Andrea Marcusa

Creative Nonfiction

Andrea Marcusa is a fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared in Epiphany, River Styx, Ontario Review, New South, Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, and other publications. A four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she was a finalist in the Dorothy Churchill Cappon Prize for essay (New Letters) and Ruminate’s fiction competition. Andrea divides her time between creating literary fiction and essays and writing articles on health, technology, and education. She has traveled extensively through North Africa. She lives in New York City with her husband and pet bird, L.B. Learn more about Andrea Marcusa’s work at


Hammam Language

I feel around my tote for soap, shampoo, and a towel, then start down the worn stone stairway into the steamy darkness. At the bottom, stand worn and peeling green double doors marking the Hammam entrance. I doublecheck to make sure only one door is ajar, the sign I’ve been told that these ancient baths are open for women this afternoon. Two doors open would mean it was bathing time for men.

I relax as soon as I spot a handful of women start up the stairs. As they scoot past me, I’m engulfed in fresh scents of jasmine, sandalwood, and musk. There’s a celebratory friendliness, an easy intimacy in their bantering. Some are fresh-faced and young; others, elderly and lined and lumbering, are helped up the steps by the younger ones. Towels wrap damp heads. Some of them wear hijabs, while others let their drying hair fly free. Such a range of expression right there in front of me, in this ancient mountain town of El Kef, Tunisia, in this country where the Arab Spring first sprang and which is today, six years later, still so filled with contradiction.

I’m dressed to blend in, and sport the customary long sleeves and slacks. But I’m still eyed curiously; a new face among the familiar ones these women have seen all their lives at this predictable afternoon ritual, one followed by generations of women since the Romans first built these baths centuries ago.

Inside, at the front desk, I hold out some dinars for a heavyset, taciturn clerk. She mutters something in Arabic I don’t quite get, takes several coins and then pushes two small, red plastic buckets toward me. I have no idea what they are for. I linger there, gathering up my things and she shoos me onward to the space behind her where women stand in various stages of undress.

Ever since I’d started traveling to this North African country for research a few years ago, I’d been encouraged by my local colleagues to visit one of the country’s many Hammams, because of their important role in the country’s cultural heritage as a key meeting spot, especially for women, and a place for spiritual cleansing and health. Long ago it was believed that the heat of the Hammam (which in Arabic means "spreader of warmth") enhanced a woman’s fertility, and that a visit to one could cure Smallpox.

This is a rare, free afternoon during a three-day excursion to El Kef before I return to the country’s main capital. When I’d mapped out the sites for this outing, including a foray into the Hammam, my mind had been on what I would see and learn, not how I would feel. But now that I’m standing before perfect strangers who are breezily wriggling out of jeans, shaking hair out of headscarves, and stepping out of long skirts, I feel conspicuous, out of place, alone. I follow along, and remove my clothes right down to my underpants like the others, then automatically reach for my towel and drape it over myself. Faces turn my way. I look around. No one else has shown such modesty. Under the gaze of several strange pairs of eyes, all I can do is pull the towel even a tad tighter.

My skin is lily white. And dry. I burn easily. I stick out among these Tunisian women who are naturally darker, golden and smooth. My hair is brown with streaks of blond and thin, wispy, and fine. It’s already wilted in the steam. All around me are thick, dark, lush tresses.

I drop my toiletries into one of my red buckets like the other women have, then hand my bag and clothes to the clerk. No ticket, no lock. I follow the others down an incline further into the structure. We thread through a low-ceilinged, curved and tiled hallway thick with damp warmth toward the sound of running water, until finally entering a large even hotter room lined with narrow open stalls. The gushing sound is everywhere. Sweat starts forming on my back from the heat. I find an empty stall, peer through the steam and see water rushing and streaming all over, flooding the floor. I turn on a faucet and the spray feels cool in the intense warmth. The women nearby are lathering their bodies with their green soap and I do the same, running the bar over my already dry skin so that it loses its last bit of moisturizer. I fill my empty red bucket with water and pour it over my head to rinse off the soap like the other patrons have. My hands are wrinkling; I feel sweat on my upper lip. The steam and sound of water presses in on me, it whooshes as runoff reaches grates in the floor and twirls down the drain.

There are all shapes and sizes of women here. Large and muscular, cream puffy and pendulous, small and dainty. I’ve heard that this is where mothers, years ago, came to size up the figures, especially the chest size, of potential wives for their sons. Several completely nude women are lounging on a stair, totally at ease. Here in the Hamman, without the worry of appearing inappropriate in front of men, it seems that women are free, and at this moment feeling far freer than me.

The woman nearest looks my way. I glance at her and see curves, several rolls of flab at her waist, heavy breasts. No shame, no discomfort, no dissatisfaction by what’s revealed, despite her girth. The word zaftig comes to mind. I turn away, focusing my gaze on the lather on my forearms, how my cuticles are bright white, wondering how fat or old or in or out of shape I look to them. I want to fit in, blend in, go unnoticed. But the woman’s stare stays on what I imagine she sees—pasty white skin, fleshy arms, wide hips. And my unease. My, I’m-here-all-alone-by-myself unease. My, not-comfortable-in-my-own-skin unease. My naked-before-so-many-eyes unease. There’s no nude lounging at my health club in the States. Just hasty sprints to private showers—with curtains—averted eyes, toweled hair, quick changes, and a chorus grumbles and grimacing at the sight of flawed figures in mirrors. And then there’s how terrible we were to each other in junior high gym showers, the laughing at the one girl who was too flat-chested or the one who was too busty. I glance back at the bather. Although it’s impossible to know what she is thinking, I’m convinced that to her I’m just another self-conscious Westerner stumbling through the steam and heat of her Hammam. But there’s a kindness about her, too, maybe even sympathy for my obvious unease. She signals to me to follow her. I guess it’s pretty clear that I have no idea what I’m doing.

I quickly rinse off the rest of the soap then drape my towel around my neck and trail the woman into an even steamier and hotter room where, out of nowhere, my arm is grabbed by a hammam worker. She motions for me to lie down on a slab of stone. I stretch out on this hard bed of warm marble wondering what will happen next, my anxiety soaring. With a burlap glove on her hand, she begins to scrub me. The pressure is so hard and the rubbing so vigorous that it feels punishing, as if her glove will rub off my skin completely. An alarm sounds inside me. What am I doing? What if I get hurt? But it’s all happened so fast. I become a tongue-tied foreigner too timid to ask her to ease up, too chicken to say a word. After another minute, I am sure I am bleeding. She signals me to turn over and continues to scrub every inch of me—my toes, my armpits, even the skin behind my ears. When I don’t think that I can bear a second more scrubbing, I’m doused with buckets of warm water and hear it rushing and echoing all around me, bouncing off the ceilings, the walls. And then the rough burlap is back on my skin. I concentrate on breathing, my heart rate, feeling my blood pounding in my temples. I want to tough it out. I don’t want to seem wimpy and ask her to stop, become to her just another delicate foreigner who can’t cut it. But time moves so slowly. I tell myself that the scrubbing will stop. I tell myself that there are other patrons waiting. That they haven’t got all day. That it’s just a matter of time before it will end.

And then it is over and the worker pulls me to sitting up, hands me my plastic cups, points to the showers and says, “La bas!” My eyes have adjusted to the misty low light and I notice a few women there watching me with a kind of directness. I’m sure my shocked expression from the aggressive scrub has given them a bit of amusement. It reminds me of how I feel back home in New York City when I spot the stricken face of a tourist caught up in the sea of commuters all pushing and clamoring onto an overflowing subway car at rush hour. Today, I’m the diversion for the locals who are so accustomed to this way of life in the Hammam, one that has remained unchanged in this remote spot for centuries.

Standing there, dripping wet, stripped of anything familiar or modern, I picture all the mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers and daughters and aunts and sisters over generations bathing together inside these walls, stretching back to ancient times. And for a second I feel part of something so much bigger than this moment—something that is central to these women all around me, something ancient and universal and real.

Back at the shower, my skin looks fine, no marks, only softness. I shampoo my hair, rinse, and move toward the changing room. On my way, a young woman approaches. “Hello,” she says. It’s strange to hear English spoken here, and its oddly surprising and reassuring all at once. I sense her curiosity and eagerness to help, a quality that comes so naturally to most Tunisians. Her towel is twisted into a turban on her head. “This way,” she points and we walk out of the steam and are back in the changing alcove. She points to me, signaling to the woman at the desk to find my clothes first. “Shukran,” I say to her. “You are welcome,” she says and smiles.

The clerk remembers which bag is mine and she pushes it toward me. Soon I am toweling my hair. An older, stooped woman in pale blue underwear offers me a bottle of scented oil. I hesitate. She pushes it toward me again and I hold out my hand. She pours some onto my palm and I smooth it over my calves. After the scrub, they feel so silky, like a baby’s skin. Another woman pushes her hairbrush toward me. I had forgotten to bring my own and am relieved to run it through my hair. “Thank you,” I say, automatically, forgetting to speak in Arabic or French.

The dressing area is alive with pulling on and smoothing and hopping on one foot and zipping. Soon, I’m in my long slacks, shirt, and sandals. Our little band heads through the double doors and starts up the stairs, bags slung over shoulders, sleeves brushing, in a cloud of fragrance and joking. As the women chatter away, I can only catch a few words and phrases, but I know it is what women say and joke about all over the world and I smile and laugh along with them. In such a short time, I’m accepted in some small way by these women and part of something I can’t really touch or hold, but feel with each step we take together. I can’t name what it is. It’s nothing I’ve ever known in the States. The stairs feel steep and slippery. My foot slides. Before I can stumble, someone has caught my arm and is steadying me. I look at her and she smiles, and so do I, and she holds my arm as we make our way up to the top step, amid this great rising tide of banter and laughter.

I don’t want it to stop.