Houses of Sweat and Steam: The Hammams of North Paris

by Chris Newens  |  Published May 24, 2016

Paris is one of the great multicultural centres the world, a fact ignored almost as much by its visitors as its citizens. A trip to the famous hammams of the Goutte d’Or neighbourhood is the perfect way to see the city in a different light.

Entrance to the Hammam (Photo: Chris Newens)

Entrance to the Hammam (Photo: Chris Newens)

It is a convention in adventure stories that they often start with the discovery of a map, and so it goes with this one.  Only, because the adventure took place no more than a thirty-minute walk from my front door, the map was of course not a tough roll of sea-stained parchment – as befits the genre – but was, instead, a book.

I found it on the pavement of the Rue André-Antoine, abandoned amid half an apartment’s worth of other personal effects – you find these street-side evacuations occasionally in Paris, and they pull irresistibly at one’s scavenging instincts.  Paris Dreambook was the book’s title, by a writer called Lawrence Osborne, and its cover depicted the French Capital as it might be painted by an Aboriginal of the central Australian deserts. It was far too intriguing just to leave on the street.

Paris Dreambook offered an intensely strange yet compelling description of the city I thought I knew. Osborne’s Paris was emphatically not that of Hemingway; it was grimy, surreal, and vastly multicultural: a place of portholes through to different worlds. There was one chapter in particular which got its hooks into my imagination: a chapter on the city’s hammams.

In “the Turkish baths of this remarkably heteroclite city,” Osborne wrote, “the masseurs are equal to those of Istanbul and in the steam of its underground baths is as densely scented with eucalyptus as those those of Fez or Cairo.” The hammams here are temples to the erotic and the orient, I read; hot houses of sweat and steam; close to the Parisian street in proximity, but in spirit they are the East.

Well, in all my years living in Paris, this was something I had not known. Yes, I’d been aware of the hammam that adjoins the Grande Mosque south of the Seine, but as Osborne wrote, that is part of the Paris which he terms “The New Disneyland”. For the authentic experience it seemed one needed to head to the famous Goutte d’Or neighbourhood, which crests the north of the city. Here, behind dirty facades, hammams reminiscent of the true Maghreb await. Before I had even finished the book, I resolved to pay one of them a visit.

One step toward the orient. Off the streets and into the hammam. (Photo: Chris Newens)

One step toward the orient. Off the streets and into the hammam. (Photo: Chris Newens)

From Chaos to Calm

Riding the Line 2 Metro from Jaures to Barbès–Rochechouart is one of Paris’ lesser-known joys. The tracks, raised high off the street on classically-styled iron columns, award views first of the shimmering Canal St-Martin, then curl elegantly westward through Haussmann canyons, the wedding cake splendour of the Sacré Couer just visible above their zinc roofs.

It was Wednesday when I made my trip and, beyond the gates of the Metro, Barbès Market was in full teem. This kilometre long extravaganza takes place twice a week and sells some of the cheapest food in the city, providing a lifeline to those who live at its edges. For around six hours every Wednesday and Saturday the Boulevard Barbès becomes a bazaar. A makeshift corridor of market stalls and screaming hawkers is established on its central reservation, which from dawn until midday seethes with all the life of the city. There are old Muslim grandmothers dragging shopping carts, stately African women blazing bright in waxed cotton dress, and young hipster couples on the hunt for inexpensive avocadoes and kale.  On most mornings I would be only too ready to join the throng. Today, though, was different.

The Hammam Bain Vapeurs lies just off the Boulevard, though in all my previous visits I had never noticed it. This says more about the invisible barriers that scar the Paris landscape more than it does my own powers of observation. For all of France’s pretentions toward being the country of liberté, egalité, and fraternité, there is a sense that many of its citizens from other cultures inhabit different worlds.

The hammam had something of the quality of a private members club to which I, as a white European, did not feel invited. Dismissing these thoughts as a fiction of my own prejudice however, I pressed the hammam’s buzzer.

Shampoo for sale at the front desk. (Photo: Chris Newens)

Shampoo for sale at the front desk. (Photo: Chris Newens)

The Warm Room

The reception area was unremarkable, but once I had paid my 25 euros (for access to the hammam and my own personal scrub down) I was to descend, it felt, into another country. The walls to the changing room were decorated elaborately with Moorish tiles. And as I mused hard on whether it would be more appropriate to keep my boxers on underneath the black cloth issued to hide my decency I caught the bewitching smell of hot spice on the air.

In the name of journalistic observation, I decided to keep my glasses on as I entered the hammam itself. Sure enough, they clouded over the moment I passed the threshold into the heat. This meant that for a good time I was entirely blind to the faces staring at me as I stood, looking daft, waiting for my lenses to clear. Any hopes I had for being able to pass for someone who knew what he was doing evaporated into the hammam’s steam.

C’est meilleur si vous laissez vos lunettes dans le vestiaire,” an amused voice sounded from somewhere in front of me: “It’s better if you leave your glasses in the changing room.”

I tried to explain how it was my first time in a hammam and that I had – ironically – wanted to be able to see my surroundings. Fortunately, by that stage my glasses had started to clear, and I could see the man who had spoken to me: small and wiry, he was curled up like a ball on the hammam floor.

Vous avez quel origin, mon ami?” he asked immediately on hearing my accent: “Where are you from, my friend?”

“England,” I replied, and he switched immediately to English.

“Ah, England!” he cried. “I love England! I lived there for ten years. In Wembley. Hey, you won in the rugby this weekend, eh? Eng-er-land!! Eng-er-land!!”

I wasn’t sure if it was still my slightly occluded vision, but he seemed to have rocked onto his back, and was cycling his legs in the air – presumably for my benefit.

“So, your first time in the hammam?” he said when he was done. “You’re getting a scrub, as well? Very good.”

A detail of the changing rooms. (Photo: Chris Newens)

A detail of the changing rooms. (Photo: Chris Newens)

The space was Arabian Nights by way of 70s bathroom design. There were more of the same Moorish tiles decorating the walls and a couple of ledges, with beige basins built into them, ran at bench height either side of the room. Ahead of me was a stone slab on which a young, though very fat man was getting a scrub down. I was transfixed for a moment by the sheer malleability of his flesh: there seemed no resistance whatsoever to the scrubber’s touch, like the man’s belly could have been wrapped around him several times over. Then I remembered that it’s rude to stare.

“Um…” I addressed the man who’d spoken to me as I’d entered, “What am I supposed to do?”

He gave a little laugh and pointed to one of the ledges: “My friend, first you sit here.”

“Just sit?” I asked. It was warm in the room but not exactly sauna temperature; just sitting about seemed like it might be a little unproductive.

“This is the warm room, you should sit here and relax first. It is so you can relax better in the hot room.”

A bit of light relaxing in preparation for some serious relaxing sounded very much my speed. I found a seat next to a basin and smiled a greeting at the five or so other men in there with me – large and hairy the lot of them.

“We are all Muslims here,” I was told be the largest and hairiest. “But don’t worry, we won’t kill you.”

They all laughed and I laughed too, and soon they were all talking together about the treatment of Muslims in the French press.

“It’s terrible,” I was told. “Really, really terrible. You would believe we were all murderers. Even in the liberal papers it is bad.”

There was a round of tutting at this, and I nodded along (quietly proud of myself that I had understood his use of the second person conditional).

No one was keen to stay on the subject of politics for too long, and our talk then changed to hammams themselves. Most of the men told me they had been coming to soak in this particular one since their early childhood. They liked it because it was traditional; yes, there were other, cleaner hammams in Paris, but they did not have the same conviviality, and were not as cheap.

“So is it a daily ritual?” I asked.

“No, no,” they said, “usually about twice a month.”

The Hot Room

There is, and always has been, an erotic element to hammams. For many years this was almost exclusively how they were regarded by the West, as places of loose morals and untold oriental excess. And while their reality might not quite square with the unleashed deviancy of the Victorian imagination, they are, nevertheless, home to much touching of flesh. That is to say, it can pay to be on your guard.

This was not something I had really considered before my visit, and by the time I had made it into the hot room, straight from my talk of politics and personal history, it could not have been further from my mind. The men I had been talking to had been taking turns to scrub each other down, yes, but in such a perfunctory, non-sexual manner that I didn’t even consider it could be anything more.

My glasses fogged over again as I stepped into the hot room: here was the hammam’s sweltering heart. Thick, rosemary scented steam clouded the air and stalactites of water mottled the ceiling. A broad stone ledge skirted the edges of the room; at least what I ought to do here was obvious: lie down and sweat. This I did for several minutes on end, my glasses eventually equalising with the atmosphere, until I could see passably well.

I noticed there was someone else nearby.

He was fat, with pendulous, almost triangular man-breasts and smooth, hairless skin. His head-hair had been drawn tight into a topknot and I saw he was looking at me with hawk-like eyes. I smiled at him a greeting; he nodded back. Then held up a hand clad in a scrubbing glove: did I want a scrub?

Now, you may think me naïve, but by this stage in my hammam experience, I had already got used to the idea that scrubbing down your fellow bathers is expected practice. I had, after all, seen plenty of it going on in the warm room – between friends admittedly – but nevertheless why should the hot room be any different? So, I lay on my front, happy to submit to the generosity of a stranger.

To begin with, all was as it should be; the stranger scrubbed away at my back and arms. Then, I felt his non-gloved hand come to rest on my flank. Well, I thought, he’s probably just steadying himself for balance. Shortly, though, that hand had moved to the back of my legs. A vague suspicion of what it might be doing there passed through my head, but again I dismissed it; surely he couldn’t be? – The hand had started to knead ever so slightly. Probably just standard practice: a massage thrown in as well.

He had made it a more than halfway up my inner thigh before I was totally convinced he had not asked to clean off my dead skin out of the goodness of his heart. Still, though, it took another couple of seconds – in which time his intentions had become, let’s just say, unmistakably clear – for me to suddenly sit bolt upright, an involuntary “Oh my God!” escaping my lips.

There followed an awkward silence, to put it mildly. Then, without a word, the stranger left the room, leaving me to reflect on whether what had just happened had in fact just happened.

My official scrub down came shortly after. Back in the warm room, on the stone slab, I was scraped and kneaded professionally until I started to feel clean once more.

Outside the hammams on the Boulevard Barbès. (Photo: Chris Newens)

Outside the hammams on the Boulevard Barbès. (Photo: Chris Newens)

A Return to Paris

As I stepped back onto the street, my skin throbbing clean, and a bellyful of mint tea, I felt again the sense of swapping continents – back to Europe this time. Paris Dreambook had not been wrong, I thought. The Hammam Bains Vapeurs was everything I had read to expect. Even my encounter in the hot room felt like something predicted on the page (though I’ve related it here should someone want to follow in my footsteps and be more savvy than I).

Yet there was more to the hammam than just fulfilling some orientalist fantasy. As I have said before, the barriers between the many cultures of Paris can be hard to transgress; they surround its citizens like so many layers of dead skin. But by stepping into the hammam I immediately became a part of its world: sat almost naked – stripped of the artifice of clothes – conversing with complete strangers, united briefly by a shared experience and a shared desire to get clean.