Hammam al-Samra: Gaza’s Watering Hole

Palestinian Murad Awad (C) stands next to a man relaxing at the Hamam al-Samra, a centuries-old bathhouse beneath Gaza City's crowded streets, on 22 July 2010. (Photo: AFP - Marco Longari)

By: Taghrid Atallah

Published Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Although it is more than 800 years old, Hammam al-Samra bath house continues to pulse with life in the heart of Gaza.

The Hammam (bath) is always bustling with men and women who converge in this place for different reasons. Some come for relaxing hot baths, massage therapy, to take a regular bath, or just to visit the site as a historic landmark.

The 500-square-meter Hammam is located in the middle of al-Zaitoun neighborhood in central Gaza. It is designed in a way to facilitate easy movement from hot, to warm, to cold halls, ensuring that visitors don't catch a cold.

Each hall is covered with a colored-glass dome allowing the sun’s rays to stream in, creating a natural and vibrant light. The floors are covered with marble squares and triangles, beautifully merging with the general architecture of the bath house.

Hammam al-Samra is open 15 hours a day to the public, but allocates the bulk of this time to the men, while the women have only three hours a day.

"These are the regulations of the place," its manager Salim al-Wazir says with a somewhat overzealous tone. "Everyone accepts these timings," he insists.

But Abeer, a 23-year-old woman who shows up at the bath house with her three girlfriends every week, says that three hours is not enough for the women who "come here to hang out, socialize, and just have the kind of fun we can't have outside."

Abeer and her friends fill their bags with all sorts of cosmetic products and appetizing snacks that they enjoy eating in this particular place.

"We dance, bathe, and have fun," says Abeer, adding that the bath house is the only place "that provides us with entertainment."

Abeer's friends and other women, of all ages, start singing to Mohammed Abdel Wahab's song, El Mayya Terwe El Atshan (Water Quenches the Thirsty). "There is no difference between the women in their 20s or 60s in this ancient place," says Abeer.

Umm Hussein, 50, agrees. "This place is our only outlet," She says. "We come here to escape the burdens and worries of daily life."

Umm Hussein started visiting the bath house after her husband died. "Here, I found people who would listen to me about matters that the closest people to me outside would not hear," she explained.

Some women come to Hammam al-Samra upon the request of their husbands, like 60-year-old Umm Shadi, who says she "enjoys the warm water."

In a final tour of the corners of the Hammam before the three "female hours" expire, there are a few girls eagerly puffing away on their cigarettes. Another group of women burst into loud laughter after what seems to be an exchange of secret stories or jokes.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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