Descended from Roman baths and modeled after Turkish baths, hammam were originally patronized by Moroccans whose homes lacked indoor plumbing. The baths also are rooted in the Islamic ritual of ablution: Muslims wash distinct parts of their body before their daily prayers. With modernization, though, the hammam have morphed into soak-and-socialize centers. Pronounced ‘ha-mom’, it’s a place to go to bathe around other people. A real experience.
Barbara and I intended to go to a public hammam where local women go. We were told it was open until 9p.m. every day so we arrived just before 7. But we were turned away. We’re not sure why. Maybe because we were tourists? Or maybe because we sauntered in with Mokhtar and women without their heads covered were thrown in to a tizzy of screaming and scattering?! Who knew we weren’t supposed to walk in there. With a man. Unannounced.
So we went to a tourist hammam instead. It wasn’t fancy but it was filled with women from the West. The entry was beautiful with brightly colored upholstery and fabrics all over; very welcoming and what we think of as Moroccan. We selected our services: a bath, a scrub, and a massage; and paid the 400 dirham fee, or $46.00 for two of us and we were ushered in to a dressing room where we removed our clothing and were handed a small (very small) piece of fabric on a string as a “covering.”
It all happened so fast. One minute I was behind a cranberry-colored silk curtain fully clothed and the next I was standing in a room with a string and fabric around my lower parts, fully exposed to my friend and everyone else in the room. There wasn’t hardly even any time to be embarrassed since we were whisked away to a room with marble slabs and steam. I do remember, though, being somewhat relieved to know Barbara was without her eyeglasses. “I hope she’s blind as a bat,” I remember thinking. (Note: while Barbara can’t see clearly without her eyeglasses, she later mentioned that she looked at me once and saw, and I quote, “A big blob with a string digging in to it.” And that, my friends, is how she described me in the hammam!)
We were each paired with an attendant who would be with us for the remainder of the visit. Our attendant ushered us first in to a room with arches and columns and marble all around – – big slabs of marble. The floors were wet and slippery. I cautiously skated my almost naked self to a slab and ungracefully eased myself down, making myself as comfortable as possible on a slab of marble in a room with other mostly naked women. Soon, though, the steam was turned on and everything became foggy and unclear and I became more comfortable. It was here that Barbara and I were able to really talk in private about the things we had wanted to discuss. The hammam is a place for socializing – – and for this reason alone I can see its benefit. After about 30 minutes of steaming and relaxing and becoming comfortable with my nakedness, the attendants came in and rubbed our bodies with olive oil soap – – a dark greenish/black “soap” that’s really just like semi-mashed olive pits and skins. It smells like olives and has a roughness that exfoliates. And when I say exfoliate, I mean exfoliate! Oh my gosh. It was unbelievable. First of all, it felt great. She slathered on this stuff all over me and scrubbed the living daylights out of me but it didn’t hurt. In fact, I uncontrollably groaned during this process. It was unreal. And then I happened to feel my skin and noticed a thick and bumpy residue on it. Thinking it was the olive oil soap, upon closer inspection I realized it was skin! Exfoliated skin! All over my body. It was everywhere. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! It looked like strands of spaghetti. And I was surprised there was any skin even left covering my bones! I have never experienced anything like it.
From the steam bath we were ushered in to another room. ‘Ushered’ is the wrong word. We were ‘skated’ in to a different room. The floor was so wet and slippery and my skin so slippery from the olive oil soap that I greasily clung to my attendant for dear life. How she supported me even that short distance to the next marble slab is beyond me. It was in that other room where she attacked my feet with some kind of sharp tool that made me do this crazy kind of a scream-laugh for the next few minutes! I giggled until I could hardly catch my breath. And just when it started feeling good she switched feet and I went through my contortions all over again! Barbara wasn’t in the room yet so didn’t know what was going on. I hardly had the time to tell her before she started doing the same thing! Hilarious! We were doused again with hot water all over and under and around every part of ourselves and then ushered in to a shower where we were able to wash our hair and rinse ourselves off in private (something not offered at a public hammam or one where the local women go). Next stop: the massage room for a 30 minute round of naked massage. This was fantastic and I was able to really relax and enjoy the whole experience. She even did my stomach, which is an area most massage therapists in the states don’t do. It was nice. When finished, my relaxed self leaned on her for support through the rooms with wet slippery floors and then she said goodbye to me, hugged me, and smiled. It was meaningful and beautiful. A bond had been formed for each of us and it was nice to acknowledge it. Girl power. Common bond. Naked-is-naked no matter what country you’re in. Beautiful.
I redressed and laughed at the fabric-attached-to-string that I had been wearing and we left to meet Mokhtar outside in the rain waiting for us to bring us home. Barbara could hardly stay awake and barely made it home to the riad before she fell in to bed relaxed. Meantime, Richard, Mokhtar and I went to dinner at my favorite place in the new town near the university for tajine, bread, and harissa. It was fun to show the place to Richard and to hear his raves about the food! What a great place to eat. The sad thing is, while I know how to get there, I don’t remember the name of it. But I will return there again; it was so good and in such a great location! We were all so tired that we didn’t last long at dinner before we returned and went to bed, happy and relaxed.