Thessa Lageman is a journalist, copywriter, photographer, and Arabist, based in the Netherlands. She has written for Al Jazeera, the BBC, The Age, and Middle East Eye, among others.
It’s getting harder for the owners of hammams, or traditional bathhouses, to turn a profit. Activists hope to sustain an important part of Tunisian culture.
Twenty-five-year-old Rawa Guenichi walks into the Zitouni bathhouse in the center of Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. The black-and-white stone gate tells passersby there is a hammam here—no sign necessary.
In the changing room, two women sit with their eyes closed and towels wrapped around their hair. The walls and domed ceiling are painted white. Wooden slippers nestle in blue and green tiled niches. Locals know this bathhouse is for women only; men would never dream of entering.
“Here, I can wash away the week’s stress,” explains Guenichi, who works in a laboratory. “I have been coming to the hammam since I was born.” She lives with her family in an old house nearby, with no shower or hot water.
In Arab cities in the past, every neighborhood had a mosque, a school, and a hammam. Cities with more bathhouses were considered more prestigious, according to historians. The oldest hammams in Tunis date from the 11th century, but there were public baths even before the Romans conquered Tunisia. In Carthage, now a posh suburb of Tunis, you can still see the remains of the Antonine Baths from 165 A.D.
Most people go to the hammam on the weekends, more often in the chilly winter months than during the summer. Special occasions like weddings or the feast day after Ramadan are also popular times to visit.
But as the number of homes with hot showers has increased in recent decades, the number of visitors has declined. Many bathhouse owners complain they hardly make a profit nowadays, especially since the 2011 revolution, after which the prices of water, gas, and electricity rose.
In 1843, there were 50 hammams in the center of Tunis; only half of them are still open, says architect Ahmed Zaouche. His organization, Association Actions Citoyennes en Médina, tries to protect the old city’s heritage. Zaouche fears that the bathhouses will disappear in coming decades if nothing changes. Some of them are already in ruins, while others have been demolished to make way for new buildings.
“Since 1979, the Tunis medina, the old town, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the local authorities don’t have a strategy to protect it,” he says.
Abdelaziz Mlika has worked as a scrubber and masseur at El-Kachachine, a bathhouse for men in a small alley in the medina, for 55 years. He too has noticed the hammams’ decline. “In the past, I earned much more,” he recalls. “Customers used to come here from all over the city.” The entry fee for most hammams in the city center is around 2.5 Tunisian dinar ($1.20), with massage and scrubbing costing another 2.5 Tunisian dinar. Asking for more would mean even fewer customers.
On the other side of the medina, Amina Khmiri pulls a long white veil over her head. She is departing from her weekly visit to the Saheb Ettabaa hammam, built in the early 19th century next to a mosque and a busy market.
Khmiri says that in addition to bathing, she comes here to socialize with her neighbors. Women of her age (she is 70) and from the more conservative circles don’t go to cafés or restaurants, so the bathhouses fill an important social function. The hammam also used to be the perfect place to find a wife for your son, but now more people find partners through Facebook.
Zaouche’s organization is trying to help bathhouse owners earn extra income by doing things like organizing concerts, lunches, and cultural visits. The group recently asked 19 Tunisian and European photographers to photograph the bathhouses for an exhibition.
“We want to improve the image of the hammams,” he says. “Only poor and middle-class people visit them now. The upper class would rather go to the expensive spas in five-star hotels.” Foreign tourists rarely visit, either (especially after the terrorist attack in Sousse last summer, which caused tourism to drop off). “We wish that they would find their way to the hammams here, like they do in Istanbul. But we know renovations and other improvements are necessary first.”
Back in the Zitouni hammam, Rawa Guenichi dries her hair and pays the owner at the desk. She is getting married next year and looking forward to spending a day at the bathhouse before the ceremony, with her friends and female relatives. They will make music, eat, and perform traditional cleaning rituals.
Once she is married, she will live in a house with a hot shower. “But I will still come to the hammam every week,” she says. “Because I see my friends and, at least, I can get really clean here.”