A couple days into our Jordanian vacation, my sister-in-law Karen schedules spa treatments at the Dead Sea Marriott. My wife Jessica—who's been looking forward to the lavish perks afforded by Karen's diplomat status—has been mulling over the spa's menu since before we even left the states. I've never had a massage or paid to have my body serviced in such fashion, but I'm suddenly thinking things like YOLO and treat yo self! and other weak-willed justifications for spending a shit-ton of money. I've also been reading a lot about traditional Turkish baths in our Lonely Planet guide to Jordan, which has elicited a sadomasochistic-lite fascination.
Lonely Planet says there's pain.
There's scraping. There's exfoliating.
The guide uses the word "unforgiving" a lot.
There's a menu item on Marriott's website called The Arabian Delight, which sounds like Turkish bath treatments I've been reading about. I tell Karen to sign me up.
Karen makes the call. She orders me the Arabian Delight. The employee tells Karen that women and men are serviced separately at the spa, but the way she words it is: "He's going to be delighted by a man. Is that okay?"
Spa day arrives. We're each given locker keys, and Karen and Jessica disappear into the women's locker room. The men's room is a dimly lit hallway that leads to a stagnant Jacuzzi, steam room and sauna. In my locker, I find a pair of disposable underwear, sealed in plastic. It unfolds into a pathetic, see-through square with two leg holes. Voices echo through the men's locker room—from which direction they're coming, I don't know—and I hurry to put on my new drawers.
Muhayed, my Delighter, introduces himself. He looks like a Bedouin version of Green Day singer Billy Joe Armstrong. I think it's the intensity in the eyes. He speaks English with a soft British accent, which he claims to have learned from TV. I can't help but think he would be a great narrator for a nature documentary:
And here we have the Western Ryan. Truly a spectacular beast. Let's observe as he navigates his way through this situation...
"We're going to be doing the Arabian Delight," Muhayed says. "It comes from traditional Turkish and Moroccan practices, and afterwards you're going to feel amazing." He punctuates the syllables "ah-mazing" to emphasize the lavishness I'm about to endure. This doting is both comforting and guilt-inducing.
He leads me into a room with a monolithic, tiled slab rising out of the floor and a shower spout affixed to the wall.
"You can take off your shorts off or leave them on," Muhayed says. My flimsy shorts are doing little in the way of coverage, but the idea of laying fully nude on what I've quickly deemed "the morgue table" brings to mind too many scenes of cinematic autopsies.
I lie face down and Muhayed primes me with a cold-water spritz. He asks where I'm from and I say "California." He says something about the industriousness of America, but I can't really focus on anything but preparing my nerves for—what I assume—will be quite the ride. He places a jar of mango-scented sea-salt scrub in front of me and prompts me to sniff.
"Yep! Smells like mango!" I say, too enthusiastically.
He scrapes a large amount out of the jar and holds the mountain of goo for a moment before he goes to town.
I've sat for tattoos that were softer.
Let's observe the Western Ryan as he sheds his skin.
Muhayed starts on my calves, working upwards, kneading the biblical salt into Ev-Er-Y-Where. My flimsy shorts are just a formality for him. He salt-scrubs the heels of my feet, my toes. "Ticklish?" he asks. My reply is just kind of a sob.
"What do you do?" Muhayed asks, probably in an effort to distract me while he skins my back.
"I'm a writer for a newspaper."
"Like, accidents? Crime?"
Without getting into the details of this very nuanced column (plus he's turned me over and working the scrub into my belly so: ow ) I say, "No, like arts, culture, music."
Muhayed stops and asks if I know Yanni.
"I just saw him," I say. "It blew my mind."
Muhayed tells me that he used to play flute. "I used to be so good." He holds his two thumbs up and shows me the comparative crookedness of one. "But my father broke it." The reason, he says, is because of fundamental Islamic belief that woodwind instruments are evil. "I don't tell you this to upset you," he says, "but to remind you of your responsibility as a writer.
"I'm Muslim, but I don't agree with what he did," he adds. "There's a lot of it that I don't believe. My wife—I don't care if she wears a bikini or a..." he pauses, "a burkini. The Quran also says we can have multiple wives, but I don't believe that either. It is your responsibility to report that we're not all like you see on the news."
I tell Muhayed about my own upbringing in a Mormon community and the polygamous families that I grew up with. It's a cliché we're not so different after all moment, but the silence that follows is profound.
Muhayed finishes with the scrub. He sits me up and pulls a dry loofa out and bar of soap out—the next stage in the Arabian Delight. I touch the loofa, it feels like coral reef.
"This is gonna take some layers off, huh?" I ask, cringing.
Muhayed smiles. "Yessir. It is."