While in Morocco, my travel buddy insisted we visit a local Hammam-a bathing house. Hammans are common place in cities and towns throughout Morocco. There are men and women hammams, never co-ed and are places for Moroccans to bathe, relax, and gossip.
In a country dominated by men, we wanted to be in a place where women gather and after reading about Hammams in our guidebooks, we knew we had to go. That is, until I got nervous reading some of the descriptions of being scrubbed down. Lisa was determined to go. At the first hostel we stayed, she asked a young women who worked there, if she knew of a place and could take us. She agreed but we, distracted by food, friends and roaming through the souq, we didn’t return at the agreed upon time. Then we took off to the desert and I assumed it may not happen. The evening we returned from our 3 day desert tour, Lisa asked the charming reception guy at our hotel,who mentioned his mother could go with us. The next morning she asked a young woman, a cleaner of the hotel. She spoke French and Arabic and Lisa, having taken Catalán (similarities to French) lessons understood her with the help of added charades. We went off in search of lunch and returned on time. She waited for us at the hotel door, talking with a friend. She explained, she would take us to the Hammam and talk to the women but she wasn’t going to go today. Ok.
One step closer.
We walk in to the Hammam to a spacious room with two open changing rooms, lit with a skylight. Our new Moroccan friend talks to two elder women guarding people’s belongings with wooden cubbies and tells them we want the full experience, we want to be scrubbed. They call over two older woman, both naked with saggy boobs almost to their belly button and one with firey red hair.
They hand us each a bucket for us to put out shampoo & conditioner, comb, a scrubbing mitt known as a gome, and the essential black soap, made from olive oil kernels, that will be used to scrub us down. They also hand us mats to lay on. We leave the rest of our stuff behind and leave a small tip for storing our stuff. Our friend tells us it’s time to undress, Lisa and I both look at each other with an expression of “This is it, here we go”, and strip down. No time for being shy or uncomfortable. We’re at a Hammam where Moroccan women bathe naked in front of other women, without any shame. Despite a man dominated world, Moroccan women aren’t prudish about their bodies, it’s common for them to go to the bathing house and bathe amongst their fellow friends, family and local community.
We grab our buckets and follow two elder women who will each give us the proper Hammam experience, a scrub down using our black soap and mitt.
We pass through two bare steam rooms and set our stuff down in the third and last room, and hang our towel on a rack. We notice we’re upstream to ensure soapy & dirty water will flow away from us, just as we were told to do.
We each lay on our mat and they motion for us to splash warm water on ourselves. The elder women, our personal scrubbers, don’t speak a word of English, only French and Arabic. They walk away and we wait for our skin to soften to the steam.
There is a mom and two young kids bathing near by and two voluptious sisters in their thirties with their mom bathing alongside us. It’s obvious we’re foreigners and new to this experience but we’re welcomed to this world, this community. One of the sisters introduces herself in English. A sigh of relief. We won’t have to play charades the entire time.
The elder woman returns and asks for something, I pull out all the items in my bucket and find out it’s time to apply the thick molasses-like black soap all over my skin. She looks at it interestingly and I wonder if it’s the right kind, as a sister tells us,”She likes the soap we bought.” I assume black soap is the same but like any beauty product, there are variations and favorites. She starts rubbing the soap all over my body and I stare up at the curved beige ceiling; I hear a fountain where women get their water to bathe, water splashing, as chatter in Arabic echo against the walls. The woman taps me, asking for the gome. It’s time to be scrubbed. Here we go.
She puts on the gome and she embraces my body as she begins to scrub my arms, neck and back. She sits and holds me as she motions for me to sprawl out over her. I feel comfortable yet aware of how new this is for me; to be naked in a steam room of strangers, in a different culture where I don’t understand the language and allow someone else to do an intimate act; scrub me clean. I feel good and aware of how comfortable I’ve become with my body, my naked body. I realize how much culture and society influences our perceptions and ideas about our bodies and body image. Growing up in America, you constantly have to fight the bombardment of the media; it seems near impossible not to be influenced on some level, many levels.
She motions for me to turn over and lay on my mat, scrubbing my back, my bum, my legs and feet. It feels good despite the cloth being rough against my skin. I turn over and see all the dead skin cells blanket me. Who knew my skin was this dirty? According to Moroccans you can never get this clean from taking a shower. The steam room, the black soap and scrubbing your body are the only ways to get “clean” and remove dead skin; I’ve never been “clean” before. I rinse off using a cup in my blue bucket and watch all the dirty skin wash away down stream.
My scrubber motions for me to move my mat a few places a way and now it’s time to wash my hair. I hand her my travel size half-empty shampoo bottle and she squeezes all of it out and lathers up my hair. It feels good. She rinses the shampoo out of my hair and then asks for my conditioner. She asks for something and I dont’ understand. One of the sisters tells me, It’s time to comb your hair, Where’s your comb?” I’ve forgotten mine in my bag that’s waiting with the elder ladies in the cubby. Lisa graciously gives me hers. Lisa is only a few steps behind me. The woman takes her time combing my hair and Lisa feels anxious unable to explain we only have one comb. The woman finishes and motions something. I resort to the sister for a translation. “You’re finished but you can wait for as long as you want in here,” she tells me.
We briefly talk to her about dating, curious what it’s like to be a woman in Morocco. She explains she has a boyfriend and Marrakech is modernized. I almost feel silly for asking her questions. From what she says and what we see, clearly their are many worlds co-existing, layers upon layers to learn of the culture, just like everywhere in the world. It’s like asking someone in the mid-west about dating and sex and asking someone the same in San Francisco, you’ll get different answers and there will be variations to the answers within each place.
My scrubber returns to tell me my towel is hanging. The sister tells “my scrubber” I would like to stay a while and she walks away. A few minutes later she returns as if to let me know, that we have finished. I inquire again with the sister and say I want to stay. Lost in translation, I don’t know if the elder woman thinks I just don’t know the scrub is over or if she’s expecting a tip, either way Lisa and I stay a while. I ask the sister if we should tip, she shrugs her shoulders and says, “if you wish.” I wonder if it’s common to tip in addition to the 50 diaham’s (5 euros, $6.50) price of being scrubbed. Am I just being too American, accustomed to tipping for everything?
After fifteen minutes of enjoying the steam and conversation, we grab our towels and our scrubbers re-appear guiding us back through the two steam rooms ensuring we don’t slip on the wet floor, to the changing room. We dry ourselves off and get dressed. The sisters appear in the dressing room and we write down our emails, as they requested. We ask for our scrubbers, having decided will give a small tip.* We walk out refreshed and cleaner than we’ve ever been. My skin feels like a baby.
* I often struggle with tipping because I feel we tip TOO much in America. When I go abroad I always strive to do as the culture does. It gets tricky in a place like Morocco, where tourism is so high it’s difficult to decipher what’s the norm vs. what tourism has created.