MIRAJ HAMMAM:
VANCOUVER SPA STAYS TRUE TO TRADITION

14TH SEPTEMBER 2017

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.

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.

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Miraj Hammam Spa in Vancouver. Photo: Vancouver Sun

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 it’s 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-and-raised 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.”

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A look inside the Miraj Hammam location in Toronto. The location’s interior is inspired by the original spa in Vancouver. Photo: Steven Elphick

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 mini-massage, 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.

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Surinder Bains, Proprietor, Miraj Hammam Spa

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 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.”

Originally published September 14th, 2017 by Aleesha Harris, vancouversun.com