A gay man returns to Beirut with the expectant disposition of returnees only to experience doubts and sexual pleasure in a bathhouse in Beirut.
The motorbike darts through the streets of Beirut. His hands cling to the passenger grab-bar, while his inner thighs lightly tap the driver’s hips. He finds himself at the Shahrazad hammam, but realizes he has arrived too early.
“The water is still not hot,” the hammam’s proprietor says as he leans on a chair, smoking a shisha listlessly. His skinny legs protrude from a white galabeya. His eyes are dull. He proposes to come back later, but the owner insists he stay. He won’t let a client go, especially one who acts like a novice tourist. “It won’t take long,” he says. “Have a seat!”
Behind the proprietor, a painting depicts a young man clad in blue overalls. One suspender has come undone, revealing one nipple and a muscular torso. The proprietor is the man in the portrait, perhaps twenty years earlier; the mustache has remained the same, but the lush brown hair has turned into a balding gray. He nervously hands the proprietor his valuables, a small bag containing his phone, wallet, and still-new German passport. The thought of his stuff being inspected as he bathes downstairs disturbs him. He wants to pass for a local, but he isn’t good at accents.
I lived in Europe for too long, he thinks, as an irritation constricts his lungs. Most people are late, but he arrives on time. A few hours earlier, he had been waiting for his Lebanese friend. He killed time by shifting his gaze between customers at the café and the passersby on Gemmayzeh Street. “So sorry,” the friend said while opening his arms for a hug. “The barber’s appointment took ages,” he explained. They talked about how life has treated them since they had last met. “You should go to Shahrazad,” the friend had suggested with a cheeky smile, then continued with a warning: “You’re not in Berlin anymore.”
“I grew up in Egypt, you know!”
“That was a long time ago, habibi,” the friend replied with a hearty giggle.
“I am more careful than in the old times, anyway.” He slurped more iced coffee, now too watered down, to hide his annoyance.
I am here to relax, he reminds himself, and takes a deep breath. He begins with the sauna, sits on the wooden bench, and waits for his body to perspire.
“Do you need anything?” Every now and then, the two young men comprising the hammam staff inquire. “I’m good for now,” he answers. His friend had warned him about this — the staff would solicit business from him. “They’ll try to offer you a ‘massage,’” the friend had said, drawing quote marks in the air. “Usually, Syrians are hired for jobs the Lebanese won’t take,” he added.
He moves through the rooms trying to understand their logic, but the emptiness makes it hard to visualize its dynamics. With no other clients in the hammam, his mind wanders: Is anybody else coming today? Is it the wrong day? The wrong time? The economic crisis? He considers the massage. He is unnerved. He didn’t want a transactional connection. He wants something random and serendipitous. Sex in Berlin always felt transactional.
It took him years to muster the courage to visit a sauna in Berlin. He didn’t like moving around undressed there. His hairy body and acne-scarred back stood out in contrast with the spotless skin of those around him. When he finally made it to Boiler, Berlin’s largest gay sauna — a three-story establishment with an elaborate maze and comfortable cabins — men grabbed at his penis in the steam room without a hint of eye contact. It’s easier to get my dick sucked than to get a hug in Berlin, he thought.
He comes to Beirut with that expectant disposition of returnees; he hasn’t seen Cairo for over a decade. On the Raouché Corniche, he walked past fishermen who angled and trawled. A lighthouse eventually materialized. He leaned on the fence, lingering at the scene before him. On the rocks slapped by Mediterranean waves, dozens of men toyed with various heavy objects in a sort of open-air gym. The younger ones’ upper musculature seemed disproportionately distended compared to their lower limbs. The older men toiled to reverse the effect of time on their atrophying limbs. Such unabashed immodesty was unthinkable in Cairo, he observed. It was then and there that he decided to go to Shahrazad.
Bab el-Bahr, one of Cairo’s hammams, was named after the city’s ancient gateway to the Nile. In place of the port now stands the main railway station, which produces an inexhaustible source of drifters. A round marble mount was the hammam’s centerpiece, on which men were zealously rubbed and exfoliated within sight of those who lounged in the corners, clad in scanty loincloths. The dirty and poorly maintained hammam was a reprieve from the outside hustle. Only in the dark corners and hidden creases were illicit pleasures pursued, fleeting caresses and stealthy orgasms. The visitors came to be purified of layers of grime and lonesome heartache.
A man would sometimes come to Bab el-Bahr with an entourage of friends, in a ritual of grooming preceding wedding nights. A whisper would move among the hammam’s regulars in a collective effort to protect the clandestine bond: The straights are coming! A common menace united them.
Bab el-Bahr is a survivor of ancient times, while Shahrazad, with its rudimentary sauna and jacuzzi, is a modern approximation of an ebbing culture.
The masseur approaches to check on his needs one more time. He is fair-skinned with short, dark hair; his brown eyes exude a quiet composure. His dark blue T-shirt and oversized white shorts obscure his body shape. The other man, now out of sight, is taller with darker skin and unkempt hair, some of it dyed blond, producing a stylish dissonance. The blond’s little shorts, he recalls, showed a sizable bulge, which he adjusted every now and then.
“Could you give me a massage?” he calls to the shorter masseur from his position in the blue-tiled jacuzzi. He tries to sound nonchalant. His younger self would have chosen the blond, but he is less adrenaline-addicted now.
“Follow me,” comes the response. He tries to examine the man’s body as he walks a few steps behind him in the neon-lit corridor. They come to a yellow room containing a massage table and a shower. He is handed a towel and instructed to undress. “I will be right back,” the masseur announces.
The man returns in black briefs and a tank top. The sprawled body on the massage table, covered solely by a towel, is stiff with tension. There is no hole to fit the head, so he tilts it to observe the masseur, who begins with the feet, then the legs. His hands are firm and his fingers gentle; his strokes squeeze soft sighs out of him. He lingers between the thighs and lightly spreads the buttocks.
He suffocates the moans, wary of the point at which he would turn face-up and reveal his excitement.
“Do you like boys or girls?” the masseur asks.
“I like boys.” He is about to laugh. If this wasn’t clear when he entered Shahrazad, the member pointing towards his chest is a telltale assertion.
“And what do you like?”
He gets this question constantly on dating apps, but it is a harder one to answer. Talking about his desires doesn’t feel natural to him. There are different things that he likes, and more things he dislikes. He prefers to go with the flow, without a prior script. His inclinations aren’t a matter of sexual practices, but rather certain connections, particular types of dynamics.
“Active or passive?” asks the masseur, taking note of the hesitation.
“More passive.” He prefers this expression to describing himself as a “bottom.” It fits him better. He has been approached by men since his childhood. He never learned to seek … but he knows how to seduce.
That is a skill that helped him in Bab-el Bahr: how to position the loincloth around his hips, and at what point to join others for a cigarette break. These were important considerations to make.
The recollections of his escapades in Bab el-Bahr seem hazy. He finds it hard to remember his lovers, but he remembers that people gave each other a helping hand. A man once offered his lap as a cushion for his head as he lay on the tiled floor, while another man thrusted inside him. A different man wrapped a towel around his head in a way that made him look like a woman; he would burst out with Oum Kalthoum songs.
He is afraid to speak. He expects his voice to sound hoarse with arousal. He mentions the sensitive parts of his body.
“Are you Egyptian?” the masseur asks.
“I am. What about you?”
“I am Syrian.”
“Egyptians and Syrians are closer to each other. Pay no mind to those snobby Lebanese.” He points his head as if he were speaking about a particular someone.
“What’s your name?”
Taim doesn’t reciprocate the question. The price is agreed upon without bargaining. Then he undresses completely and moves towards the shower.
His head still inclined on the table, he watches Taim’s hands rubbing his body parts with soap, creating light foam as water gushes over his head. His lean body looks younger without clothes on. Waterdrops sprinkle into his eyes, forcing him to close them temporarily.
The masseur dries his body, moves towards the tilted head, and leaves a kiss on the mouth. Their lips lock crosswise. It feels like a water splashing over sunbaked crossroads.
His head feels lighter in anticipation of imminent sex.
The masseur mounts him, using his body instead of his hand. Their faces draw near. The friction is so arousing that he holds his shoulders and asks him to slow down. He returns to the tableside; it becomes visible that he doesn’t have an erection.
“Say I am a slut,” Taim orders in a new tone. Taim slaps his buttock after turning him face-down. These words, spoken in Arabic, send ripples through his body. They sound too familiar, and yet foreign. Many of his friends in Berlin spoke Arabic, but only a few became lovers. Once again, he feels too close to orgasm.
Taim escalates the language and hand manipulations. Untrammeled gasps announce the climax.
“Thank you,” he says awkwardly. He rises from the table and begins to wash the cum off his torso under the shower. Taim begins a second shower as he leaves the room.
On his way to the locker room, he feels disoriented. How was he able to unlock my desires like this, without even communicating them? Did he do what I wanted, or what he wanted?
“Let’s go get married in Cyprus!” the massuer whispers after re-emerging from downstairs. He wraps his arms around him and adds: “Honikfi jawaz madani.”
He doesn’t know how to respond. He wants to kiss him as an answer, but the proprietor is eyeing them.
“I will wait for you; it’s busier on Saturdays,” Taim continues.
He murmurs something, nods, and smiles. He will never see him again.