In the single-gender Moroccan hammam, several young women were getting changed or already in the bath uniform – underwear and shower shoes. My only previous experience in a hammam had been in Istanbul where I’d been allowed to keep on my bra and pants because it was a man doing the bathing, but this was not the case in this public bath. I’d stripped down to my underthings and the attendant pointed at my bra and shook her head no. I took off my bra to stand there in just my underwear. Elizabeth, my travel partner who I’d known exactly 5 days, did the same and we followed our young attendant into the bath rooms.
The bath rooms had a feeling like a gym shower room with tile floors, steam, and, like gym shower rooms, not quite the cleanest feeling. There were two adjoining steamy, tiled rooms around large faucets where women filled several buckets from spigots on the wall. The bath setup was this: Each woman, similarly clothed as us in just underpants, sat on a mat on the floor, right up to the wall. She had two to three buckets with her and a small pail for scooping. Her bathing equipment included black soap that had the consistency of grease, a loofah mitt, and shampoo.
There were about 15 women and girls around of all shapes and sizes in these rooms with that equipment. There was a rhythm as well – mothers bathing daughters, daughters fetching pails, and all accepting awash. There were also a lot of boobs on display. Elizabeth and I walked in holding ours, a bit shy in this overt display of femininity, and noticed a women with volleyball sized breasts being bathed intimately legs over legs, but not sexually, bathing woman. “Hers are bigger than yours,” Elizabeth commented with a dry, wry voice.
We walked pigeon-toed closer to our spot. I had to get over the ick factor quickly, there some clumps of black hair on the tile floor and we didn’t have a mat or shower shoes like the other women. But, it’s in the hammam and Morocco, I thought, so what the hell? There’s a ton of soap, that’s clean, right?.
There were four phases of the bathing process:
1)Two young girls rubbed the black soap over us and then poured water to rinse off.
2) Waiting around wondering what the heck was next. The young girls left us alone in the steamy bath room and we watched the other women bath. Some took their time with the loofah, thoroughly rubbing each inch of their skin and sloughing off dead skin. Others washed their neighbor’s back and scooped water over their heads repeatedly.
3) The head bather woman, finished with her very large breasted client, took the two of us to the second bath room, sat us down and began loofahing Elizabeth. Then, it was my turn and I was loofahed thoroughly – all over. At first, I sat up and she scrubbed my arms. I had so much dry skin, I felt guilty. It was like being at the dentist after a long time. “When was your last Hammam?” “Ummm, last year.”
I had my underpants on, but those were pushed and pulled aside to get maximum scrub. I had no privacy and any embarrassment about my body had been checked in the cloak room. Elizabeth and I tried to carry on a conversation given the newness of our travel relationship. The bather woman tossed me about and her power loofah was going all over. Our attempt at conversation was silly. Soon, we were silent, the only sounds water sloshing.
4) The final process of our bath was a “massage.” We were taken into the other room, laid on the tile floor, and pounded about by our bather woman. There was no real relaxing moments about the whole experience, but that’s just what it was, an experience.
I realized throughout this process that this was an intensely social experience for the women of this town. They could converse and share what they wanted with each other verbally, but so much was visually on display there would be nothing to hide. Bruises, pregnancy, Cesarean scars, age, female circumcision/mutilation, and deformities were all out there for discussion and notice. Nothing was hidden. In such a male-centric society and world, women can take respite in this bath hall and know that their secrets are shared secrets and hopefully, the resulting support can bring all things and parts to light.
Photo credit: Photo by La Tangerina on Flickr.