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June 18, 2008 Hammaming it up

This afternoon, we went on the much-awaited trip to the hammam (public bath/Turkish bath). I’d been to one once before, at the Dead Sea Spa in Jordan, and was very curious to see how they compared. Of course, since that was a spa in a luxurious hotel, I was sure that it’d be different from a tiny hammam in a village in the middle of the High Atlas, but I figured there had to be some similarities. What they share: heat, hot water, exfoliation, and public nudity. That’s it. All of the details are different.

The preparations started about an hour before we set out. Ama packed a big bag of things I didn’t see. I contributed a bottle of shampoo when I heard her asking her sister where the shampwin was. Then my little five-year-old sister came by my room to ask where my clothes were. I pointed out the clothes hanging on the back of the door and stacked on a chair, and she said (translated loosely), “No, silly, I mean the ones you’re taking to the hammam.” I went to Ama for clarification: I should bring a towel, a hair wrap, and a clean change of undergarments. I stuffed these all into a mikka bag, and we were set.

We ate the fastest lunch we’ve ever had – a sardine omlette, which was a lot better than it sounds – and then we were off. I’d been a little nervous that my little brothers were going to join us – I don’t know at what age little boys and little girls are separated in the hammam – but they stayed behind. I asked how much it would cost, and discovered that it’s 6DH per person – less than a dollar. Nice! Ama wanted to get there as soon as it opened for women, which was noon. (Of course, that begs the question: noon new time or noon old time?) We got there at 11:30/12:30, and there were still men inside. We cooled our heels outside for about twenty minutes, and then were invited in.

I was anxious to avoid doing anything inappropriate, so I tried to stay a step behind Ama and do whatever she did. I’d read up in the Peace Corps materials and some guidebooks, and there isn’t a lot of uniformity in their instructions; apparently, hammam guidelines vary by community. So what you’re about to read may well not be representative for hammams in Morocco.

We enter a shadowy room. Ama walks over to a set of cubbies in the corner of the room; Little Sis and I follow. She sets down her bags and the bucket we brought. I set down my mikka bag. She begins undressing. She wears a lot more layers than I do, and I didn’t know how many of them are supposed to come off, so I undress reeeeaaallllyyyy slowly.

She takes off her headscarf. I take off my headband. She takes off her outermost dress; I unzipp the neck of my shirt. She takes off two or three more layers. I dawdle in putting down my headband and glasses. When she gets down to skin, I do too. Little Sis gets totally naked; Ama and I do not.

Tangent: I’ve taken off enough clothes that my tattoo is visible, but I don’t worry about it because I know Ama has seen it before. In my first or second week here, I was bent over, helping a neighbor sift her grain, and it caught her eye. She was startled, and asked if it would wash off in the shower. (I don’t think she recognized it as script; she’s completely illiterate, and signs an x for her name.) I explained that it was a tattoo, kif-kif with the traditional Berber design in the middle of her chin. She doubted that – did I understand that her tattoo had been done with needles and ink?? – and I confirmed that yes, mine was done with needles and ink, too. She shrugged it off as another oddity of her newest daughter, and the tattoo hullabaloo was safi. (Finished.) End tangent.

We pick up several big rubber buckets and carry them through a series of chambers, each warmer than the one before. Apparently, you can spend time in a room of whatever temperature you like. Since we have the place to ourselves (benefits of getting there when it opens!), we go straight to the hottest room, which has the taps. Ama sets about filling up all the buckets. I’m sure we’ll need them all, but she explains that if other people come, it can fill up quickly, and there’s the risk of running out of hot water. Best to get your claim in early.

Four of the five taps are HOT water – probably the temperature you’d use for a hot tub. The fifth is as cold as Moroccan tap water gets. Ama mixes the water among the buckets until it’s hot but not excruciating. She sets out thin rubber mats – one for each of us – and hands me a kis – a rectangular scrubby mitt about the size of a big mitten, but with an abrasive surface. There are small plastic cups floating in the buckets, and she uses one to begin pouring water over herself. I copy her. Then she starts to scrub herself down with the kis. I do the same.

It feels wonderful. It’s the comforting sensation of having someone scratch your back, but it’s all over. And as you alternate between pouring cups of hot water over yourself and scrubbing yourself, you end up exfoliating ridiculous amounts of skin. (OK, that part’s a bit gross. But at least the dead skin is immediately washed away, so it’s OK.) I contorted myself to get my back, just as I do with a loofah sponge in the shower, but it turns out that there’s a system for that, too: Little Sis comes back from the next room (she’s too little to be able to take the heat that Ama and I are enjoying) and has Ama scrub her back. Once done, she goes behind Ama and reciprocates, with all the strength in her tiny arms and hands. Some time later, Ama invites me over to where she’s sitting, so that she can scrub my back. In my eagerness to “do it right,” it doesn’t occur to me to decline. I sit down. I’m again grateful that she already knows about my tattoo and I don’t need to worry about it being an issue. She begins scraping at my back, and it feels even better than when I did it. It’s the ultimate combination of back scratching plus a back massage plus the heat and humidity of a steam bath. Mmmmm.

When she says that I’m safi I’m one big matisha (tomato) – I get up, and she motions that I should do hers now. (Note to self: the culture of reciprocity extends to the hammam. Check.) I scrub at her until she says that she’s safi. I go back over to my mat and pour water over myself to rinse off the dead skin. She starts shampooing Little Sis’s hair, which the poor kid hates as much as I used to hate it. Shampoo in the eyes isn’t fun in any culture. I wash my own hair then, and then give myself a final rinse. Ama is scrubbing down Little Sis, who’s either too little or too easily distracted by the fun of running around naked (or are those the same thing?) to have washed herself yet. When she sees that I’m all done, she says that I should go back up to the front and dry off. I rinse off my mat, then walk back out to the front where I dry off and dress. I don’t know what to do next, so I lie down on one of the benches to wait for them.

Some time later, they come out, and Ama towels off Little Sis. The munchkin gets three layers of head wraps; according to my reading, there’s a belief that the more layers you put over your head, the more likely you are to retain in your body the heat and benefits of the hammam. Given that it’s only hot for a few months a year here in Berberville, it also seems likely that this is protection against going out in the cold with a wet head. (It’s hot out this afternoon, but cultural norms are cultural norms.) I’d left my towel wrapped around my head as my approximation of their headwraps. Ama gives me an orange and Little Sis a cup of yoghurt. I’d noticed the food in the bag, but am not sure what purpose it serves. I mean, snacks are always fun, but is there some cultural reason to enjoy fruity refreshment immediately after a session in the hammam?

To my surprise, Ama goes back in. For a very long time. I chat with the manager/ proprietor/ owner? of the hammam, play games with Little Sis, and relax against the cushioned bench I’m lying on. Eventually, Ama comes back out, dresses, wraps several scarves around her own head, and we’re off. Emerging from the warm hammam into the hot afternoon sun makes me glad I’m wearing as few layers as I am, but I also reflect that I’m going to *love* hammam trips in the wintertime. 6DH to get to spend an hour or two in a hot, steamy room? Niiiice.

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