Gay bathhouses (or ‘saunas’) are well rooted in Western gay culture and in many large cities of the world. Beirut doesn’t have any gay saunas worthy of the name, however history left us GiBs with a somewhat similar thing: the Hammam’s (aka Turkish baths). It used to be that the public baths played a social role during the Ottoman influence on the region (lasting until the 1900’s), a place where men – and women on specific days – would go to unwind, purify their body and socialize. I don’t know exactly who used to go there back then, if it really included intellectuals and politicians as they say, and whether the Hammam used to have a gay or libertarian connotation at all. It might be that the lines were more blurry back then anyway... But since then these Ottoman relics have clearly taken a sharp GiB turn!
After many of them closed down through the years, two authentic hammams are still standing today: hammam el Nuzha (1920’s) off the Ring in Beirut (the pics are from its entrance and lobby area), and hammam el Abed (1800’s) in the old souks of Tripoli. These two look so kitsch that going there is like taking a trip back in time. There’s also a third bathhouse, this one more modern, called Shehrazade near the stadium in Bourj Hammoud. To the curious and the horny, these can be interesting and fun places to visit.
But unlike the openly gay bathhouses abroad, Lebanon’s bathhouses have nothing nearly as explicit as the closed cubicles, the dark rooms, the sling rooms and the gloryholes that are commonplace elsewhere. The amenities here are usually limited to a steam room, a dry sauna, showers, and massage rooms, although Shehrazade also has a pretty big Jacuzzi. On the downside, the amenities are not very well maintained, making the hygiene of these worlds of water highly questionable: you can’t help but think twice before putting on the flip-flops and towels they give you as you come in, and wonder whether you’re not actually stepping into a world of fungus instead.
Until it closed down a couple years ago, Hammam el-Sheikh near the Cola roundabout was the closest thing Lebanon ever had to a real gay bathhouse. It seemed to be a quite successful business in the beginning, which was astonishing given its location in this populous and mostly Muslim part of the city. At some point, el-Sheikh looked like it was becoming the official pre-party for Acid on weekends. Picture GiB queens in une-pièce swim suits gathered in an old-style picturesque architecture, dancing to Arabic music around a large indoor pool with bar area, tiptoeing along the watercourse connecting the pool to the Jacuzzi, then sneaking in to the shady waterfall tunnel leading up to a not-so-secret 5mx5m dimly-lit vault, the 'darkroom'. Isolated by water from outside sight, light, and sound, GiB-in, GiB-out, this one room was probably the most private and safe kinky public GiB spot (ever) in Lebanon!
If you’re going to visit (what remains of) the bathhouses for action, things won’t be as straightforward as you would hope. Action between customers is quick and furtive, and it feels like the staff are constantly playing police with the men getting touchy. As for the local staff – mostly Syrians and Egyptians of all ages – they have access to the private rooms where they provide optional services such as massage, soaping and body scrubs.
It’s your choice whether to go for the experienced 60-year old scrubber and get a quality treat, or choose the 20 year-old hunk pretending to know massage, who’ll try to include a 5-minute rental of his body into the deal, only to then remind you incessantly not to forget to tip him through the cashier on the way out since you’re not carrying any money on you. Now how’s this for embarrassment, as you’re paying for your services on the way out, when the cashier shouts out loud for the whole place to hear: “w 3achra la 7assan! w 3achra la shebeb!” (“+ 10 for Hassan, and 10 for the boys!”).