Last night was the night – the momentous occasion of my very first visit to a hammam: the Moroccan public bath house. Now that everyone is done fasting and life has settled back into its normal routine, the hammam is back on schedule, apparently. As I may have mentioned, Moroccans usually visit the hammam about once a week for a thorough bathing session. Men and women bathe separately, of course; some hammams have separate spaces for men and women, others simply divide the days of the week or hours of the day between the two.
There is a hammam close to my host family’s house in the medina, but last night we visited one in Salé, where we had been all day to do laundry. Alma announced the plans to me in the morning – probably because she knew I would be wanting to take a shower. She originally told me we’d go the next morning, but at 9 PM that night, as we were sitting in the living room enjoying a “gâteau” that Fatima had just made, Alma decided we’d go that very same night. And so I gathered my gear and off we went, both of us with our arms full.
A visit to the hammam takes a fair amount of equipment and material. This is what you bring:
* 1 or more large plastic buckets (it should carry a volume of at least 20 liter or about 5 gallons)
* A plastic stool to sit on
* A plastic sheet to put underneath the stool
* 1 or more small plastic bowls
* Soap, shampoo, a razor – your choice of products, creams, soaps.
* A washcloth made of very abrasive fabric
* Clean underwear
* A big towel
* A smaller towel or some kind of terrycloth cap for your hair
* Pajamas – two layers, preferably
* A warm coat
I have never seen a hammam that actually identifies itself to the passer-by with a sign on its door. This one too was unidentifiable from the outside, but for the little shop where we bought our tickets. The man behind the counter had everything available that one might need in the hammam. It reminded me of the travel size toiletry-section at Target: baskets full of one-serving size packets of shampoo, conditioner, soap, bubble bath, facial masks, henna, you name it.
With our tickets (10 Dirhams each, or about a dollar, which was more than I had expected for something that is so commonly done) we entered through a big metal door lined with rubber – to keep in the heat, and keep out the cold – to find a group of women lounging on and under blankets with a plate of food. These are the proprietors, who take your ticket and welcome you inside. We passed them and entered the dressing room – a large seating area that could have been anyone’s sitting room but for the fact that the couches along the wall were made of plastic rather than cloth. This area is both reception and exit; it is where you undress and where you lounge around after your session. Surrounded by women packing themselves into layers of warm clothing, Alma and I undressed. “Enlevez tout,” she told me with a naughty look, ‘take it all off’. “Wakha”, ‘Ok’, I tried to say very nonchalantly, which made her laugh. It did feel awkward for a moment, even though she did not seem to share that feeling. I am not generally averse to undressing in locker rooms – as long as I am not the only one – but the self-consciousness I am never quite able to shake is heightened here in Morocco. I feel so visible so much of the time: I am stared at on the street, called after, and even at home I am constantly observed – when I eat,* when I write in Arabic, when I type on my computer, even when I am just reading. And as I undressed in that dressing room, I became overly aware for a moment of how different I looked from all the other women there, with my pale skin and blondish hair. But strangely enough, the attention I get everywhere else did not occur in the hammam. No one cared, no one stared. We were all naked, and my foreignness did not seem to matter. Another great and unexpected paradox, in other words: at this moment of greatest physical exposure, I felt strangely private and anonymous. If only because of that, the hammam is a place I’d like to return to.
From the dressing room, another metal door led into the bathing area. Hammams typically consist of three consecutive areas of increasing heat. There is no process of stages in one’s bathing session; you simply pick your most comfortable climate, and take a seat. The rooms in this hammam were rectangular, and the floors were slanted so the water flowed away into a gully running down the length of the room. The faucets – one for cold, one for hot water – were located at one end of the room, surrounded by a sea of buckets. Women of all shapes, sizes, and ages were seated along the wall in various stages of the bathing process, all stark naked. Some still wore underwear – as Alma and I did – while some did not. After a quick survey we found a spot close to the faucets, and as I began to put down our things, Alma got in line to get water.
This, then, is what you do in the hammam:
* Pick a spot and install yourself: lay out the plastic sheet, place your stool in the middle, and your collection of products next to it.
* Get in line to fill your buckets: splash through the water running to the drain, jumping over the buckets piled up by the faucet.
* Once full, drag your buckets back to your sitting area and take a seat.
* First step in the cleansing process: pour some henna powder into one of the small bowls you brought, and mix it with a little water to make a paste of sorts. Add some “sabon bildi”, ‘traditional soap’ – a dark substance the consistency of honey. Take this mixture, and rub it all over your skin. From the feel of it, this is a kind of scrub. Apparently it has no coloring effect; Alma actually mentioned that people use it to get rid of their suntans. Not something you need, she told me laughing. Rinse, lather, repeat.
* Step two: take the washcloth you brought, and start scrubbing. This is where the real work comes in. The idea is to scrub so hard that you produce dark grayish-brown bits of dead skin all over your body. This is the dirt you are washing away. This stage is, apparently, the reason why women go to the hammam in pairs: I guess someone else will scrub your skin harder than you yourself would. All across the room, women lay stretched out in front of a friend who went to work on their skin until it was scrubbed raw. Alma and I did the same. Fatima and Khadija joined us at this stage, and while I continued work on my own skin, Fatima and Alma took care of Khadija. All in all I think we spent at least 30 minutes on this section of the proceedings; at the end of it my skin felt worn to threads, and was red as a fire truck. I am not sure pale, sensitive skin can take this much of a beating – the day after, as I am writing this, my back still tingles with rawness. Alma sensed that my skin reacted to this differently than hers, as well: “ta peau va disparaître!” she exclaimed to me as she scrubbed me hard.
* When you are done, rinse – dip a small bowl into the big bucket and pour the water all over yourself. If your skin can take it, scrub it a second time and rinse again.
* Step three: Wash your hair, lather up your entire body with soap – using another abrasive scrubbing cloth (if your skin can take it), shave, etc. This is also the time when your underwear comes off; wash this as well.
* Once again, rinse. Also rinse off your bottles, soap dishes, bowls, buckets, stools. Put everything, as well as your soaked underwear, in an empty and rinsed-out bucket.
* If you came with someone, one of you will run back to the dressing area and get your towels. Wrap yourself up, and leave the bathing area.
* Lounging in the dressing room, take your time relaxing and drying yourself off. Get dressed, making sure to cover your entire body with at least two layers of clothing so you don’t catch “l-brd,” – the Moroccan version of a cold. As I put on my own pajamas, I watched a girl across from me put on layer after layer of pants, shirts, overcoats, and then a jellaba. Fatima, Khadija, and Alma did the same, and Khadija expressed some concern when she noticed I was dressed so lightly. Oh, don’t worry, Alma told her – she had brought me a big coat to wear that she zipped me up in. Fatima wrapped my head – still in a towel – in a headscarf, and off we went.
As soon as we came home I yanked off my headscarf, annoyed at how it blind-sighted me – but was immediately told to keep it on, because what if I caught l-brd! This is something Moroccans seem to worry about a lot; especially now that it is getting colder outside it is mentioned quite often. Fear of l-brd does not lead anyone to think of closing a window. Even in pouring rain and severe wind, most windows remain open. But no one will ever walk across a bare tile floor without slippers, for instance – not because the floor may be dirty, but because you might catch cold through your feet. In the same way, a Moroccan will walk around draped in towels for hours after a shower or hammam session before getting dressed – because to expose your naked body to the open air even for a second is risking a cold.
It seems in general as though bathing is seen as a risky endeavor. As a necessary thing, but dangerous, also. Cleanliness and purity are important in Morocco, and this explains the hammams’ importance. Moroccans keep themselves clean as they do their house, and hammams play an important symbolic transitional role in the preparation for big holidays, or returning to normal life after a period of illness. But the hammam itself is also a liminal, transitional space that can be dangerous: in the way that moments of transition always leave you a little vulnerable, exposed. And indeed, according to Marjo Buitelaar (a Dutch anthropologist; she writes about this in “Islam en het Dagelijks Leven, published in 2006), the hammam is heavily involved in the lore on jnoun (spirits) and sorcery. Jnoun love water, and hot water especially so. They lurk in the drains at the hammam, and it is important to take extra care while bathing to avoid angering the spirits. Bathing also renders you particularly vulnerable to the evil eye (going through any kind of transition does, but exposing your body also exposes you to the jealousy of others – a common source for the evil eye). Perhaps this transitional vulnerability also explains the fear of l-brd. Would it also explain the lack of signage outside – does that make it just slightly more difficult for evil to find the innocent bathers inside?
Bathing, in any case, is important, but also dangerous – perhaps this is why it only happens once a week. Afterwards, perhaps as extra safeguard against evil forces (and certainly as sign that it is a special occasion of sorts), it is common for others to wish you “bisahha ou rahha” – to your health and comfort.
All in all, the hammam visit was not unpleasant. It may be a place of vulnerability and exposure, but to me, strangely enough, it was also an unexpected place of anonymity. Certainly something I would be happy to do again – though I might take it a little easier on the scrubbing.
* This continues, unrelenting. When I stop chewing I am instantly told to “kouli!” When I take a bite from one dish, someone immediately asks me, ‘do you not like the other one?’ And unless I have eaten at least four pieces of bread and a whole quarter of a communal dish, I am still told I must have not liked the food.