My Day at the Hammam

Whenever I travel, I try very hard to use the “third eye” approach and follow the all important mantra, “When in Rome”. Before going to Morocco, I asked past CCS volunteers about the highlights of their experience and visit in Morocco. I heard over and over again from the women that I must go to the hammam.

Ok, what on earth is a hammam? A hammam is a traditional, communal Moroccan bathhouse. Communal? Indeed! That is a cultural shock in itself going into a bathhouse and disrobing in front of a bunch of Moroccan women strangers. But after hearing about the hammams, I knew that I’d have to suck in my pride and modesty and just go for it. If Moroccan women go on average once a week and it is known as their most beloved beauty secret, then I would have to give it a try.

My day at the hammam was planned for Friday afternoon, which was the end of my volunteer program and my last full day in Morocco. I worked that morning in the dirty, filthy Asthma ward at the Children’s Hospital (and yes I loved it!) and was ready for a little R&R after being around dozen loud and busy children.

Around 3 PM, I gathered my essentials: Shampoo, Conditioner, Hair brush, lotion, towel, and 100 dirhams (equivalent to US$12) and headed to the hammam for the experience of a lifetime.

I was dropped off at the corner and walked hesitantly towards the discrete entrance. There was no awning or writing anywhere on the outside to tell me it was the hammam. Just an ugly, old looking building complete with dirty whitewashed siding. I obviously was out of place and thankfully a delightful Moroccan woman approached shy me and asked me if I’d ever been to a hammam before. I told her in french (thank God I spoke french!) that this was my first time. She gently lead me in and brought me over to the main room where I was to disrobe. Immediately I felt a bit queasy as everyone inside was naked except for their underwear. Even the women working behind the counter at the cashiers were in the nude! I had to continually remind myself that it was only the human body. No big deal. I’ve had babies. This couldn’t be all that bad, right?

The kind Moroccan woman showed me where to put my stuff and then gently asked me, “Vous voulez une dame”? (ie. Do you want a “woman”). Thank goodness I did my homework and read the Lonely Planet explanation of a hammam. For 50 DH, or roughly, US$6, you could hire a tabbeya or bath attendant to scrub you down. Of course I hired one!

Next, we passed through the three rooms starting with the cold room first, followed by the medium temperature room and ending up in the hot room, where I would get my scrub down. The hot room was tiled in white, heated marble and amass in thick, lush steam. There were probably about six other women there in the process of bathing and I of course was the only western woman present. I thought I’d feel awkward but to my surprise I felt fine. It helped having my nice Moroccan friend next to me, who chatted with me the entire time.

Once inside the hot room and situated sitting on the delicious heated floor, the real pleasure and pain began. My entire body was loaded up with savon noir (black palm soap made with resins from olive) and then the attendant began the process of exfoliating my sensitive skin by using a el-kis or a course glove. The first five minutes were absolute hell. She scrubbed me so hard that I thought my skin would fall off and bleed. But to my surprise and shock, once the savon noir was off, my skin was shiny and new, and not even the slightest bit red. Thankfully after five minutes of torture, my skin warmed up and the scrubbing no longer felt like I was being attacked by sandpaper. Instead, it was heaven. I was tossed and turned around like a limp, rag doll, thrown around the heated floors and scrubbed, scrubbed, scrubbed. Every single inch of my body (except of course for the private area) was scrubbed and it took a good 45 minutes until she was done with me.

I closed my eyes and tried not to think about the fact that my arms would occasionally flop across her enormous, sagging breasts (sorry not trying to gross you out but this is true! She wasn’t wearing a top either!!!!), and I tried to relax. Once I got past this fact I thoroughly enjoyed myself in the hammam and never felt so clean before in my life.

After the scrub down, buckets of hot, medium warm and cool water were dumped over my head and then I got a nice long head massage and shampooing. By the end of it, I was thirsty as hell and was so relaxed I could hardly move. I didn’t spend much time in the medium or the cool room and instead went outside to the lobby area to get dressed, slowly but surely.

I paid my “dame” and gathered my belongings, of course, after meeting another kind Moroccan lady who wanted to know all about my experience and what I thought. We talked for a good fifteen minutes and then I was out the door, hair wet and pulled back into a ponytail and feeling young, fresh and clean!

(Sorry folks…no pictures here of the hammam! ha ha).

The Moroccan hammam has been a tradition for ages. Both men and women go to the hammam but of course there are separate ones for each gender. Moroccan women are known for their beauty treatments and secrets. They prefer to use all natural products for their beauty maintenance such as olive oils, henna, ghassoul (clay), eggs, fruits, vegetables and plant-based products. Perhaps that is how they achieve such beautiful, perfect skin! If only we could have the same kinds of traditions back in the States! We’d all look like queens!

Later that afternoon, as a farewell gift we received henna that was applied artfully by Khadija at the Home Base. Henna is a tradition in many parts of the world such as Africa, India and some Arab nations. Traditionally it is done for weddings as a symbol of beauty but now it can be done for other occasions as well. Henna derives from the henna plant which can be found in the Sahara desert and is mixed together and poured into syringe-like instrument. It is applied wet using traditional designs and art onto the hands, palms, and legs. Then you have to not move and wait at least an hour or so for it to dry until you can gently peel it off, leaving a beautiful reddish (or black depending on the henna you use) design on your skin. I’ve been told that it lasts about two to four weeks. So we will see! Here are some pictures of its application:

The arms:

The legs:

A close-up of the work while it is drying:

Once dried and peeled off, the end result (note the staining is darker on the palms than on the rest of the arm):

I tried to fool the kids when I got home by telling them I got a tattoo. They were quite alarmed so of course I told them I was just kidding. It has been a fun conversational piece yet I’m ready for it to fade away!

Coming next…Finally I will discuss my volunteer experience teaching English and also a day spend at the Children’s Hospital. Stay tuned!