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Uncovered at the Hammam- Morocco

By Elizabeth Nystrom

Uncovered at the Hammam
Marrakech, Morocco
The Arab women had stripped. Their bare breasts differed from each other’s as much as our jeans and sneakers differed from their Obi-Wan Kenobi djellabahs and hand-crafted sandals that lay neatly along the shelved walls. Some sat with dimpled rear-ends, covered by wet granny undies hanging over plastic crates, while others with lean, flawless legs strutted to fetch warm bath water. We Americans still had our bras on, but I knew it wouldn’t be for long.
I had been intrigued by the idea of the hammams, Morocco’s public bathhouses. As hot water is still considered quite a luxury for many Moroccans, weekly bathing rituals are performed in public. My guidebook advertised an exotic experience that would leave me relaxed, exfoliated and squeaky. So I decided that it would be the perfect Christmas Day activity.

Most of our group of seven travellers had originally met three years earlier on an organized tour of Morocco and Mauritania. Good friendships had grown through several more personalized trips in the years since, so we decided meet up in Spain to spend the holidays driving through Morocco for a second time.
Although bartering with craftsmen and shopkeepers in the medina and repeatedly saying “no thank you, no thank you” to young boys offering to be our tour guides was par for the course in Morocco, we wanted to treat ourselves to a little break on Christmas Day. It was the third day in our Marrakech Riyadh, a traditional Moroccan home, and I asked Malika, our nurturing cook, about visiting a hammam that afternoon. I needed only to repeat the word, “hammam” a few times, and she knew that we wanted to visit her local bath. In order to figure out what we needed to do to get there, however, I beckoned the only French speaker in our group. Simon, a farmer from Northern England, knew how to sufficiently talk through his nose to navigate our way through the dusty pink medina to barter for leather lamps and antique Tuareg tribal jewellery, and now he would translate Malika’s instructions for what to do in preparation for our trip to the hammam.
We learned that it costs 50 dirham (about $5) to enter the hammam, and an additional 50 dirham to have your own personal scrubber-person. We would also need to bring our own exfoliating mitts, which Malika offered to buy for us at 10 dirham (about $1) each. We would not be able to go until 1:30 (about an hour and a half away), because the women at the hammam would need to prepare for us. “Ooh!” I thought, as I imagined them preparing human-sized feather fans, rose pedal-carpeted floors, and Jacuzzi tubs. Simon agreed to the 1:30 time slot, and handed her 70 dirham for our seven exfoliating mitts. While Malika snaked her way through the windy passageways of the medina, we prepared for our Christmas present to ourselves.
The three females of our group, Carolyn, her 15-year-old daughter Kate, and I pow-wowed about what to bring. We figured that we would bring exactly what we would need in the shower: shampoo, conditioner and soap. “I didn’t bring a bathing suit,” I confessed regrettably to Carolyn. “I think you’re supposed to be naked,” she replied. “No. Are you sure? Judging from the way women here are supposed to cover themselves on the street, I would assume the hammam dress code would be somewhat conservative.” I decided on a pair of black Hanes underwear and a black sports bra. Kate wore her Speedo bikini, and Carolyn kept her same bra and undies on.
When the time came to venture beyond the walls of the medina to meet the taxis Malika had ordered for us, she glared at the camera bag tugging on Carolyn’s posture. “No photo in hammam,” she warned. “Oh, of course,” Carolyn replied apologetically before she schlepped the camera back upstairs to her room.
We decided that we might as well begin the gender segregation with the taxi ride, as Simon, John, Mick and Christopher hopped into one cab, and Malika, Carolyn, Kate, and I into the other. As we drove farther and farther away from the medina, there were fewer jewellery shops and carpet weavers, and more fruit stands and butchers. Pedestrians stared at us more inquisitively, but somehow we felt more at ease with the locals who saw us more as simply foreign, than as potential swindle-ees. At the end of our 15 minute cab ride, we arrived at a cement building with fading, hand-painted Arabic letters, under which we read, “HAMMAM.”
Carolyn, Kate and I waited outside as Malika beckoned a male staff member to lead the men into the right-hand entrance of the hammam. He was a Muslim Buddha of a man. Although his djellabah revealed no body contour, I imagined his jolly belly jiggling as he scrubbed and stretched our male companions. Once the guys had been led to their lair of scrubbery, we followed Malika into the girl’s room on the left-hand side of the building.
The steam filled my pores before we reached the payment counter. Malika passed our dirhams on to the smiling, nodding woman behind the counter as they chattered away in Arabic. As Malika guided us into the bowels of the hammam, I realized that there would be no rose pedals or feathers. The floor was too slimy for rose pedals, and feathers would have instantly turned into wet dog tails. Two lighter-skinned women and one dark-skinned black woman reported to Malika, and then beckoned us to the changing room. Malika mimed disrobing before she left us to change, and we obeyed.
A twinge of embarrassment cast itself upon my self-image when the time came to reveal my thunder thighs and flabby stomach in front of Carolyn and Kate. My bikini line hadn’t been waxed since the summer, adding to my hesitation. I reminded myself that we are all open-minded, liberal women who are here for a cultural experience, not a bikini contest. I could sense more self-consciousness, especially from 15-year-old Kate. She had her bikini under her clothes, and after she removed her t-shirt, sneakers, socks, and jeans, she still covered her developing bosom with crossed arms.
Our scrubbers returned together, bare-breasted, to lead us into the hammam proper.
Aisha was my woman. She was the darkest of our three scrubbers, and the leanest. Her hair was braided and nappy, unlike her colleagues’ straight hair made of ebony corn silk. Though a petite woman, her dark cocoa skin stretched over ripped pectorals, deltoids, abs, glutes, quads and calves. Black bullet nipples stood erect from her barely present breasts. Her face was unlike those of American decedents of Sub-Saharan Africans. Her nose was longer, her brow more pronounced, her lips thinner. She put her hand on my back and walked me into the hammam.
Laughter and yelling provided the baseline for children’s cries bouncing across the steamy tiled walls and up to the 30-foot-high ceiling. The same kohl eyes that shot at us in the medina shot at us here. They did not avert their glances when we caught them staring, and only some of them returned our smiles. We were obvious as Western women in the hammam. We wanted to be covered, and they were comfortably nude.
Carolyn, Kate and I were herded to the near left corner of the hammam. Though physically together, we each had our own hammam experience. Aisha poured a gloriously warm bucket of water over my head and guided me to lie face-down on the tiles. She produced a palm-sized blob of amber goo. She broke off tiny pieces to spread over my body. My limbs were covered in mild suds and, as her hands wiped my back and under my arms, she tugged at my sports bra to indicate that I should remove it. So I did. Carolyn also obliged with the request, but young Kate opted to keep her entire bikini on. The other clients at the hammam giggled at our prudishness.
The only other woman to ever touch my breasts was my gynecologist, and this wasn’t too dissimilar. Aisha, too, had an important job to do, and approached it every bit as scientifically as Dr. Goodstein. Once I was sufficiently sudsed, Aisha produced my exfoliating mitt and proceeded to strip the top layer off of every inch of my skin, except the parts covered by Hanes Her Way. My legs were slabs of dough under her rolling pin strength and my back and arms were blocks of cheese to be grated. I couldn’t differentiate pain from intense relaxation. She used my shampoo and conditioner to remove the grime from my locks, alternating scrubbing with splashing more warm water buckets on me.
Although I knew we spoke no common language, I attempted to start a semblance of a conversation with Aisha. After all, if anyone touches me in such intimate places, I should at least try to get to know them, shouldn’t I? So as she turned me over from back to front, I pointed at her and asked, “Berber?”
Most Moroccan Berbers are quick to identify themselves as such to distinguish themselves from the Arabic majority. The Berber people have existed in Northern Africa since approximately 3000 BC, long before the arrival of the Arabs about 3,700 years later.
“Tuareg,” she replied. Descendants of Berbers, the Tuaregs were historically Saharan nomads whose culture has changed relatively little due to their isolation in the vast desert. Like most Berbers, Aisha seemed proud to announce her cultural identity.
Although our only other communication was through body language, I felt a close bond with Aisha by the end of my thirty-minute treatment. Carolyn, Kate and I were escorted back into the changing room, and our dry clothes were brought to us. The other hammam clients reattached their headscarves and long robes to go back out into the world, as we put on our t-shirts and jeans. While we waited for our taxis to return, Aisha and the other scrubbers sat and smiled with us as we marvelled at our newly supple skin.
Over the next two weeks, I viewed the hundreds of covered Morocco women I encountered differently. In spite of the traditional respect for their own culture evident in the fashion choices they make, they are more accepting of and open about their bodies than many American woman. At least when the men aren’t around.
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