Ham­mam treat­ments pam­per fe­male clients

Mi­raj Ham­mam of­fers spa-go­ers an ex­pe­ri­ence steeped in cul­ture

Vancouver Sun - - FRONT PAGE - ALEESHA HAR­RIS Ahar­ris@post­media.com

On the south side of the Granville Street Bridge, nes­tled in the street-level floor of a multi-pur­pose brick-and-con­crete build­ing, there’s a Mid­dle East­ern-in­spired es­tab­lish­ment that will leave your skin glow­ing, your soul re­laxed and your body, well, a whole lot hap­pier than it was when you walked in.

Dubbed the Mi­raj Ham­mam, the unas­sum­ing es­tab­lish­ment has long been a lo­cal favourite, renowned for its fair prices, fab­u­lous ser­vice and friendly staff. Oh, and its also home to per­haps one of the most pleas­ant and per­son­able spa pro­pri­etors you’re likely to ever meet.

And she, much like the spa she so proudly op­er­ates, has been there for nearly 20 years.

“I wanted to cre­ate the cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence in a spa en­vi­ron­ment and a safe place for women to be,” Surinder Bains says of her orig­i­nal mis­sion for open­ing the space.

So, how did a B.C.-born-andraised busi­ness­woman come up with the idea to open a spa in­spired by Mid­dle East­ern baths? Well, it all started with feel­ing just a lit­tle bit out of place.

“The stork got me con­fused. They were sup­posed to drop me off in Mar­rakech or some­thing,” she says with a laugh. In­stead Bains landed, and grew up, in Vic­to­ria. But travel has al­ways been in her blood, so it seems fit­ting that she fell in love with her first ham­mam while on a date in France.

“I was liv­ing in Paris in 1986 — well, I still kind of com­mute back and forth, ac­tu­ally. Noth­ing has re­ally changed,” she says with a laugh. “When I went to Paris, I dis­cov­ered the ham­mam at La Mosquée and it was on a date, ac­tu­ally. I met this fab­u­lous man, and that was one of our first dates — at the tea room at the ham­mam.”

While they sipped their steam­ing cups of tea, her date started ex­plain­ing what oc­curs in the ham­mam cul­ture. She ad­mits her first thoughts on the steamy es­tab­lish­ments were very “North Amer­i­can.”

“I thought, why would peo­ple want to go to a public place and be washed down,” she re­calls. “Why would they do that?” But af­ter look­ing fur­ther into the tra­di­tions sur­round­ing the baths, she re­al­ized they were about much more than merely com­ing clean.

“It’s a cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence you shouldn’t miss out on,” she says.

Af­ter set­ting aside her reser­va­tions about strip­ping down in front of com­plete strangers, she stepped into the spa at La Mosquée, which is one of the largest mosques in France and is lo­cated in the fifth ar­rondisse­ment. The mosque is said to have been founded in 1926 as a nod from the French govern­ment ac­knowl­edg­ing the thou­sands of Mus­lims from then France con­trolled North­ern Africa who fought in First World War. Safe to say, Bains’ first ham­mam ex­pe­ri­ence was one she’s never since for­got­ten.

“I walked into this three-cham­bered, gi­gan­tic ham­mam and I couldn’t be­lieve what I saw with my poor vi­sion — I can’t see a thing with­out my glasses,” she says with a laugh. “There were all these amaz­ing women, there must have been 80 to 100 of them. I couldn’t keep count of how many there were. Some were do­ing self wash­ing, some had a gom­mage (ex­fo­li­a­tion) at­ten­dant and there was a com­mu­nal mas­sage ta­ble.

“What I loved about it is no­body fussed about their skin, their tone, their body im­age, their shape. You had ev­ery­thing from the skinny, chic model right up to the Al­ge­rian grand­moth­ers who had rolls of fat on them. And no­body cared,” she says. “When they wanted you to turn over, they kind of slapped your bum, be­cause no one spoke English. You’re get­ting mas­saged in front of 100 other ladies, but then you just get over your shy­ness.

“I got hooked on that ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Fast for­ward 17 years, and Bains not only counts the man she met on that first date as her hus­band, she’s also the owner of two ham­mams — both dubbed the Mi­raj Ham­mam Spa — in Van­cou­ver at 1495 W 6th Ave. and Toronto at the Shangri-La Ho­tel.

“The Toronto com­po­nent was com­pletely un­ex­pected,” she says of the East Coast lo­cale. “And I cer­tainly didn’t go look­ing for that op­por­tu­nity. They came to me.”

Bains says she ini­tially turned the op­por­tu­nity down.

“I had enough go­ing on be­tween Van­cou­ver and Paris, I didn’t want to take on some­thing in Toronto,” she says. “But I did it.”

But aside from open­ing the sec­ond lo­ca­tion in 2012, Bains has kept the Mi­raj Ham­mam much the same as it was when she opened it more than a decade ago.

“I just stayed true to my vi­sion,” she says. “I haven’t changed the for­mula. I haven’t changed the ser­vices. I haven’t added any­thing or deleted any­thing. It’s ex­actly the same as it was be­fore.

“I made that prom­ise when I opened it up that it would be for all peo­ple, not just the rich,” she re­sponds when asked why the spa prices have re­mained much the same. “My favourite thing is the moth­ers, the daugh­ters, the sis­ters, the girl­friends. And we get a lot of peo­ple post-can­cer who are heal­ing. It’s a safe space to be.”

When Bains opened the spa 17 years ago, the Mi­raj Ham­mam Ori­en­tale treat­ment, which in­cludes time in the ham­mam, a full-body gom­mage and a 15-minute min­i­mas­sage, was around $105. Now it’s $120.

“I don’t feel right about it,” she says of rais­ing the prices. “When I started read­ing the cul­tural as­pect of the ham­mam, I found it was al­ways the wealthy of the com­mu­nity ... that would build them for the peo­ple — that was their way to en­sure their gate­way to heaven, I guess. And I’ve al­ways main­tained that feel­ing.”

And it seems to be work­ing. The wait­ing list for an ap­point­ment can some­times be weeks.

Bains has added a few re­tail of­fer­ings to the spa, such as room sprays crafted from the same es­sen­tial oils she uses to cleanse the ham­mam space. The scent is a unique blend of eu­ca­lyp­tus, sweet orange and lemon.

“It’s ex­actly the es­sen­tial oils we use to splash our ham­mam to make it so pris­tine and clean,” she says. “Be­tween each client, we do an in­tense cleans­ing, which is another rea­son peo­ple love us. We’re so crazy about clean­li­ness.

“If we’re go­ing to do this Ara­bic thing, you’d bet­ter fol­low the rules. I don’t want any of the prophets get­ting up­set with me,” she says jok­ingly.

But don’t ex­pect Bains and her staff to try to up-sell you on the way out.

“We just don’t do that be­cause, if peo­ple want to come, they come. If they want to take some­thing away, they take it,” she says. “I’m not a re­tail per­son — I never have been. I just want peo­ple to come in here and have a great ex­pe­ri­ence.”

De­spite a rel­a­tively lim­ited re­tail of­fer­ing by typ­i­cal spa stan­dards, Mi­raj Ham­mam is home to the

I just stayed true to my vi­sion. I haven’t changed the for­mula. I haven’t changed the ser­vices.

afore­men­tioned room sprays, a body lo­tion, a spe­cial black soap, and Syr­ian soap.

“Peo­ple come from ev­ery­where for that soap,” she says. “I ac­tu­ally went to Da­m­as­cus and Aleppo, I did a two-week in­tense tour of Syria. Be­fore all the heart­break,” she says. “I went to the olive groves and vis­ited the man­u­fac­tur­ers, and it was just an amaz­ing trip.”

That soap-sourc­ing ex­hi­bi­tion was seven years ago, long be­fore the war that rav­aged the coun­try — and its peo­ple.

“They pre­served their cul­ture and they had in­cred­i­ble in­tegrity with the way they han­dled their prod­uct,” she re­calls of her ex­pe­ri­ences in the Syr­ian souq (mar­ket­places) of Aleppo. “I was gob­s­macked by how beau­ti­ful and or­ga­nized the mar­ket was. There was no chaos.

“Ev­ery­thing they had there just seemed so pure. And I could have got­ten lost in those al­ley­ways for days and days and days. It was a re­ally, re­ally hap­pen­ing city. It had a fresh­ness for an an­cient city. Peo­ple had an amaz­ing amount of pride. Ev­ery cor­ner was a new sur­prise.”

Bains says it breaks her heart to imag­ine what those same mar­ket­places look like now.

Another sure ca­su­alty of the war, aside from the an­cient olive trees that have re­port­edly been de­stroyed, Bains now knows her ma­jor soap sup­plier from Aleppo, one that went on to open a bou­tique close to the In­sti­tut du Monde Arabe in Paris, is gone.

“It was a bustling busi­ness,” she says of the shop. “I went by there about a year ago to pick up some more sup­plies, and they had closed down the oper­a­tion be­cause there’s no soap left.

“It’s so heart­break­ing.”

And now, Bains’ stock of Syr­ian soap is gone too.

“I had a huge amount of stock,” she says. Bains has been scour­ing on­line re­sources and con­tacts in or­der to find more Syr­ian soap. And af­ter hear­ing me­dia re­ports of a Syr­ian woman liv­ing in Mon­treal who has ac­cess to Syr­ian soap, Bains says she’s hope­ful she’ll be able to source more soon.

“I don’t know where her sup­ply came from,” she says. “But it’s not like these soaps have a short shelf life. They last for­ever. She may have had one of the last batches of all time sent to her in Mon­treal.”

Re­gard­less of whether it’s a di­rect re­sult of the tur­moil in Syria — or merely a pleas­ant co­in­ci­dence — but Bains says she’s no­ticed a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in the num­ber of Ara­bic visi­tors to the ham­mam in the last six months.

“I don’t know whether they’re from Syria — or where they’re from, be­cause we never re­ally ask that ques­tion,” she says. “But we’re get­ting more women with hi­jabs and more women with a cul­tural tie, ab­so­lutely.”

The in­flux is just one more chap­ter in the fairy tale story that is the Mi­raj Ham­mam’s his­tory. So, what’s next?

“We just keep hum­ming along,” she says of her am­bi­tions for the spa brand over the next decade. “I’m in my 60s now, and I feel like I’ve done my thing, and I’m re­ally pleased and proud of it, but I don’t want to ex­pand.

“I’m in a good place right now.”

JASON PAYNE

Surinder Bains founded the Mi­raj Ham­mam spa in Van­cou­ver nearly 20 years ago. “I wanted to cre­ate the cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence in a spa en­vi­ron­ment and a safe place for women to be,” she says.

A sec­ond Mi­raj Ham­mam lo­ca­tion opened its doors in Toronto in 2012.

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