into deep bowls of smooth hot stone. The doorways are graceful archways, and the large steam chamber has a couple of smaller inner chambers where you can remove all your clothes and feel the heat across your entire skin. The al-Samra is a popular indulgence for groups of men and women, who bathe (separately of course) in the pleasure of a sanctuary where they can slip into something more comfortable, and leave the realities of Gaza behind.

Inside the main steam chamber, the women are scrubbing themselves with home-made potions, rubbing slices of fresh lemon across their cheeks and massaging olive oil into their hair. They are lawyers, students, mothers and grandmothers. One of them begins to talk about the ‘war in Gaza’ but the others immediately tell her to shush. ‘The war and politics do not belong inside here,’ says Mara. ‘We want to enjoy our time.’    

Gaza has more than its share of misery, grief, poverty, violence and hopelessness, but for once let’s not go there. Gaza is also beautiful, precious and at moments incredibly sensual. I emerged from the Hamam al-Samra with skin like a baby and a smile like a woman who has just returned from a week-long romantic holiday – and I was there for just two hours.  

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