The Definitive Guide to Living in the Capital , Cairo , Egypt

Health & Fitness
Hammam El Arbaa

Hammam El Arbaa: A Ghetto Cleansing Adventure

reviewed by
Haisam Abu-Samra
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Hammam El Arbaa: A Ghetto Cleansing Adventure

Behind the towering World Trade Centre and Conrad
hotel, in the narrow alleys of Shobra, sits Hammam El Arbaa, just as it has
been for the past 500 years. The hammam (Arabic for bath) provides a steam
bath, massage, and a full body wash for a mere 25LE. Whichever way you look at
it, trying out a hammam to see what the fuzz is all about won’t waste anything
but a little dead skin off your back.

The establishment was bought by a man named Awkal eleven
years ago. A devoted patron to the hammam himself, Awkal took over the decaying
bath from its ambivalent owners and revamped the place while taking pains to maintain
the rustic aesthetic. You’ll feel like you walked into a time warp when you’re
at El Arbaa. Some kitsch has lurked its way inside, yet the dome-shaped cellars
will make you feel very nostalgic.

The hammam is a five-minute walk from the Boulaq
police station. We recommend that you park your car there and have a nice walk
down the quiet alleyways. If you ask anyone on the street for directions, they’ll
be more than happy to point you the right way; but be sure to mention which
hammam you are looking for: Hammam El Arbaa is situated right next to Hammam El

The procedure they follow is based on Turkish bath
methods introduced to Egypt
during the Othman period, as well as Moroccan hammam traditions. You first step
into a piping hot bath with steam all around you, where you stay for a few
minutes before you rinse in a cold-water tub. It’s a form of hydrotherapy that
challenges your thermoregulation and stimulates your blood circulation. There
is scepticism about the procedure’s healing powers, but it’s rejuvenating nevertheless.
It may leave you a little dizzy, but we’ve been told that it’s normal and healthy;
as it means that your body is exuding all its energy by trying to maintain its
core temperature.

The highlight of the hammam experience is the massage
and the full-body wash. At Awkal, the massage is performed by a middle-aged man
with a gut the size of a watermelon. He performs it while wearing nothing but his
tighty whities, and his gut tends to get in the way occasionally. Instead of
oils, the rounded masseur applies soap on your body and proceeds to rub it all
over your back and chest. It’s intensive and quick, and not at all relaxing; but
afterwards your muscles will feel relieved.

Next is the full-body wash, in which a younger man
wears a gritty glove and scrubs the dead skin off your entire body. You then
take a shower to get rid of the soap and take another round of hot and cold dips.

Hammam El Arbaa has a waiting room outside, where they
offer hot tea and other traditional drinks. Its patrons are an exciting mix of
working-class Egyptians and adventurous foreigners. It’s not as sketchy as you
might think, and many people that give it a try find themselves returning
periodically. The hammam is cheap, cleansing and most definitely memorable. Go
with a bunch of your friends for maximum fun.

360 Tip

Early evening is the best time to go. The hammam gets more crowded starting 9PM and slows down after midnight. Avoid Thursdays; they tend to be the most crowded and awkward.

Best Bit

After your first round of hot and cold rinses, the alternation gets too ecstatic for the senses.

Worst Bit

Awkal’s staff members aren’t the most helpful; but they are friendly. They won’t go through the steps with you; so make sure you clearly ask them what to do.

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