A handful of us “Unsettled” adventurers in the Medina of Marrakech decided to visit a public women’s hammam (bathhouse), to experience it like the locals. Unlike its upscale counterparts, this hammam is BYOB (bring your own bath gear) so we shopped for supplies. One of our local helpers led us a short distance from our riad to some nondescript buildings, without signage, flanking an enormous lot filled with chopped wood. We entered a small storage area to the right of the towering log pile. Filled with plastic household items stacked on shelves and piled on the floor, it reminded me of a rudimentary The Container Store. We purchased low stools to sit on in the bathhouse and heart-shaped scoops for pouring water over our heads; someone had already bought larger buckets. Next, we crossed to the other side of the lot to a general store. They sold blue sandpapery rectangles to remove dead skin from our feet, globs of so-called black soap (amber in color) in plastic baggies for about 10 cents, and clay powder to mix with water for shampoo. As we left, two men loaded wood onto a donkey cart, causing a bit of a “traffic jam” in the lot.
Like a group of ducklings, but with buckets in hand filled only with what we needed, we followed our guide through narrow streets to a nearby bathhouse. We were advised to leave all valuables behind. At the hammam, tucked into a nook of a zig-zagging street, a thickset woman with a scarf covering her hair greeted us a bit gruffly in the entry room, also a changing area. Being a weekday, there weren’t enough scrubbers around to accommodate a group our size. After some discussion, a stocky, buxom woman arrived in a long dress. She would scrub all of us, in succession. We stripped to our underwear, wrapped towels around ourselves, and took our buckets, soap, shampoo and exfoliating tools into the bathing area. The interior, about 60 years old, looked its age. The cement rooms with a few tiles on the wall seemed to have been built for function alone, with zero resources available for aesthetic embellishment. Its utter charmlessness had one redeeming feature: it was off the beaten tourist path and beneath the radar of Trip Advisor, whose logo is visible at many restaurants and sites here.
Our group joined two Rubenesque Moroccan women in a small, hot room off a larger chamber. Our guide filled our buckets and instructed us to first pour water over our bodies, then smooth the buttery black soap onto our skin and let it sit for several minutes. Soon after the scrubber appeared in her panties, looking like a female sumo wrestler. She pointed to one of our group and had her sit on a plastic mat on the floor. The scrubber put a black fabric mitt on her hand and vigorously rubbed her down, on all sides and positions. I’d read that some people found the process painful, yet my new companion didn’t seem to mind. Eventually, after watching two others get the treatment, the sumo scrubber pointed at me and gestured that I should sit on the plastic mat. Without ceremony, she poured a bucket of hot water over my head, a soothing deluge. Following her prompt, I held out one of my arms and rested it on her fleshy thigh as she ran the mitt over my skin. She didn’t seem to notice or care that her voluminous breasts touched my arm and hand. It didn’t bother me, either. The hammam is not a place to protect one’s personal space. It’s as if the heat, water and steam melt boundaries that exist when we’re clothed and wrapped up in our personas. As she worked, I watched the dead cells curl away and reveal a layer of fresh skin. While I had prepared myself for a rougher scrubbing, it turned out to be invigorating rather than painful. She had me flip onto my belly so she could scrub my back, including my behind. For a moment, I felt like a baby. She also dabbed the black soap on my face, smoothed it on with her fingers and then wiped it off with the mitt.
When she finished, I applied some of the clay-based shampoo to my hair and used the blue rectangle to smooth my feet. The clay left my hair so smooth I didn’t bother to use conditioner. The two locals who had been there when we arrived had not left yet, more than an hour later. They had been taking turns scrubbing and bathing each other, filling bucket after bucket with warm water and sloshing it over their heads. For many Moroccans, the hammam is a weekly if not more frequent ritual. For those who lack tubs or showers, it’s a necessity. Regardless of one’s station in life, one needs to get clean. Bathing in community, and taking several hours to do it, likely promotes well-being.
Although our presence had been met at first with some coolness, the scrubber seemed to have warmed to us despite the language and culture barrier. After she finished cleaning everyone’s skin, she invited each of us to again sit on the mat so she could brush and braid our hair. As she worked with my mane I found her unexpected gesture surprisingly affectionate, even maternal. Afterwards, I looked in the mirror. My skin glowed and my hair shone. The products we’d purchased had cost a few dollars and were possibly just as effective as my extensive and somewhat expensive collection of exfoliators, scrubs and shower gels. The bare bones visit to the hammam, including the scrubbing, came to $6.50. Although the experience had been stripped of every nicety, amenity and frill I normally associate with spas or saunas, I felt as if I had been cared for at a deep, human level. It’s impossible to put a price tag or a marketing spin on that.
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