The idea behind Bijlmer Hammam – a version of the public bath widespread in the Arab world – is to relax and encounter another culture. For the staff, that process doesn’t start with the massage, the steam room or even the cups of tea; it begins at the reception.
“Hello!” Khaled Al-Betar cheerily greets two older women arriving for their appointment. He takes their names and explains the whole process to them as they listen, an unsure look on their faces. But Betar’s energy and smile are infectious, and within minutes he’s put them at ease and is ushering them into the hammam.
“I like to make people feel relaxed,” he grins. Betar is one of six people running and providing massages at the Bijlmer Hammam, a project set up by Teun Castelein and Syrian Yassar Qasar. Castelein, a Dutch artist, came up with the idea after the Temporary Museum asked him to create something to go in the former prison being brought to life as cultural hub Lola Lik. “There was only one thing in the brief: to get in contact with refugees here,” explains Castelein. “One of them was Qasar, who told me he used to run a hammam in Aleppo. He had these photos of this beautiful woodwork, and so on. It’s all been completely destroyed now, but he still has the experience, the knowledge of how to treat a body in a way that gives someone a reset in a traditional way.”
During a tour of the former prison he saw the old isolation cells, which a prison guard told him used to be called “the saunas” because of how hot they got in summer. “But then if you look at the architecture – the wooden benches and the small room – it also looks kinda looks like a sauna,” says Castelein. “And I was thinking about the conversation with Qasar and thought, what if we make this into a hammam?” An idea was born, and by the beginning of September, the hammam opened. They found employees through Lola Lik and by placing adverts, ending up with a nearly entirely Syrian staff who Qasar trained personally.
“It’s been quite a success,” says Castelein. “We are fully booked a month in advance.” But while the novelty of a hammam is part of the attraction, the main purpose of the project is to provide a bridge between new arrivals and locals. “Integration is the slipstream of this project, the key of this project is really the interaction, whether in the cells or at the desk,” he explains. “The newcomer is not a victim or a patient or something, in this case the newcomer is someone who treats you, who shows you their culture, and that’s very powerful.”
Betar, 31, is originally from Damascus and arrived in the Netherlands a year ago. He already had some experience in massage when he joined Bijlmer Hammam. “Both my parents get very bad migraines,” he explains, a frown crossing his face. “My mum was once crying from pain, so I started to massage her head and it really helped. Then I did it more and more and ended up studying it for six months in Damascus and doing some part-time work in Dubai.” Moving to the Netherlands was hard at first for Betar, and he struggled to find friends and build a network at the beginning. Eventually he heard about Lola Lik and quickly became involved in A Beautiful Mess restaurant, run by the Refugee Company.
“It’s not necessarily my thing, but I wasn’t not shy to do it,” he explains. “Working is always nice. Plus, I started extending my knowledge about the culture. That’s the idea behind being there. getting to know what is going on, learning some Dutch. I got to swallow a bit of happiness and get my energy back as well,” he adds. “So when I finished there, I looked for something else here and found this place.”
Betar also now works at The Movement Hotel and gives private massages in people’s homes. He believes the chance to work and meet people has changed his life. “I felt I was nothing but now I can start to plan my dreams,” he says. “I feel I have incredible power and am unstoppable.”