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Spirit Tales: Tunisia’s hammam maiden

The Middle East abounds in tales of spirits and their antics. Today, Al Jazeera brings some of these tales to life.

Tunis, Tunisia – Even if you’ve never been to the Old Medina in Tunis after dark, you can probably imagine it.

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With narrow alleys, old houses and dim lights, the Medina is not a place where a lot of people go at night, except the cafe-goers of Sidi Ben Arous.

Nothing in the world, except for the 11pm closing time, could get them off those cafe tables, lingering over coffees and talking about who knows what.

Outside the cafes, an old lady appears indifferent to the darkness and the chatter.

Khalti Halima looks like she has always been there, sitting on the stone bench of the Hamouda Pacha Mosque, teasing anyone willing to be teased.

A bent lady in her late 60s with a wrinkled face, she is seen at night, always on the same bench. No one knows when she gets there or when she leaves.

On a Sunday night, the blowing wind makes me regret ever leaving the house, and at the junction of Sidi Ben Arous and Kasbah Streets, Khalti Halima waves me over.

I approach, expecting a joke or a proverb. Instead, I get a tale that will keep me off the streets of the Medina at night for a while.

“They’re everywhere around us, the jinns,” she starts. “Some are evil and some are good.”

I nod like a bobblehead.

Khalti Halima has lived in the Medina for 30 years, 25 of them on the streets, and tells stories like any loving grandmother would. But Khalti Halima’s stories are raw. Maybe those are the only ones she knows.

She smiles: “I’m not scared. I’ve known good ones. They’re not all scary.

“They saved me twice,” she says, alluding to some kind of mystery but reluctant to elaborate.

About Hammam Ed-Dahab, she says: “That place is full of them, that’s why I’ve never bathed in that hammam.”

There’s a story about that hammam (Turkish bathhouse) that gets told to tourists, so I relaxed, and she kept talking.

“It happened to a widow and her daughter, poor folks like me. One day, they didn’t have anywhere to spend the night … I know what it’s like to be on the street. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” she says.

“After dark, the streets of the Medina were empty. Hammam Ed-Dahab was about to close when the two showed up at its door, begging the owner to allow them to stay for the night. He agreed and that night, they had a whole hammam for themselves. It was a good opportunity to clean themselves up, too.

“But you never bathe in an empty hammam at night … They should’ve known.”

I nod. Even I know that.

“Near the hot water pool, they sat by candlelight, grateful for that night’s treat, when suddenly a hole opened in the wet ground, and ‘one’,” she doesn’t say the name “appeared in front of them.”

“They shrieked,” she pauses to murmur something, probably prayers for protection.

“But he told them he had a deal for them. They could descend into the hole and take as much Louis d’Or (gold coins) as they wanted, but only … ONLY as long as the candle was still burning. The moment the flame goes out, the hole closes. Forever.”

On a dark corner, I see a man in shabby clothes leaning against the wall, his eyes fixed on us, motionless. I steal a glance at him, and then another. Khalti Halima looks over and shouts: “You there! Who are you?”

The man advances silently.

He stops a few metres away and tells Khalti Halima: “I know the story you’re telling very well.”

I am suddenly aware of how tense I have been.

Khalti Halima is not to be interrupted, so he joins me as a listener, although a not very welcome one at first.

“The daughter descended into the hole and started handing her mother as many gold coins and necklaces as her delicate hands could hold while her mother piled them on a bench near her.

“After a while, they could both see the candlelight getting fainter and the daughter urged her mother to stop asking for more gold and help her get out. But her mother wanted more, and more, and more.

“A sudden wind, like the one now blowing, made its way through the hammam door and into the hot room, extinguishing the candle in a moment. The hole closed before the mother could even blink.

“She couldn’t hear of her daughter’s screams any more, or see any part of her body, except,” says Khalti Halima, “a strand of her once beautiful, dark hair.”

Khalti Halima sighs, looks at the ground, and says something about the greed of human beings.

“And so, for many years, before the hammam eventually closed its doors, that strand of hair would appear to young unmarried women who go into the hot room,” the man interrupts. “Only young women your age would see it.”

We fall silent. The man retreats.

I’ve had enough for one night and I check the time to indicate I’m leaving. Khalti Halima understands.

She prays for me and offers to accompany me home, for safety.

I thank her and head towards the corner, leaving the Medina behind me. As I go, I hear Khalti Halima’s prayers and her last remark.

“Listen, don’t wear sandals next time!”

I stop and turn to her, puzzled.

“They don’t help when you need to run.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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