Queen-style scrubbing

RASHEEDA BHAGAT | Updated on: Apr 17, 2011


Get a layer of fresh, new skin after a vigorous cleansing and exfoliating session in a traditional hammam at the One&Only Residence & Spa in Dubai.

The last time I was scrubbed like that was as a little girl, as Hussain Bi, who played such an important role in bringing up my five siblings and I, grumbled about how girls had no business getting “so dirty” like boys! But against the shrills which had emanated from the washroom then, this time around I thoroughly enjoyed almost a layer of my skin coming out under the expert — firm and yet gentle — fingers of Olfa, wielding a special Moroccan scrub glove.

This cleansing ritual took place in the luxurious environs of the Oriental Hammam at the Residence & Spa, one of the three properties that form the One&Only Royal Mirage, the luxury resort in Dubai overlooking the Palm Island Bay.

This resort's spa philosophy revolves around three different approaches — unwind, restore and elevate — and different spa experiences are designed to provide both “relaxation and unique wellness journeys”. As the Spa brochure explains, “sometimes in this fast world we get wound up like a spring and our minds don't stop.” As tension builds up, unwinding and sleep become difficult, and a deeply relaxing massage or an invigorating cleansing and scrubbing experience in the hammam really helps to unwind the body, loosen knots of built-up tension and relax tired and tense muscles.

Traditional hammam

The hammam at this resort is clearly modelled on the traditional Turkish and Moroccan baths, where men and women gathered in different chambers to wash and clean their bodies. For women in particular, these were social occasions and an opportunity to escape from their humdrum lives, relax and catch up with a bit of gossip.

The traditional hammam, better known to westerners as the oriental steam bath, has always played an integral part in the cultural and social life of Arabian countries. Entrance to a hammam in cities like Istanbul, where I had sampled one in 2007, was always through intricate and ornately tiled corridors and archways, till you came to the spacious central bathing area, with a huge dome in the centre, with tiny spaces open to the sky for ventilation and to allow the steam from piping hot water to escape. The sound of water running into and overflowing from marble basins reserved for each guest has an immediately soothing effect and you just hand yourself over completely to the extremely competent masseuse.

In traditional Turkish and Moroccan hammams the idea was to get total relaxation, leaving all your chores and worries behind. During my 50-minute treatment and the 10-minute relaxation session where herbal tea and Jordanian dates were on offer, Olfa really made me forget the outside world. Unlike in the Istanbul hammam where the 150-odd kg masseuse had discarded our — we were three international journalists on an olive oil trip and had giggled our way through the entire hour-long session — tiny towels with disdain, here guests have the option to keep on their undergarments.

Scrubbing session

My 50-minute session began with bowls of hot water poured over the body, followed by a five-minute steam session, where you are given water to drink to keep the body hydrated, and the entire process was repeated, after Moroccan soap made with eucalyptus and olive oil was applied thoroughly on the body. After the soap is washed off, Olfa gently led me to the heated slab, where towels were spread out for the scrubbing session. With a deadly deep blue, Moroccan loofah-like scrub glove, she went about the task of cleaning/scrubbing the body with the paste-like black Moroccan soap. Unlike the huge masseuses in Istanbul who had pulled, pushed and tugged at our bodies on the marble slab as though they barely weighed a few kilos, Olfa, the Tunisian masseuse, was gentler in her manoeuvrings. But not when it came to the scrubbing part.

She began with vigorous exfoliation of the back, moved on to the neck, shoulders, chest, stomach, hips, legs and feet. When she was done, dark and dead remnants of the skin were discarded and one had, in less than an hour, grown a completely new skin that felt at least a few years younger!

The exfoliation session left the skin rejuvenated and the muscles both relaxed and invigorated. A three-minute stretching process followed before the treatment ended.

A facial at the spectacular Spa, located on the first floor followed, where Yusra, a Tunisian therapist, expertly applied hydrating cleansing milk on the face and neck. A second session followed with exfoliating, hydrating milk, followed by a floral toner and spray. Next her expert fingers rubbed and massaged the face with “regenerating treatment oil” mixed with a 24-hour moisturising complex. The 15-minute mask that followed was made with “essential minerals”. But the best part was the invigorating hair massage she gave me with “pink hair scalp mud”. All these were ESPA products; I was advised to keep it on for at least 10-12 hours and more if possible. When the hair was shampooed after 24 hours, after an invigorating swim at the unbelievably beautiful swimming pool shaded by tall, swaying date palms, it was both soft and shining.

Turkish, Moroccan influence

Philippe Dupont, Manager of One&Only Royal Mirage, says that when an expansion of the resort facilities was planned “creating a classical spa, the temple of beauty and relaxation was easy and we did it. But for us, it was very important to link the spa to the destination.”

In a West Asian setting such as Dubai, naturally the idea of a hammam came up and “we decided to create a hammam that offers a combined experience of traditional Turkish and Moroccan hammams. And we combined this hammam with a classic spa.” So along with the company's MD, he visited several hammams in Turkey and Morocco, consulted designers particularly in Istanbul “as we wanted this to be as similar as possible to traditional hammams and very authentic.”

And so apart from the design where the central cleansing area of the hammam looks just like the one I had visited in Istanbul four years ago — with a central high dome, a central marble slab where four women can stretch out to get the scrubbing of a lifetime from their masseuses, several arches, each of them opening into a little area where hot water from the tap overflows into a marble basin — the lighting, the trelliswork, the little bowls used to pour water on the guests, as also the towels used in the hammam, are all imported from Turkey. “All the people working in the hammam are Arabic — Tunisian, Moroccan, Turkish — they know what they are doing and are proud of doing it,” says Dupont. Locally known as tayels or tellaks , they are masters of their craft.

The Hammam brochure says the word ‘massage' is derived from the Arabic word ‘mass' meaning ‘to press softly' or ‘gentle touch'. It adds: “Even the most hesitant guests cannot fail to entrust themselves to the care of the masseuse.”

Dupont beams at the huge success this hammam has become, being popular with “both our guests as well as locals. They love this place… they love our having revived this lost tradition.”

He adds that over 100 years ago, there were over 100 big hammams in Cairo; “I think there are only two now and it is very sad.” But then in an earlier era, public hammams were the places with water, which was not available at home, so people had to go there. “Actually the Arabic people modernised the Roman and Greek baths, with the main difference being that in their hammams the water had to run.”

Respect for local culture

As in other Islamic countries, at the Oriental Hammam too, there are separate timings for men and women; the Istanbul hammam had totally different facilities for men and women. Asked why a couple cannot enjoy the hammam experience together, Dupont says it has to do with the sensitivities and the culture of the place in which any hotel operates. One of the questions asked by the local authorities was “how will you be sure they are husband and wife? We said we totally understand and will follow the cultural norms of the place. The separate timings are working very well; everybody understands and respects the local culture.”

While what I had was the Traditional Hammam Experience, those with more time — and money — can opt for the 110-minute Complete Oriental Treatment, which starts with cleansing and is followed by body scrub from head to toe, after which a body wrap with ghassoul mud (it is also known as rhassoul, comes from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and has been used for over 1,000 years as a soap, shampoo and skin conditioner) is applied with a honey mask. An extended relaxing massage in a private room completes the experience.

Next time you visit any Islamic country, don't miss the opportunity to get a hammam experience, be it in the luxurious environs of a resort like the One&Only Royal Mirage or in one of the narrow lanes of Morocco. It is an experience you'll never forget.

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Published on April 14, 2011
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