On a summer Tuesday in Nablus, a city in the northern part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Palestinian women plastered in face masks puff clouds of hookah smoke.
Nearby, others sip tea and clap to Arabic pop music as a teen and her mother expertly sway their hips. An elderly group feasts on fried chicken. Everyone’s skin is tinted pink from the steam.
This is Hammam Alshifaa, a traditional bathhouse tucked away off a main artery of Nablus’ Old City. The chamber of milky white stone baths is connected to a lounging hall for bathers to cool down and relax, per Ottoman tradition. Depending on whether one reads an engraved plaque above Alshifaa’s doorway using the Gregorian or Islamic calendar, the hammam was erected 400 or 800 years ago. (Most accounts go with 800.)
These days it’s mostly men who unwind in the steamy halls of Alshifaa. Women have the floor just two days a week. But as a growing number of Palestinian women return to the tradition to escape the daily grind of work and family, they’re demanding more time.
Lamya Walweel, supervisor of women’s day at Alshifaa for eight years, has led this charge. At her makeshift registration desk in the hammam’s lounging hall, she slammed down her cellphone. “That was another woman asking to come in tomorrow,” she yelled over the music. “But of course I have to tell her no because tomorrow is Wednesday.”
In the 1990s, women were allotted just one day a week to come here. Customers pushed it to two days about 10 years ago, and women can now visit on Sundays and Tuesdays. Since then, the average number of women visitors jumped from two dozen to almost 200 in a day, the hall sometimes so packed people have to sit on the floor.
To many Palestinians, a visit to the hammam is considered a men’s pastime. But as the custom undergoes something of a cultural revival in the West Bank, new Turkish baths are catering more to women. Walweel was ahead of the curve.
Walweel welcomes her customers with kisses on the cheek and a magnetic smile, wearing a T-shirt with her wavy brown hair pulled back. To this skincare specialist who spent years working at a United Nations women’s center, it’s obvious why the hammam is so popular with women.
Most of her customers have full-time jobs in addition to being the primary caretaker in their family. If there’s any group of people who could use a spa day around here, Walweel says, it’s women.
In this conservative city where cafes for only men are ubiquitous, the bath is also a rare spot for women to gather in public outside the purview of men. Walweel confiscates every cellphone in the building to ensure complete privacy, a boon to religious women.
“Here, women have total free will,” says Walweel. “In Nablus when women go to parks, restaurants or other places they can’t take off their jackets or hijab. But at the hammam they do what they want. When they meet a new person they talk, when they hear a music beat they dance. Nobody is watching.”
Turkish bathhouses like Alshifaa became widespread around the Islamic world during the Ottoman Empire’s reign. In countries like Morocco, Turkey and Hungary, they continue to draw scores of locals and tourists alike.
Historians write that Nablus, an economic center of the Middle East in the 16th century, was once home to 10 such Turkish baths. The area was nicknamed “Little Damascus” for its strong ties to the Syrian city that — legend has it — once had 365 hammams, one for each day of the year.
Baths were central to Nablus’ social fabric, with women arriving to bathe during the day and men after prayer at night. But the emergence of inexpensive home bathrooms during the 1970s and ’80s left all but two shuttered or repurposed as factories for furniture, sweets and soap.
Alshifaa’s manager, Yousif Jabi, was tapped in the early ’90s by the hammam’s owner, a member of a wealthy Palestinian family, to save the bath from becoming a carpentry shop. The amicable white-haired man spent a small fortune renovating the structure once in 1994, and then again unexpectedly in 2004.
In the early 2000s, Nablus was the center of an uprising that sparked years of violence between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers and left hundreds of local businesses damaged. According to Jabi, Israeli forces struck Alshifaa hammam’s main hall in 2002. The Israeli army acknowledged fighting in the area but said the hammam itself was not targeted.
Today, laughter bounces off wet tile and stone on women’s day at the hammam. Rough scrubdowns to remove dead skin, massages, facials, or hair removal are all available for 30 shekels (around $8).
A dozen women lay on a heated marble slab called the “fire stone,” powered by sunlight pouring in through holes carved into the domed ceiling. English teacher Laila Odeh, her daughter dutifully scrubbing her feet, says she cherishes days spent here.
“It’s about taking time for yourself and mixing with new people,” she says, adding the absence of men puts her at ease.
When male regulars visit Alshifaa, they often come alone and spend an hour or two. Women, however, arrive with neighbors, cousins and friends to stay in the lounge room for the better part of the day.
Among cushions and snacks, collective recuperation quickly turns into a party. Smoke fills the room and staff serving tea double as DJs.
For years, Walweel relayed demands for more women’s days to management with little success. Jabi contended that his guardianship of the bath has been to preserve Palestinian heritage, not profit.
He offered up Monday to Walweel in 2015 as a test trial for a third day, but she couldn’t deliver the same attendance as men — a tall order — and he canceled it. “Maybe we could have advertised more, but the men’s days are entrenched,” says Walweel. “They don’t want to accept change.”
After that, she started pushing for Saturday, when most women have off from work. Jabi rejected that outright, because business is better for men on weekends. Shaher Jabi, Yousif Jabi’s son, who does most of the managing these days, says “it’s hard to balance, but we usually gravitate toward men.”
Yet Yousif Jabi insisted he has heard women’s requests loud and clear. In recent months, they have proposed a compromise. “We are ready for more women to come,” he says.
Next year, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when the business often closes for renovations, they hope to build an additional section. That way, men and women can bathe at the same time while maintaining modesty and separation.
“For a long time I’ve told my customers ‘Inshallah [God willing], in the future.’ Now finally we have a solution. We will see,” she says.
As the clock hits 5 p.m., Walweel’s staff gets ready to hand the place back over to the men. The halls empty but for a few trash bags. She put on her robe and hijab to pose for a photo.
“[I] don’t give up easily,” she says. “I don’t look for pity and I always look forward.”