A Tale of Two Hammams

You can’t travel to Morocco without experiencing a hammam (public steam bath).  Hammams are an important part of weekly life for most Moroccans as they usually visit at least once a week.  You can easily spend 2-3 hours since a hammam is not only for cleansing the body, but for gossip and socializing.  I found there was a ritual to the cleansing and by the time you leave, you feel like you are floating on air with supersoft skin!

I’m the type of traveler that loves to try almost anything once…and meet as many locals as I can.  I’d read that there was a difference between the local public hammam and the hammams located within hotels & riads.  So, I decided to try both.  I had researched and felt that I was ready for this experience…I was not.  Seriously. I have never experienced anything like this before in my life.  Well, maybe as an infant but my memory isn’t that good (I blame my Mom for not supplementing my formula with Ginkoba). 

I consider myself a modern Western woman who craves adventure.  But, um…I’m reserved with showing all my goodies to strangers.  Moroccan women are not.  While they may be covered from head to toe in public, it’s underwear-only (maybe) in the hammam.  I had read that you could bring your bikini or bathing suit to wear if you aren’t comfortable wearing just underwear (or going completely nude).  Apparently, swimsuits aren’t the norm in hammams (thanks, internet research).  Know that now.  Be ready to strip down and bare it all.

Public Hammams

Men and women bathe separately.  This could mean that there are 2 separate buildings, or that one gender is allowed to bathe in the morning while the other bathes in the evening.  The public hammams are much cheaper than the “spa” hammams (I paid around 100 Dirhams which is approximately $10 USD).  Partially, because it’s a “no frills” environment and you have to bring all of your own supplies.  The hammam I went to in Fes did provide buckets for water.

What do you need to bring with you?  A bag (to hold your towel and clean clothes); towel (I just brought one from the riad I was staying in); shampoo & conditioner; comb/brush; flip-flops (just like you’d bring to a gym shower); soap (most will tell you to buy black soap which has the consistency of a gooey gel but smells divine.  This is readily available in the medina.  I suggest finding some with Argan oil.); loofah (you can pick this up in the medina as well for 6 or 7 Dirham); henna (readily available in the medina); razor (if you want to shave); mat or stool (to sit on while you bathe); a bottle of water (it’s a steam room so you will get hot); deodorant (no use in spending 3 hours getting clean if you get funky within 30 minutes of leaving); lotion (say “no” to ashiness); fresh clothes & underwear (the underwear you wear into the hammam will get soaked); and a bucket (to hold all the aforementioned items).

I was lucky to meet 2 women thru my local guide who volunteered to take me to a public hammam.  And, I can honestly say that I would have been completely lost without their patience and guidance.  As we enter the changing room, I notice that there are open cubby holes surrounding wooden benches.  There are no lockers so you are just going on faith that nobody will steal your things.  My strategy was to watch and follow the lead of my 2 companions.  They stripped down to their underwear, put on their flip-flops and took their bucket of supplies thru a spacious tiled room into a narrow steam room (which was also tiled with mosaics).  So, I did the same.  Of course, while my companions had on pretty panties, I was wearing  disposable underwear that I had bought as a way to save space in my bag during my trip.  Yeah, I was stylin’.

As we enter the steam room, there are other ladies bathing.  I take a deep breath and walk right in.  I mean, I will never see those ladies again and I told myself this is a way to become comfortable with my body.  From there, it’s a series of rituals:  (1) We lay out our mats and stool, fill up about 10 buckets of water to varying temperatures (some were really hot, others were lukewarm while a couple were cool).  Then, my companions took off their underwear.  And, I’m like, “Um, are we supposed to be butt booty naked?”  (not sure how to translate that into Arabic so I just stood there with a blank look for a few seconds then took my panties off too).  (2) We use bowls & ladles to pour hot water from the buckets over our bodies.  Then, we use our hands to massage black soap over our skin.  This is a community effort as other women will ask if you can soap their back.  Of course, there was a lot of communicating with me in hand gestures since I only knew the word for “thank you” in Arabic.  Once we were soaped fully, we rinsed ourselves by ladling hot water over our bodies again.  (3) Next step is adding a small bit of water to the henna powder so that it would make a paste.  Then, we took our hands and smeared the henna paste over our bodies and let it sit as a masque for a few minutes.  I’m told this helps to soften the skin.  Then, we went thru the rinse cycle again. 

(4) After we rinsed, my companions got up and took their mat & loofah to another room.  Now, I was distracted by making sure I had my supplies so I didn’t realize that one of my companions had put their underwear back on until I’m in the next room…in all my big booty glory.  Sigh.  But, the only one who is concerned is me.  This room is where the women who work at the hammam will use your loofah to scrub you down.  They are wearing only underwear as well.  So, I am motioned over to a nice lady who says “Sleep”.  I’m like, “What?  We take a nap too?  But I don’t have any clothes on!”  I was so confused.  They start doing charades and then just move my body into the position they want it to be in by pushing me back into this woman’s arms so she can cradle me while she scrubs me.  I’m not going to lie, I was uncomfortable being naked and held by another almost-naked lady.  There was nothing sexual about it…but it was so weird to me.  Eventually, you are pushed into a lot of different positions (kind of like yoga) from laying on your side with your arm stretched over your ear to laying on your tummy with your face down.  Once I laid down, the lady grabs my ankles and pulls me towards her then starts scrubbing my back & booty.  I’m like, “WTF?”  Lord help me.  But, then, you kind of go into this relaxed state.  Don’t ask me how.  Every part of your body is scrubbed over the span of 15-20 minutes.  It’s clear that I’m a foreigner by my reaction and not being able to communicate in Arabic.  But, the lady was so nice and once she was finished she took my face in her hands and gave me a quick kiss on each cheek.  I think I still looked dazed from all of our “togetherness”. 

(5)  After the scrubbing, I was given my loofah back and headed back into the steam room to wash with black soap again.  Then we went thru the rinse cycle once more.  An attendant (wearing only underwear…seriously, nobody is clothed) keeps filling up our buckets with water.  (6)  Now it’s time to wash & condition our hair then rinse with the lukewarm water.  (7) Once finished, we move onto exfoliating our face.  I continue to do this while my companions shave their legs.  (8)  Then, my companions motion me to lay down on my tummy again (and I’m looking at them like, “Again?  I’ve already had my booty scrubbed.”).  They begin to massage my legs and back then have me turn over to massage my chest (I know), tummy and arms.  (9) Once the massage is complete, we do another rinse (this time with cool water) and I’m given some special shampoo for the va-jay-jay.  (10)  Finally, it’s time to go.  We walk out of the steam room, thru a cooling room into the changing room to dress and leave.

During this entire time, ladies come and go and everybody is talking like we are at a cafe instead of a steam bath.  It’s a very relaxed atmosphere and I noticed that the women bring in their young daughters so this is something that they start doing at a very young age.  Which is why they are not bashful or ashamed of their bodies.  I found this refreshing (once I got over being uncomfortable).  I felt so clean and so light.  But, after almost 3 hours, I was ready for a nap too.

Riad Hammam

This is a totally different experience than the public hammam.  The hammams located in riads (i.e. hotels) are geared towards tourists.  If you aren’t brave enough to be nude in front of other women, this is your best bet.  The riad hammams are like spas where you reserve an appointment time.  Once I arrived, I was shown to a changing room with lockers where I stripped out of my clothes, donned a bathing suit and robe.  Then, I was led to a shower to rinse off before being shown into a beautifully tiled steam room.  I was handed a pillow and instructed to lay down on the tiled bench.  I was given a bottle of water and a few minutes to relax before the treatments begin.  You can wear bikini bottoms but any top will be removed eventually…I found that out the hard way.  Once the attendant comes back in (she is fully clothed by the way), she starts to rub black soap over my body, then rinses me with warm water.  Next, she uses the loofah to scrub my body.  After that is complete, I was rinsed again, then led out to a small pool which was filled with cool water.  I stepped into the pool and soaked for a couple of minutes then was led upstairs for a traditional massage.  One thing I’ve noticed about massages that I get overseas is that they massage everything…and I do mean everything.  Booty and breasts.  So, you just have to either roll with it or let them know you are uncomfortable.

Overall, the hammam experience was great.  While I initially had some misgivings about exposing myself, I was able to move past it and really try to understand the true meaning of “cleansing.”  In an odd way, I became more comfortable with my body while developing a kinship with my companions.  If you go to Morocco, I highly recommend you experience the hammam.  I promise that you won’t forget it!

4 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Hammams

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