Katie O’Donnell, studying abroad in Morocco this semester, shares with us her first experience in a hammam.
First they took our money. Then they locked our possessions away, took us to a darkened room, stripped us naked and nearly drowned us, but it was still the best experience I had during my three months in Morocco.
It was my first trip to a hammam. Two months into my semester in Rabat, I hadn’t yet built up the courage to display my milk-bottle limbs to a steamy room full of naked Moroccan ladies. So when three friends came to visit, I decided to take advantage of the safety found in numbers and suggested we all experience it for the first time together.
Our first challenge was choosing the right hammam. As we were in Marrakesh, there were plenty of pricey tourist options offering spa-style treatments, but there were also loads of traditional local steam rooms, where unlimited hot water and a good gossip costs just a dollar. Due to a combination of budget constraints and fear of looking like an idiot who doesn’t know how to wash, we opted for mid-range, hoping for a memorable experience but also wanting a nice Moroccan woman to guide us through the whole process.
After TripAdvisor proved too overwhelming, we let our hostel’s housekeeper take us to her sister/cousin/other distant relative’s hammam. First impressions were great; all of the ladies were lovely and friendly, and extremely excited by my slightly dodgy Modern Standard Arabic (normally met by blank stares followed by a confused “français?” elsewhere in Morocco as their dialect is so different). We were led up to the roof, where a couple of shed-like structures served as makeshift steam rooms and bath-houses, and ushered into a changing room.
Then came a further challenge: the nudity question. Common sense says if you’re going to wash, you should wear as little as possible. However, our slightly prudish British/Canadian/Irish backgrounds left us a little nervous about the possibility of going topless. As we modestly attempted to enter the hammam wearing our bikini tops, the Moroccan girl who was running the show burst out laughing, cried (in Moroccan Arabic) “this is a hammam, not a swimming pool,” and promptly pulled down Kelly’s top. We had no choice but to follow suit.
Once you get over the fact that you’re naked but for a pair of disposable pants and being washed like a child in front of several strangers, the hammam part is actually quite fun. Our hammam lady only spoke Arabic, so communication was limited to hand gestures, and when that failed, manhandling (so much for being guided gently). We took turns lying down on a warm stone bench to be exfoliated with black argan oil soap, watching in gory fascination as all of the dead skin was visibly scrubbed away, whilst our hammam lady chatted away, laughed at our sunburn and jiggled Gemma’s boobs.
The whole experience ended far too quickly, and we re-emerged into the dusty streets of Marrakesh feeling exhilarated and bewildered, but most importantly, cleaner than ever before. It was far from the relaxing evening I had naively imagined, but it was definitely one I would repeat.