By Angus McDowall
ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) – Swaddled in white towels, the Mansour and Wafai families sat in an arched alcove of Aleppo’s Bab al-Ahmar public bathhouse, reviving their once-weekly tradition after years of war in Syria.
With steamy stone rooms, masseurs and traditional singers, the bathhouses have been a staple of Aleppo life for centuries. But located in the battle zone of the Old City, most had to close.
Fighting in Aleppo ended in late 2016 although it goes on s elsewhere in Syria and four of the city’s 50 or so bathhouses have now reopened. They are drawing back some old customers – and new ones too young to remember life before the war.
Omar Mansour, 37, and his brother-in-law Malek Wafai, 36, used to bathe every Thursday night. This was their first visit back – and the first time for their sons, Jihad, 13, Laithullah, 11, Mohammed Nour, 10 and Yazan, 5.
“We hope we will be coming every Thursday again now that it’s open,” said Mansour, a taxi-driver. The children nodded enthusiastic agreement.
They were in the high, domed reception room, sitting in one of several alcoves with stone benches set into each wall above the sunken floor and its octagonal fountain.
Customers disrobe in this room, wrapping themselves in a towel before entering the inner part of the bathhouse, a warm, wet labyrinth of arches, domed chambers and vaulted passageways that lead, finally, to a cool pool misted with steam.
Inside, five men were sitting in swimming trunks in a small chamber around a tray laden with local specialities: spicy raw meat with bulgur wheat and fluffy bread with cheese.
In another chamber, a raucous young group were singing bawdy wedding songs, banging time on plastic bowls and splashing each other with water.
Evenings at the bathhouse are for men, daytime hours for women. Bathers lather themselves with Aleppo soap made of olives and bay leaf before rinsing from bowls of hot water drawn from large stone basins in the washing chambers.
An old attendant gave exfoliating rubs, turning bathers one way then another as he worked a coarse glove over their bodies before dousing them in scorching water, blushing the skin.
Later, another attendant whirled towels around bathers with the flourish of a dervish, wrapping the waist, shoulders and head in smooth white cloth before they returned to the entrance area.
War-ruined bathhouses are dotted around Aleppo’s Old City, their distinctive domes, punched like colanders with round apertures of coloured glass, lying smashed, or looking down on rooms filled with rubble and garbage.
At times during Syria’s war, shortages of water, heating fuel and electricity reportedly drove people to the Damascus public bathhouses, but none of the customers at Bab al-Ahmar baths said this was their reason for attending.
Thaer Khairullah, who owns the bathhouse, said he had only reopened it in December after four months of renovations. There were only about a quarter of the customers that came before the war, he said, because so many people had fled the city.
“On Thursday evenings before the Friday weekend it was so crowded that you could find no empty space,” he said, looking around at the bare stone benches in some alcoves.
Behind him, a traditional singer, an elderly man wearing a fez and a gauzy, black, gold-trimmed cloak over his suit, was plucking at a zither-like stringed instrument.
Drying in their towels to one side, Aleppo University medical students Mansour Salim, 24, and Ahmad Faqas, 25, listened to the music, drank tea, ran their fingers through their fashionably luxuriant beards and smoked cigarettes.
Faqas came weekly to the baths before the war, brought from childhood by his father, and said he was glad to be back. Salim, brought for the first time by his friend, said he enjoyed the experience.
As for the traditional music, Salim said he preferred Lady Gaga, while Faqas liked country and western.
(Reporting By Angus McDowall, Editing by Angus MacSwan)