The cheeky side of Syria

Stephanie Clifford-Smith can't say no to a woman armed with mud and noodles.

It was with a mixture of eagerness and apprehension that I was waiting on the hammam's doorstep just before 9am. I hadn't done any public bathing before and wasn't clear on the drill. The fact I was in Aleppo, Syria, and spoke no Arabic wasn't going to help.

Right on nine, a woman dressed entirely in black with only her eyes visible through a slit in her hijab arrived to open up. Once inside, where she would spend the day exclusively in the company of women, she shed the black and confirmed the rumours.

I'd heard about Middle Eastern women's taste for the tarty - but here was the proof. She was beautiful, with exquisitely made-up eyes, tight black jeans, stilettos and a leopard-print waistcoat.

She took my 600 Syrian pounds ($15) for a full treatment and introduced me to my attendant, Abla, a middle-aged woman with a "don't mess with me" expression. Abla showed me to an upholstered banquette in an elevated alcove. "Siddown!" she said. Thrusting a plastic pot at me she said: "You want mud? Mud good, mud, one 'undred."

I hesitated because I thought I'd already paid for the full treatment but she was insistent and it was only $2.50. She slapped the brown muck on my face, jabbing me perilously close to the eyes as she did, and screwed the lid back on.

"You want mitt? Mitt good, mitt one 'undred," she said, waving something black and abrasive at me. OK, I said, fearing what she might do with it if I declined. Once I'd undressed and donned the cotton sarong and purple plastic scuffs supplied, she took me through to the marble hot room. She gave me a plastic bowl with the mitt, a new bar of olive oil soap and what looked like a bundle of vermicelli noodles. Then she pointed to the murky pool in the domed ceiling room next door, kissed me once on each cheek and left me.

Was I meant to wash myself? Sit and steam? Swim? I did a bit of each then went to find her. Shooing me back to the hot room, she pointed to the floor. "Siddown!" With me between her legs leaning back against her ample torso, she sat behind me and began scrubbing. Hard. The mitt, the noodles, all put to good use.

When I lay on my back and she pummelled my belly, she said: "You got babies? Babies good, no babies, no good." She had nine, apparently, ranging from two to 22, but was very sad as her husband had "gone to Allah". I thought she looked too old to have a toddler and wondered if she was working this story for tips.

"Finished," she said 20 minutes later, kissing me again on each cheek. I dried off, dressed and went to settle the bill, peeling off another 200 Syrian pounds. "Oh, no tip for me?" Abla asked with a pout. OK, make that another 100. And for that I got another two kisses.

The writer travelled courtesy of Intrepid Travel.

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