By Mary Terzian
(Chapter twenty-eight of “The Immigrants' Daughter”, 2005)
The unexpected defeat of the first collective Arab army by
University students continue to demonstrate against British rule and against the pro-British Government, inciting mobs. Housing is in crisis. War with
Mama?s relatives have long dropped their visits because they get the cold shoulder from Stepmother. Only Mme. Astoria faithfully comes by, at least once a week. She is the breeze in the otherwise stifling atmosphere of our home. She has not changed an iota in the last seven years, since I met her first. She is still a beautiful, corpulent woman in her late-forties, with sparkling eyes and glamorous as ever. She continues to wear bright colors with high platform shoes, sports an engaging smile and emanates an effusive enthusiasm that disinfects the air of all floating grudges. Somehow, youth is imprisoned in her forever. I love listening to her intriguing stories of the ?good old days? even when they are not so good.
One day, she surprises me by remembering her Armenian childhood. She relates that her Syrian husband was the first prospect to propose, a man twice her age.
?Why did you accept?? I ask.
?We had no voice in the matter, dear, ? she says. ?We were four girls and just forced out of
I secretly hope Father will not give me away without my consent.
?My husband already had false teeth when I married him,? she jokes.
I want to ask her how you kiss a man with false teeth, but I don?t dare. It is not the kind of question befitting my age. Love is still a four-letter word in our household, akin to plague.
Mme. Astoria is over again, on this chilly and windy day, her jolly upbeat self.
?It?s too cold to step out of the house,? Stepmother complains, while I serve the traditional demitasse coffee. ?I don?t even want to dye my hair! You?re brave.?
?Why don?t we go to hamam?? Mme. Astoria suggests. ?I could use a good hot bath.?
She turns to me. She needs support to push Stepmother to a decision.
?Don?t you want to come with us?? she asks. ?A rough rubbing with kesse will do you a world of good.?
Kesse is a black mitt of coarse horsehair that feels like soft sandpaper. It scrapes the dirt out.
I shake my head. I hate going to hamam. I am perfectly happy to wash myself in our tiny bathroom, heating water on a gas stove.
Stepmother hesitates. ?I have to ask Dikran about that.?
In our home, nobody?s hair moves without Father?s permission, especially when expenses are involved.
Mme. Astoria stays around until Father comes home in the evening. The visit to hamam is discussed.
?Is she coming with you?? he asks, pointing at me.
?I can?t go, I have school,? I risk.
?She doesn?t want to come.? Stepmother shrugs her shoulders.
Mme. Astoria gives her a stern look while Father turns to me.
?Why aren?t you going? Since when do you make your own decisions??
?I have school,? I stammer, trying to avoid long explanations that fuel his angry outbursts.
?You always use school as an excuse!? he yells at me. ?You dodge it like a weapon! You go!?
I look at him like a wounded animal.
?I?ll be in uniform,? I venture, ?How will I take my stuff to school??
Mme. Astoria butts in; ?Virginie, why don?t you take her clothes with you, so that she can come and join us later??
?That?ll be too heavy. I can barely carry mine.?
?I?ll send one of my boys to help you,? Father offers.
?I?ll only take her towel.? Then Stepmother addresses me.
?You take your underwear with you to school. It?s not that heavy.?
I am livid but I have gone as far as Father?s patience will bear.
?Don?t you dare disobey me or I?ll beat you to a bloody pulp, without hesitation!? Father swears.
?There?s no need for that,? Mme. Astoria intervenes. ?She?ll come. So it?s all right for Wednesday? We?ll meet there.?
On taking leave, she manages to whisper to me. ?Don?t worry, it?ll be all right. We?ll have fun.?
I go to bed in tears. What an old-fashioned idea! How many girls attending an English secondary school go to hamam, for heaven?s sake? If my classmates find out, I will be the laughing stock of the whole world! Why do we have to carry on with old-fashioned traditions when they are so outdated? And why is Father so adamant about my going to hamam when he loathes spending an extra penny?
On Wednesday morning I serve the regular demitasse coffee to my parents before leaving for school.
?Leave your bath towel on the table or else I?ll not take it,? Stepmother reminds me.
I grind my teeth as I squeeze underwear into my briefcase that has already burst at the bottom seams. I don?t want to tell Father about it because I can?t tolerate another ?look how much your education is costing me? refrain.
If I could scrub floors to pay for my tuition, I would. Unfortunately, while books are manageable within one?s grip, underwear has a tendency to slip through any available opening.
The trek to school is a high-risk journey with the threat of losing my plain cotton knit underwear in the middle of the street, or worse yet, while crossing a busy thoroughfare. My stakes are higher in class, where my focus inevitably concentrates on the briefcase with a loose bottom sitting underneath my desk. Every time the girl in front of me drops her pencil, my heart jumps into high gear. Will she discover a pink patch peeking out of the briefcase? I?m tempted to forego break in favor of sitting guard to my now overprized possession, but then I may invite more attention.
At the end of the day, with tie and hat on, I carefully put my notebooks back where they belong, clutching my precious briefcase tight, making sure my reputation does not become as loose as its bottom.
It is 3:30 p.m. and the sun lingers on the horizon beyond time, or so it seems. Every shopkeeper sitting in front of his store idling, sipping coffee, or smoking narghileh watches me pass by with my formal English uniform, holding onto my valuable cargo as if it is an extension of my body.
The bath structure has a circular dome with round skylights, where naughty boys climb up to watch the naked women below. Its small entrance door is barely noticeable. On arrival, I look around to make sure that no acquaintances are within sight. I slide in unnoticed.
A huge mirror framed in ornate gold-color carvings hangs on one wall, dominating the grand scale atrium. It is strategically positioned. The owner/cashier sitting at the door can supervise the operations without rising an inch from where she squats. She looks like a Buddha, except that she wears headgear and never smiles. Her big tummy protrudes from her huge frame in an effort to reach her chin.
Opposite the mirror, on a raised platform, several large rooms with balconies overlook the atrium. The rooms are fitted with divans for the customers? bundles of towels and fresh clothes. The whole place has a musty smell of humidity.
I ignore the cashier and head straight toward the deck where the bathers park their clothes. I recognize Mme. Astoria?s platform shoes next to Stepmother?s traditional pumps. I settle down to take off my uniform but not fast enough. Someone notices me.
?I remember you from the Armenian school,? she says. ?Aren?t you Kev?s sister??
?Yes,? I mumble, avoiding eye contact and hoping my strange appearance at hamam will not make the rounds of the Armenian grapevine. Much as I hate being naked, I hate being recognized even more, so I grab my towel, ignore the clogs, and take the fastest escape on the slippery floor of the atrium to the misty dungeon.
Upon opening the door leading to the baths, the heat overwhelms me. The steam makes the whole scene hazy and the soapy floors prove treacherous. The ?masseuses,? with flattened breasts like boiled eggplants, congregate around the central fountain, awaiting a call for service. One of them helps me to the semi-privacy of the cave-like nook where the constant flow of hot and cold water has formed a sleek mossy layer over the wall and around the sink.
Everybody is naked. The place has the flavor of leftover rituals from pagan days. Some women parade in the nude nonchalantly as if they are on display. I can hardly breathe in this atmosphere. I stick to my towel as if it were sewn into my skin.
?Here comes Mary,? Mme. Astoria beams, sitting in her skin folds, red like a boiled lobster.
Stepmother sizes me up. She is on the second application of hennah and looks as gray as her ashy hair.
?You finally made it,? she sneers.
?I?m glad you came.? Mme. Astoria casts me a smile. She fills her tass with water, pulls me towards her and pours it over me in baptismal style. ?Come, let me rub your back,? she says, lovingly.
I don?t let her do it, of course. It would be a public insult to Stepmother, even though she never rubs my back. She never touches me.
Grandma, father Paul?s mother who is a frequent visitor to our home, has joined the group. I don?t understand the fascination of these ladies with hamam except for its social aspect. For them, it is a picnic in the nude. For me the mossy rock seats and fountains, the steamy heat, the slippery marble floors, and the lack of privacy translate to a physical and emotional torture chamber.
I?m also surprised to see Katerina, Mme. Astoria?s daughter, off from work to join us. Katerina would not hesitate to come down the catwalk in the nude, proudly flaunting her well-proportioned contours, were she so required.
After a curt, ?Hi Mary,? she calls in the masseuse and, without hesitation, throws off her towel to get the kesse treatment. Grandma, an import from
?Are you all right, Grandma?? Stepmother checks with her.
She?s worried that Grandma may faint in the stifling heat.
?Yes, yes,? Grandma whispers, looking in Katerina?s direction and hoping that Mme. Astoria does not see her stares. ?Do you see that? God Almighty! Look at her body!?
?What?s wrong?? asks Stepmother.
?Don?t you see the dark and light shades of her skin??
Stepmother laughs hysterically. The lines from Katerina?s twopiece swimsuit can be traced all over her body. ?Don?t worry,? she assures her, ?That?s just a tan. Katerina?s skin will be back to normal by January.? She makes sure Mme. Astoria is in on the joke.
I wonder if Grandma has ever been to a beach in
I leave the steamy chamber next, barely able to breathe. The others linger until the last minute, till the Buddha yells out ?Hurry up!? because the men are already on queue outside, ready for the evening shift.
?You carry your own clothes now,? Stepmother nudges me.
We emerge from the building squeaky clean, glowing with red cheeks, and not a dead cell to reckon with. Mme. Astoria heads toward the streetcar station while Stepmother, Grandma, and I walk silently to Father?s shop. He beams at me with the glow of a trainer who has just tamed a wild animal. The four of us walk home, me in front of them in my English uniform, hat and briefcase, carrying the hamam bundle like an exhibit of my wounded ego.
Wait till I graduate, I grind my teeth. You will never subject me to this type of humiliation again. Right now graduation seems a century away.
Note: This article is excerpted from the book, “The Immigrants' Daughter” , a compendium of the author's memoirs growing up in Cairo during World War II and thereafter. All copyright rules apply. For more information visit