Time is already feeling limited here in Marrakech since my friend, Jess, and I have opted to do a three day/two night excursion to the desert. So on my first full day in Morocco I opted to partake in something my friend Maria said was not to be missed. A hammam is essentially a traditional bathhouse that Moroccans visit regularly to clean themselves. For most Moroccans this is a public affair, but my experience was private (which I was grateful for as I can be a bit bashful).
I selected the traditional hammam treatment and a 30 minute massage, which cost me 300 dirham (roughly $30 American dollars). After paying I was led upstairs by a woman about my age and, once I’d put my things in a locker, she pantomimed for me to get undressed. Because she didn’t speak any English I couldn’t ask her if I should keep on my bra and underwear, so she closed the door and left me to my own devises. I was able to figure out that I had to put on a disposable pair of underwear she’d laid out for me, and opted to forgo the bra. Hanging in the corner were large bathrobes, so, still a bit unsure about being naked (I’m in MOROCCO after all), I slipped one on. When I opened the door for her to come in she laughed and promptly took my robe off of me. She could tell I was uncomfortable as I was making ridiculous whimpering noises and covering myself, so she lifted up her shirt, showing me her bare breasts as if to say “It’s ok – I have them too!” It was actually quite a sweet gesture and once I saw how relaxed she was with nudity, I was as well.
Then she led me into a small, cavern-like room that was tiled wall-to-wall. Two tile “beds” were on either side of the room, between which was a large, ornate, metal basin. She instructed me to lay down as she filled the basin and then, before I had barely closed my eyes, she started violently slinging water on me with a dip that she whipped back and forth from the basin to my body. It was a bit of a shock at first, but then it felt great! She then put an exfoliating glove on her hand and with black soup SCRUBBED my ENTIRE body. And there’s a reason I emphasized SCRUBBED and ENTIRE. She went to town on me and “left no stone unturned,” shall we say. My back, my front, my face – and when I looked I was covered in dark wormy strands. “Skin,” she explained. “Awesome,” I replied.
After rinsing me down again, she washed my hair, slathered me in a mask, rinsed me again, and then finished with oil. When she was done she helped me back into my robe and dried my hair with a towel like a little kid getting out of the pool. Before sending me off with the masseuse, she wrapped the towel around my head, tucking it into my robe like a hijab. She giggled and had me look in the mirror. She was right: it did look quite funny to see a white, blonde-haired, green-eyed woman in the traditional Muslim head covering. I asked her (through bad sign language, of course) if she wore a hijab and she nodded positively. I was surprised that a woman who had seen (and touched!) me so intimately and even shown me her breasts, was normally covered so completely in public. I went to remove the towel, thinking it merely a joke, but she stopped me. I realized I had to leave it on before going out into the public space of the hammam where a man might see me as I made my way to the room where I would be massaged.
The massage was wonderful (apart from the American instrumental music they played which included hits like “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “Memories” from the musical Cats), but the real novelty of the experience lay in the traditional hammam treatment. I can see why Moroccans visit them for their weekly pampering!