A LONG TIME AGO, back in the Jewish mahallah of Kermanshah, there was a public bath known as Haji Gershin’s hamam. On the days designated for women, the proprietor, Haji Gershin himself, slept in a chair propped outside the door while the head female bath attendant collected the entry fees. Because Haji Gershin was asleep, the men didn’t mind much that their womenfolk were about to undress and bathe in such close proximity to another man.
This is all true, save one more detail which the original storyteller told me, who was a child then, a white-haired woman of regal bearing now, that every time the women came to bathe, inevitably, someone’s bracelet or earring fell into the drain, and the head female bath attendant led a blindfolded Haji Gershin into the baths, where he stood amid the naked women, tapping the copper pipes, his head cocked to the side as he listened closely and the women waited in silent anticipation for him to find the missing jewelry.
The original storyteller, the white-haired woman of regal bearing, gave me only these facts, the barest of retellings, but we can create the rest of this story together, you and I, if we follow the narrow cobblestone alleyway that leads to the hamam, the walls of rough-edged brick high on either side, past heavy wooden doors that conceal lush gardens with fruiting trees and gurgling fountains, roses and nightingales. You might argue that the scene is too reminiscent of an orientalist’s fantasy, but more than one storyteller has told me of the lush gardens, the abundant fruit trees, roses more pungent than any rose since, and since multiple perspectives share in common these very specific details, we’ll assume them true and imagine that the high brick walls and heavy wooden doors surrounding us hide a little paradise each.
The narrow, winding labyrinth eventually leads to the hamam, where women wait in line, laughing and gossiping, bundles of their belongings held beneath their arms. Above them, flapping in the breeze, a banner of colorful loincloths hangs high to dry on a line in the sun, the sound of the cloths like sails and the women’s chatter like gulls, and the children hopping about, excited by the prospect of water.
Seeing it, you and I might remember the seaside and the particular celebration of salty air and waves. And it is a celebration, the bath day for women. They wake early in the morning to gather their toiletries and clean clothing, their jewelry, their combs, their children, their sorrows, fatigues, frustrations, and they wrap it all in a cloth bundle, then hoist the weight of it upon their backs and leave their cloistered paradises within those high brick walls, step out of the heavy wooden doors, and walk from all corners of the mahallah to the neighborhood hamam.
There they meet their cousins and friends, their enemies and sisters, prospective brides and strangers, the seamstress, the midwife, the matchmaker, the baker, the mortician, a gathering of the whole world crammed into an afternoon in the marbled and mirrored chambers of a public bath.
The bath day is a busy one. There is music. There are attendants specialized in various arts, women who knead out the muscles, women who henna hands and feet, women who darken white roots and thread the eyebrows, strong-armed women who removed layers of dead skin with a coarse cloth, women who weave and plait the hair, women who pierce ears, women who find suitable grooms, women who survey future daughters-in-law, women who listen and advise. The hamam is a bustling marketplace, with chai and sherbets and prayers and kabobs for sale. Medicines, too, for all sorts of ailments, from cataracts to neglect, for bearing boys and ridding of the unexpected, and amulets, as well, to win love or protect from the evil eye.
The head attendant knows each woman who enters by name. And she knows of their relationships to one another, a thick and tangled web of connections, both blood and debt, which ties one woman to the next. She collects their payments and their news in feigned whispers, so as not to wake her boss, Haji Gershin himself, the hero of our story, who snores deeply, propped in his chair, chin tucked to chest, arms crossed.
Look at the naughty game you and I have been playing, no? The story in its original telling is simple. All we know is that a long time ago, in the Jewish mahallah, there was once a public bath known as Haji Gershin’s hamam, and on the day designated for the women to bathe, Gershin slept in a chair outside the door. And we imagine that the men didn’t mind, because his eyes were closed as their womenfolk undressed inside and let down their hair, and soaped their naked bodies, and painted their fingers and their toes, and waxed the hair from the softest parts of their thighs and combed out their tangles and washed away a week’s accumulation of dirt and heartbreak, all the while laughing and gossiping, until someone, always, inevitably, lost a ring or a necklace, and Haji Gershin, blindfolded by the head female bath attendant and led by the hand into the chambers, stood among the silent, naked women as he tapped the copper pipes, his head cocked to the side.
What a naughty game, indeed. But I assure you, the invocation of this scene is not purely fictitious. Years ago, I attended a public bath myself, in a small village in the northern Caspian Sea region of Iran. That village was beautiful, green and lush and overgrown with flowers, and the baths were known to have medicinal waters. I walked into the hamam just as the village women were undressing. They shared similar features, those women, all of them white and plump, small breasted, light eyed, with hair the color of gold wheat, and I stood among them, distinctly Semitic, black haired, black eyed, thin, my skin a gooseflesh, a bird altogether different from the flock surrounding me. They didn’t pay me much mind as they removed their hijab, then their clothes, then their undergarments, and they stood openly, unabashedly naked beside one another, beneath the glass dome that filtered in the muted morning light. I recall one woman in particular, who undressed to reveal the finest red Chantilly lace bra and underwear, her lips red, too, her gold bracelets thick and jangling. She must have been the mayor’s wife, I imagined, watching her from the corner of my eye. I tell you this to reassure you that there is no shame in allowing your mind a peek into this embellished construction of Haji Gershin’s hamam, born from the recollections of an old woman. That once I, too, stood gazing as audience into a story which held no place for me.
But back to our blindfolded hero. His other senses heightened, Haji Gershin stands by the drain and notes that the hamam smells of a different humidity on the women’s day. He recognizes not just the humidity of steam, but of female flesh, and soap, and almond oil and henna and rose water, and honey heated to strip the softest thighs of unseemly hair. The air is humid with voices, too, and expectations and excitement, humid with unspoken grief and joy, heavy with disappointments, deceits, and hopes. He stands barefoot among them, on the slippery wet marble.
Despite the blindfold and his own code of honor, Gershin can’t help but to look at the women’s bare feet. The wrinkled, gnarled feet of an old woman cautiously walking between the pools. Fat feet. And tired ones. A set of swollen ones, which must belong to a pregnant woman, his theory confirmed when she begs a passing attendant in a whisper to clip the toenails she can no longer reach. He stands among them, forces himself to look away from a fine pair of dainty feet, white as lilies with the most delicate of arches, and he focuses his entire attention on the task at hand, to find the lost bracelet that fell down the drain.
Gershin imagines himself as a pair of ears only, so as to heighten his sense of hearing. And just when he forgets all else but sound, he hears the collective sigh of the women and the hamam begins to sing for him. He listens to the gentle sucking of a babe at its mother’s breast, the percussion of some youthful woman’s taut buttocks against the wet marble when she decides to sit, the whispers of children, the hushing of mothers, the music of the whole chamber set to the metronome of drops of water. Sometimes, Haji Gershin imagines the sound of that drip as the mark of time itself, and he thinks about his own mortality, the futility of his life’s work, and a heaviness settles in his heart. Only then, like a conductor, does he raise his hand to signal that he is ready to begin.
The head female bath attendant takes his hand and leads him in the direction of the copper pipes. When she stops and puts his hand carefully on the pipe, he taps it gently with his knuckles, just once, his head cocked to the side. He shakes his head no, and the head bath attendant guides him a few steps forward, nudging a girl child out of the way with her foot to make room for the haji. She leads his hand to the pipe again, he taps it gently with a knuckle, head cocked to the side, and this act continues until the haji hears that distinct note he searches for.
Perhaps, if Haji Gershin had been given musical training in his childhood rather than being forced into an apprenticeship at the hamam by his father and spending his early years washing loincloths by hand and hanging them out on the line to dry overhead in the hot sun, the haji would have been an accomplished musician now, an Ustad of the daf or the domback, but life did not plan such qesmat for him. Instead, one morning, his father took him by the hand, walked the winding labyrinths of alleys until they reached this hamam, and pushed him toward the proprietor, offering his young son’s services in exchange for a few tomans and one less mouth to feed. The haji, not a haji in those days, washed and scrubbed until his hands were raw, and he swept, and he carried pail after pail after pail of hot water, and from time to time he spent an entire afternoon tapping pipes with his knuckles to find the location of a clog. Year after year after year, marked by the eternal plinking of that drip, the boy grew into a man, and the original proprietor grew into less of a man, and before long, the haji took over the whole enterprise, until it was known by his name.
Let’s say that the haji is a man simple in his tastes. Good tobacco. The touch of an occasional hired woman with dainty feet. Lamb shank on Fridays. A nap in his chair propped beside the door of the hamam, beneath a warm morning sun. And his gramophone, which sits in the parlor of his humble home. Every afternoon, after he locks the door of the hamam and walks back to his house listening to the bulbuls singing in the hidden paradises behind the heavy doors, Haji Gershin enters his own residence, takes off his shoes, opens the windows, selects a record, places it on the gramophone, and forgets, completely, the insistent drip of time. Let’s say that sometimes Haji Gershin places upon his gramophone a recording of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and listens to it as the sun sets and the long shadows creep across his garden. In these moments, the music fills him so fully, clogs his heart with such certainty of the sublimity of this life, that he forgets all his sorrows and weeps as he hums along.
Why not imagine him thus? Beautiful, aware of his own transience, this simple, insignificant man, this maestro who never learned any other instrument but the copper pipes.
The regal, white-haired woman who told me this story experienced the haji’s art when she was a child, each time she visited the hamam designated for Jews in the mahallah of Kermanshah designated the same. She mentioned him briefly, one evening over a cup of tea, as a footnote to her account of the public bath of her neighborhood. She told me that each time the women bathed, inevitably, something precious slipped down the drain, and that the head female bath attendant blindfolded the haji and led him by the hand into the chamber, where he stood among the silent, naked women, tapping the copper pipes, his head cocked to the side, listening.
Parnaz Foroutan is the author of Girl from the Garden (Ecco), which received the PEN Emerging Voices Award. Her new memoir is titled Home Is a Stranger (Chicago Review). Her essays have appeared in NBC Think, The Sun, Body Literature, and the anthology Radical Hope (Vintage).