Visiting a Hammam in Morocco and Leaving Modesty at the Door
Visiting a Hammam
One of the things you should do in Morocco is visit a hammam. It’s the closest thing to a human car wash you will ever experience. It is also a rare opportunity to leave all modesty behind in an Islamic country.
A hammam is a spa, sort of…. or maybe it’s a sort of spa. My understanding is that they originated in the Middle East and have spread like hot butter through the Islamic world all the way to Morocco. Back in the day before indoor plumbing was available in every home, they were similar to community bathhouse but with a higher expectation of service. Back then, a hammam was one of the few occasions women could leave their homes without their husbands. I’ve even heard that it was considered so important that a woman could apply for a divorce if her husband didn’t allow her to go to the hammam to bathe.
We booked a visit to the hammam recommended by our riad our first day in Marrakesh. We had arrived tired from the long trip which started in Seattle and a spa day sounded pretty good. I texted a friend that afternoon before we left and said I was going to a spa where they scrub you top to bottom. He said, “Wow, do you think they’ll scrub your butt too?” As though this were the ultimate spa treatment. “I don’t know, maybe.” I replied.
I should have known.
This was not the immature question of a 35-year-old who still is obsessed with potty humor. This was a legitimate question that should have been respected and taken seriously.
For such a modest country, visiting a hammam is a mini culture shock in itself. The women here dress in a variety of ways from burkas to skinny jeans, but often their hair is covered. You never see cleavage or tank tops, except on tourists. That’s why, the hammam was so surprising. If you are a modest person, you should set your modesty on fire and leave it at the door to crumble to ashes because it will not survive the experience.
We went to our first hammam in Marrakesh. At the front desk they gave us a laminated menu of options to choose from ranging in times. Because there wasn’t an English version, we picked the mid option which was listed as lasting an hour and a half. Neither of us knew what this entailed but it sounded like a reasonable choice. The lady behind the desk then escorted us to an area a few steps left of the desk, gave us each a basket and told us to take off all our clothes except out our underwear. That seemed abrupt since anyone could walk in from the street and be at the front desk. A quick glance to the left would leave nothing to the imagination. I should have cared, but I was jet lagged and tired.
Whatever. This was happening.
We did as we were told. I felt very exposed but not embarrassed. I’m sure this was nothing new to the women who worked there. Plus, being shy seemed like a lot of effort at the time and I didn’t feel motivated enough to keep it up for an hour and a half. After being stripped of everything except my underwear and a confused smile, we were hearded into a room where two ladies in their underwear dumped hot water on our heads. Then they lathered us up with something I guessed was soap. Lather, rinse, repeat.
It was strange having someone do something so personal that I could so easily do myself. However, they made no notice and approached us like Hondas in a car wash, slapping on soap and working off the road dust all the live-long day. I kind of wanted the Lexus treatment. This slapping and sudsing approach made me feel like a used station wagon. But for them I suppose there wasn’t time. There was probably a line of cars halfway around the block. Still, their work was extremely thorough. My attendant even scrubbed my belly button. By the time they finished, we were completely sudsed. Next, we were led to a sauna to sit for about 10 minutes as we watched the room fill with steam.
I sat there, curious about the use of disinfectant in this country and feeling somewhat bemused by my current setting. How on Earth does one get given a bath past toddlerhood?! I think I probably could’ve been happy with a normal sauna but, then again, this was definitely an extra shower I could cross off the to-do list. The room became hotter and hotter. I felt my tired muscles relax. One of the women entered and waved us back to the suds chamber. In unison, they doused us with water again.
Neither of our attendants spoke English an of course, I can’t speak Arabic, but they managed to mime directions. My attendant pointed at me to lay down on the tiled table nearby. I noticed she was wearing a big, black mitt on one hand. I laid down, feeling like meat about to be tenderized. She began to scrub… and scrub… and scrub. The mitt was scratchy like a boar brush. She scrubbed vigorously and although it wasn’t painful, I swear to all that is holy, that is the most extreme scrub down I have ever had. She went in circles from my neck to my toes, working up a sweat.
I soon realized that the underwear is just a formality because they leave no stone unturned so to speak. In this car wash even the undercarriage gets cleaned. I’d have to tell my friend. Did he know? Is that why he asked? I should have been warned. The technician scrubbed head to toe, bumper to bumper. Occasionally she would pause, showing me the mitt. The black mitt was covered in dry, exfoliated skin. Gross. This gesture seemed to be proof that I was getting a quality scrub down, but honestly, I could feel it. I had not doubted I was being exfoliated like I never had been before.
I thought to myself, “Oh god. Please tell me these are disposable mitts.”
I’d seen elephants in Thailand once be scrubbed down with a shop broom. I now understood the feeling.
They mimed for us to stand up. I stood up and put my arms out like the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio, this was both dramatic and helpful for the attendant. She started to cover my skin in brown organ soap. Once we were completely coated, they deposited us back in the sauna, two muddy figures in a haze. This time the sauna was hotter than before. I laid on the bench like a slug, watching the steam pour in and planning what I would do if the wooden door streamed shut. I’d probably kick it open, heroically, before we died from heat exhaustion. I had much less skin than before so I would most likely incur some fairly serious lacerations. Too bad I hadn’t kept my boots on.
When they came to retrieve us the second time, they each had a bucket of water. The attendant poured water over my head, again. I sputtered and rubbed it out of my eyes. Exactly how many wash cycles were there?! At least one more I soon found out. They escorted each of us to a separate shower stall to rinse off the brown soap. Now, here’s the part that was strange to me, after all that, we had separate shower stalls. What?! As though the need for modesty suddenly mattered when water was raining from a faucet? Although I’m fairly proficient at showering, if I do say so myself, my attendant checked in every few minutes. She made sure the job was done right. I wasn’t getting out there still muddy, not on her watch.
All I could think was, this woman is not getting paid nearly enough.
When we finished the attendants handed us each a robe. I dried off and then headed upstairs for a massage. These, thankfully were in private stalls. It was dark and quiet and relaxing. The masseuse used argan oil, which is from Morocco. I supposed this was the equivalent of the shine treatment at the car wash. As we finished up, we were led to the area left of the front desk for a tiny glass of mint tea. As I drank my tea, I noticed how bright and smooth my skin felt. Despite the rough treatment, it was absolutely baby soft. I felt brand new and sparklingly clean. Our attendants came by and gave us each our mitt as a souvenir.
Thank goodness they weren’t re-used.
The woman behind the desk brought our clothes in wicker baskets. Soon we were dressed and making our way through the medina to dinner. Back in the sunlight, I felt raw and exposed from the vigorous scrub. As we walked, I noticed we were surrounded by women who were the very picture of modesty. Their hair was covered. Their clothing was neat and conservative. If this were the US, the women would be much more scantily clad. Yet, at home, the spas were so much more discreet. It seemed like such an odd contrast, that in Morocco, of all places, my modesty was left at the door.