How To Hammam Like A Local

Dispatches from the Road, Morocco, Shopping & Style, Spa & Beauty — By on September 25, 2012 at 12:00 pm

by Alexis Steinman

Special to The Lost Girls

“Follow the buckets” This was my first clue on my hunt for hammams in Marrakech. I fancy myself as a bathing bon vivant; each trip I take involves a foray into regional tubbing, rubbing and scrubbing.  I have been pummeled by burly men in Poland, soaked in outdoor, snow-bound baths in Hungary, and been buffed to a shine at Korean spas in Los Angeles. Yet, here I was in Morocco, stumped about how to visit the hammams – the traditional Turkish-style baths. My guidebook gave a brief hammam how-to-guide ( how to locate them, what to bring, what to do once inside), but what it failed to mention was something I discoveredthrough my forays: bathing is best when with a local.

My journey begins at my riad. The guidebook suggested to ask for a recommendation since the hammams are difficult to locate – because they are either unmarked or labeled in Arabic. When I question my riad manager, the secret of the buckets is divulged, so off I go, trailing a local, djellaba-d woman through the winding streets of the Medina – the Old City. She ducks into a tiled archway and, following her lead, I pay the 10 dirham entrance fee. Since the hammams have separate men’s and women’s areas, I had assumed that nudity was de rigueur, but I realize my grave mistake as underwear-clad women streamed through the changing area.  Since I was only wearing a flimsy, cheek-bearing thong,  I self-consciously sneak out, promising to return when I am properly outfitted.

After two subsequent failed attempts (first, I arrive during men’s only hours, then I forget the essential 2nd pair of panties – for when first get soaked) I  return to my riad frustrated. When I explain my woes to Ikram, a housekeeper, she graciously offers to accompany me to her local hammam so that she can show me the ropes. She asks me to pack basic toiletries – shampoo, conditioner, razor – then we would head to the souk for standard supplies. Per the Moroccan tradition of specialty shops, we stop at a bathing boutique where bins of brightly-colored soaps and scrubs beckoned us. Using Ikram’s suggestion, I buy a baggie with sabon beldi, a  traditional, black sticky soap made from olive oil. In addition, kiis – scrubbing mittens, a terra cotta foot scrubber, and a small plastic bowl, for scooping water, complete our shopping list.

When we arrive,  we disrobe down to our skivvies. Although Moroccan women dress in modest, body-covering fashion, they are unembarrassed by nudity in the comfort of the hammam. I can’t imagine having a parallel experience in the States, where even topless sunbathing sparks scandalous stares. Ikram leads me into the hammam,  a rustic space carved from the ancient stone of the old city. The steamy rooms are cavernous and dark, lit only by slivers of daylight streaming through the few skylights and the stone walls perspire in the heat. The musty air is thick with wood-tinged smoke – from the fires which warm the hammam – adding to the mystique. Each room is a different temperature, with the furthest being the hottest due to it’s proximity to the fire. Marrakech is a city suspended in time; inside the hammam, I get a glimpse into the past while participating in this longstanding ritual.

Groups of women line the walls and congregate in clusters; a generational mix of dark-eyed teenage beauties, mothers and daughters, older sages shriveled with age. Surrounded by buckets, they are in various stages of soaping, scrubbing, washing, and rinsing. The hum of gossip buzzes – it’s lively without being loud. This is where women come to socialize and take a break from their daily duties of cooking and cleaning. Since it is a cultural no-no for Moroccan women to visit cafes and bars on their own, the hammam is their communal hub where they can gab and, literally, let down their hair.

To get acclimated to the heat, we begin in the warm room. Ikram has brought us plastic mats on which to sit; it’s a little slice of luxury in the barebones space. As Ikram fills our buckets with hot and cold water from faucets along the wall, she explains that it’s necessary to not use too much water while bathing, since water is a valuable resource there. Two buckets per person is adequate; three would be considered selfish – no need to stoke the stereotype of American greed. We sit together to let the heat penetrate our pores, then Ikram mixes the sabon beldi  with water to create a malleable soap. Following her lead, I lather my body with the slippery soap.  Like sisters sharing a bath, she offers to wash my back and invites me to do the same.

“Gommage” A stout, elderly woman waddles by asking if we want a scrub. While some women scrub themselves, as a hammam newbie, I opt to splurge on the professional treatment.  Facing me, she takes my kiis and begins to slough the dead skin off my arms.  In order to achieve maximum exfoliation, she rubs aggressively – think dominating more than therapeutic.  As she finishes a section, she mutters directions in Arabic then smacks my body once she remembers we don’t share a common language.  In order to protect me from the scummy floor, she unabashedly flings my reclining body over her lap. She is so intent on exfoliating that she is unaware that her giant bosoms keep smacking against my skin. I am stretched, contorted, scrubbed and polished – no inch of my flesh is ignored, not even the private bits. I couldn’t be further away from the solitude, frivolity (cucumber infused water, expensive lotions), and hushed silence of fancy Western spas.

Afterwards, my skin as pink as the walls of the city, Ikram and I wash our hair together. Rinsing, I watch the shampoo bubbles cascade to the floor and join the rivulets of the other ladies’ soap, dirt, and skin en route to the drain. In the hammam, the lines of tourist/local and American/Moroccan are irrelevant – we are all bathers. Through washing, I have been initiated into the sorority of Moroccan women.

Photo credit: Alexis Steinman, Spixey/flickr,ozziebackpacker/flickr

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    3 Comments

  • Joni says:

    I am impressed, Alexis, with how similar is the communal nature of hammam culture and the Korean spa culture of L.A. and beyond. There too one sees families of women, neighborhoods of women, offices of women, enjoying time away from the bustle that is their respective lives, relaxing while engaged in a cleansing of the body, together and on their own.

    Thanks for the insights: they were evocative and permitted me to be with you in Marrakesh, old and new.

    Lost Girls: I hope we see Alexis’ work again in the very near future.

  • I love how you told the story! I avoided the public bathhouses the whole year I lived in Korea, but if I ever do make it to Morocco, I feel the need to give it a try.

  • Rene Lasko says:

    I am so thrilled I found your blog. I really found you by accident, while I was browsing on Yahoo for something else. I like with what you wrote in this blog post. I haven’t looked at it that way. Thanks for being such a good writier.