Dr. Peteet spent Spring 2014 semester in Jordan conducting NEH-funded research

Summation of Dr. Peteet's research on the cultural politics of hammams.

From Dr. Julie Peteet:

I spent the first half of 2014 in Jordan conducting research funded by an NEH/ACOR Fellowship on the cultural politics of hammams (baths). This was a clear departure from my usual research on violence and displacement. Why were baths springing up and what sort of local knowledge was circulating about these places. Combing elements of Roman and Islamic baths, with features of the modern global spa industry, these new baths have sprung up in Amman and at tourist sites in Jordan. I was interested in how people accounted for their recent emergence, memories and stories of past hammam experiences, and who was patronizing these new baths and why. Most significantly, what sorts of bodily practices unfolded in the space of the hammam? With the neo-liberal commodification of the body, what was once a local and  inexpensive way to engage in hygienic practices and socialize with fellow bathers has now become a high end, rather pricey affair available mainly to the upper middle-class. Methodologically, this project combined ethnographic field methods with extensive visits to Nabatean, Roman, Byzantine, early Islamic, Mamluke, and Ottoman archaeological sites.

Baths are spatial forms and involve practices that have a long genealogy across the region and through time.  There is an identifiable historical continuity to these spaces, practices and their constituent elements. It is forged by the essence of water and the bath as a site of intervention in the body. Baths are situated at the intersection of dirt and cleanliness, purity and impurity, and public/private.  Water is purifying and cleansing in both sacred and profane ways, life-sustaining, and increasingly subject to privatization. Water, its availability and technologies to capture and channel it, binds baths across the historical spectrum and in the Mediterranean region. Water played a significant role in determining where a bath could be built and its size.

I posed two main questions. First, do contemporary baths contribute to, inform or carry forward ways of conceptualizing and understanding ideas about heritage, tradition, and notions of cultural revival on a local and global scale? What can they tell us about concepts of region and regional consciousness across time and space? And what can they tell us about cultural flows and circuits and dominant historical and cultural narratives of tradition? A second question concerns the temporal dimension. Why the interest in opening baths now, at this particular historical moment? What intersection of economic, political and socio-cultural factors are shaping these new hammams and endowing them with a new significance? I argue that hammans are situated at the intersection of a process of recuperation of regional practices and heritage as part of a process of commodification and objectification of culture. These new baths are neither simply tradition nor heritage nor cultural remnants that are being revived. They have elements of all these but they are something new. They are complex combinations of selected elements of multiple traditions for new purposes and new set of consumers. Thus they exist uneasily on the cusp of multiple intersecting forces: a global spa industry, new forms of leisure, tourism, and neo-liberal practices of consumption and care of the body.