The Moroccan Hammam

I’m lying facedown on the smooth, hot plaster bench with nothing but a disposable thong covering my lady bits and my eyes are stinging.

“I think it’s in my eyes!” I whisper across the flickering candlelight to my friend Cherise who is  lying equally exposed on the other side of the small, dark, steamy room. She giggles and wonders how long we are going to lie here. I tell myself to keep my eyelids glued shut, hoping this will stop anymore soap from seeping into them. I probably should never have opened them to begin with but my curiosity about this very traditional, yet very personal (by Western standards), bathing practice got the better of me. As soon as the young woman left the room, I’d open my eyes to see what kind of emulsion had been slathered all over me. Since it was all over my hands and the bench my face was currently pressed against, there was no hope of me wiping my eyes free. Lesson learned; keep your eyes closed.

When Cherise and I signed up our first hammam, the description read exactly as the luxurious, pampering it is.

Marrakech-public-bath-house
A public bath house in Marrakech advertises the separate bathing hours for men and women.

“Ohhh a full body scrub,” we said. “That sounds so nice.”

I don’t know exactly how we expected such a thing to be accomplished while remaining half clothed, but we headed down to our appointment, bathing suits under our robes, anticipating.. I don’t know what. The ryad manager had suggested we do the hammam together and this seemed like a good, time-saving idea. As it turns out, it’s an incredibly social experience for Moroccans, and women often go together to the public baths to gossip and scrub each other.

 

For us Westerners, our bathing suits were a dead give-away, especially in the private hotel hammam.

“This is first hamman?” She knowing asked us.

No doubt, the look of horror that crossed our faces when she asked us to remove everything and handed us the tiny, paper thong was familiar. Cherise and I looked at each other. We were suddenly about to know each other much better.

I’m sure Moroccan women find it hugely ironic Western women don’t display the slightest inhibition towards walking around in public with nearly their entire body on display but in private, we are embarrassed to stand naked among two other women. “We are all women. No worries, we look the same.” She tells us as we follow her into the hammam room. We easily forget this mentality exists in a large part of the world, except North America. Arn’t Turkish baths in Europe often clothes-optional?

argan-nuts
Argan fruit and nuts before being ground to extract the oil. Argan oil is commonly used in beauty products and for cooking in Morocco.

The room was small and warm with a large basin built into the wall at the end between the two benches where we were asked to sit. The basin was filled with water and above, there was a shower head. After being rinsed down with warm water, the technician applied a mud to our bodies. This was rinsed off and then the famous “black soap”, made of argan oil was applied to our whole body, front and back, face, arms, legs and feet. While it seemed like eternity with the soap and paste seeping into my eyes, I think we laid with this on for about 15 minutes. Once it was rinsed off, we were scrubbed down with a rough bathmit. Typically at home, any kind of scrub leaves my skin red and scratched, so I was surprised to find there wasn’t a mark on my body after being rinsed clean and despite the most thorough scrubbing I’d ever received. My skin was just fresh, glistening and smooth.

“It’s very nurturing and motherly,” Cherise commented afterwards about the way our bodies and hair were gently washed. We imagined this is a little how old royalty must have felt having a personal attendant bathe them daily. One could get used to such a thing. At only 300-400 MAD (approximately $30-40 USD), it is definitely a steal to do if you’re visiting Morocco. Most riads we stayed in had a hammam, and I believe there are “spas” in the bigger cities where you can also find them. You could likely book ahead although we never had trouble scheduling a morning appointment when we were checking into our ryad. We never did get up the nerve to try a public hammam, and if you’re a little shy, the hotel hammam is your best option. It is really quite relaxing and worth doing at least once. Your skin will thank you and you’ll come home wishing we weren’t such prudes and the luxury existed in North America!

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