Stripping Down In A Moroccan Hammam

ninemsn.com.au

February 1 2013

We're in a town called Chefchaouen in Morocco and decide to visit a traditonal hammam. Descended from Roman baths and modelled after Turkish baths, hammams have existed for thousands of years. 

In bigger cities they are places to relax and socialise, in smaller towns they are still used as they were hundreds of years ago — as the town bathhouse. Getting a scrub is still very much a part of the Moroccan culture — women come here to wash, chat, gossip, and often to check out the bodies of potential daughter-in-laws.

How to find a hammam

Traditional bathhouses are often inside the old medina. They are usually signposted, but if you're not a pro at reading Arabic script look out for people of the same gender walking with towels and bath supplies. Some hammams are only for men or women, while others split their opening hours between the sexes — the moral of the story is only follow people of your own gender.

Everyone stares as we step inside. The door lady is big, really big. She looks us up and down with an amused look on her face and signals for us to undress. This is the waiting room — do we really undress here?

The stares now feel like glares and we slowly start to strip off. We might be brave but decide to leave our undies on — and big mamma (as we come to call her) approves as she opens another door. We leave everything behind and walk into the hammam. Big mamma barks something in Arabic and we continue to awkwardly just stand, goose bumps forming on our strategically placed arms. She shouts again then walks away retuning a minute later wearing nothing but a super-mini thong ...

To bare or not to bare?

 Some say in Morocco nudity is fairly uncommon, others will tell you being nude is totally acceptable. Your best bet is to watch and copy. Because you don't know what people are wearing (or not wearing) till you step into the hammam, ere on the cautious side — it's better to seem prudish that offend someone.

The washing starts. She takes turns with us. First we get rinsed, then we sit and wait. Using bucket after bucket of water she scrubs our backs, feet, heads. She plaits my sister's long blonde hair and has no idea what to do with my spiky mop. As time passes she smiles. Communication is sparse and useless — we have no common words but it's clear we are today's amusement. Big mamma occasionally yells something out and an unimpressed nude teenager walks over to us with another water-filled bucket. Black mud-like gunk is in our hair, rocks mixed with water become body wash — we can feel the grime from our dusty road trip being scrubbed away.

What to bring

  • Soap — a traditional black soap made of olive resin does wonders for the skin and can be found in shops around the medina.
  • Shampoo and conditioner. If you're brave try ghassoul — a type of mud Moroccans use for washing hair.
  • A big bag.
  • Extra clothes and underwear.
  • Hair brush.
  • Towel.
  • Thongs (the kind that go on your feet).
  • Scrubbing mitt.

As I look up from time to time I catch the eyes of interested locals stealing a glance our way. It's obvious that this is not a normal stop on the tourist route. Girls help each other wash their hair, mothers scrub their children, groups of women sit in groups and chat as they massage and scour each other's backs. Most have nothing on. Big mamma scrubs us really hard; at one time while being scrubbed face down on the stone floor I think I hear my rib crack. We leave the hammam a few layers of skin lighter, and a handful of dirhams poorer — but the experience has been worth it just for the tale.

Expectations

 If, like us, you go the authentic route don't expect luxury. The traditional hammam will consist of a few rooms with access to water, and as you move through the rooms the water will get warmer. You can either DIY (hard if you have no idea what to do) or pay a bit more for an attendant to do it. A basic order would be:

  • Rinse first.
  • Then you wait. (yes it can be awkward).
  • Step three is a scrub. This is where all the dead skin comes off, and though it's unsightly you will feel incredibly clean and fresh afterwards.
  • Soap is the next and skin will often be red and tender at this stage.
  • After this people generally wash their hair, shave and rinse again.

Helpful hints

  • If you decide to keep underwear on, opt for a dark colour.
  • If you've taken the traditional route don't forget your sense of humour.
  • Watch and copy. This is the key to success at a Moroccan hammam.