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1/13/10 Hammam Solo (Rated PG-13)

Today I bravely faced my fears.

I took a deep breath, screwed my courage to the sticking place, and faced The Hammam.


I've gone with my host mom twice, and with another PCV friend once, but never alone.

Till now.

Most Americans, I think, are reluctant to appear nude in public. I'm not saying I've never skinny-dipped or gone streaking - but note that I'm not saying I *have*, either - but those things are usually done at night.

Hanging around a group of mostly-naked women in a well-lit space for an hour or three, while mostly-naked myself? This is daunting.

But I did it.

First, I needed confirmation that it was open. It closes at random times, plus it's been under renovations lately (more on that later). So I went out to check. Halfway there, I saw some girls from the local high school walking back to their dorms, swinging hammam buckets and stools and other accoutrements of bathing. But were they clean or returning in vexed frustration? Their twice-wrapped heads and bulky clothing - more than the warm (50ish) afternoon required - argued for clean. There's a belief here that you need to "keep in the warmth" after bathing in the sauna-like hammam, so women (and girls) wrap themselves in two or three times as many layers as usual when they emerge from a scrubbing session.

So, taking in their multiple scarves, multiple sweaters, bouncy stride... Yup, they were clean. Which meant the hammam was open. Which meant I had no excuse not to face up to the challenge of Public Nudity.

Deep breath.

With my bucket of shower supplies in one hand and the other hand clutching a bag of clean clothes (plus a small stool - you *don't* want to sit directly on the floor in there), I strode off to the public bathhouse.

A few steps from my destination, I crossed paths with the hammam owner, who of course I had to stop and talk to for a moment. And then he offered to show me his shiny new heater, which of course I had to admire at length.

But then I was out of excuses.

Except - wait - maybe they'd run out of hot water already. This happens mid-afternoon.

Or did happen, before these snazzy renovations.

So, nothing for it. The hammam was open, full of hot water, and waiting for me.

Deep breath.

I walked in. A few women were getting dressed, but the foyer space was mostly empty. The woman behind the counter (Hanan) began chatting with me. Telling myself firmly that public embarassment is a social construct, and that Nothing Odd Is Going On Here, I chatted with her while stripping off my clothes.

Nothing At All Is Unusual Here, I lectured myself while talking about my recent travels, and getting increasingly naked.

I couldn't remember whether I was supposed to bring the towel inside with me or not. As I stood there, wearing nothing but panties, I moved it into and out of my bucket a couple of times, then looked over at Hanan. "Should I leave it here?" I asked. She nodded. "Just hang it there," she said, indicating the hook next to my parka.

I hung it up.

No hurdles left between me and rooms full of mostly-naked women.

Deep breath.

With my plastic stool in one hand and my bucket of supplies (shampoo, loofah, etc) in the other, I walked through the door.

The hammam is organized into three adjoining rooms; you have to walk through each to get to the next.

The room closest to the foyer/changing area is the coolest. Today, that room - the Cool Room - was empty. I walked from there, through another closed (insulating) door into the Warm Room. A dozen or so women sat on mats or stools around the wall, chattering and scrubbing.

I blinked for a second, getting my bearings. Immediately, a woman (who I'll call Fatima, the most common woman's name in Morocco) invited me to sit with her. I'd been counting on this. I smiled and set down my things. As I did so, I realized that I'd forgotten to pick up an extra bucket, for the hot water. I could have emptied all my shower stuff onto the floor, but that would have struck everyone as odd. Better to go back out to reception and ask for a bucket.

Which I did.

I then walked back to the hot water taps, in the third (hottest) room. There's no closed door between the Hot Room and the Warm Room, just a narrow opening that keeps most of the heat in the Hot Room but without letting it become stifling.

In the Hot Room, I set my bucket under a hot water tap, and pulled the lever. When it was about 2/3 full, I moved over to a cold water tap. (None of this adjustable-temperature-nonsense you Americans are used to, nosirree. We have a Hot Tap, with near-boiling water, and a Cold Tap, which is near-freezing. We mix them in the proportion of our choice, and try not to freeze or scald ourselves in the process, thank you very much.) I got a pretty good temperature my first try, lhumdullah, so I carried my bucket of hot-but-not-scalding water back over to my stool, sat down, and began to wash.

Three cups of water poured over my head got it wet enough to shampoo. (And when I say "cup", I mean a giant plastic cup, probably about a pint/half liter.) I washed it once with shower gel soap, to strip out a week's accumulated grease, then real shampoo (inherited from my sitemate - I've just used shower gel before now), and then I moved onto the rest of me.

I loofah'd myself pretty thoroughly. Fatima, sitting next to me, had been keeping a close but unobtrusive eye on me, waiting for the moment when I began scrubbing my back.

Given my habit of showering alone, I'm actually pretty good at washing my back. Twist one arm up, twist the other arm up, go up over your shoulder, up over your other shoulder... Believe it or not, ladies, it *is* possible to wash one's own back.

But here, that's just crazytalk. :)

Women always wash each other's backs. It's one of the many reasons no one goes to the hammam alone, and why Fatima so quickly invited me to sit with her.

So when I started washing my back, Fatima eagerly reached over and asked if I wanted her to do it for me. I acquiesced readily, and then found myself melting under the sheer primate pleasure of Being Groomed.

(It just makes sense to me that, given the millions of years we spent as primates picking gnats out of each other's hair, we're just hardwired to want to groom and be groomed. I think this accounts for most of the pleasure little girls find in braiding each other's hair, or that women find in going to a spa, or that we all enjoy in getting shampooed at the barber.)

Cleaning myself off was the easy part. I have years of experience getting clean. The hard part was doing it in public. This would be easier for guys who grew up taking daily after-practice showers in locker rooms...but my locker rooms always had individual shower stalls. So while it's weird enough to be scrubbing myself while sitting down, instead of standing up shower-style, it's far, far more strange to be doing it in view of twenty other people.

I had to keep reminding myself that nobody in the room but me had *any* issue with this at all. Seeing their friends naked was no more odd to them than hanging out poolside with bikini-clad friends would seem to me. (And that, by the way, would trip them out: the idea of being so scantily clad in view of **men**?!?!!?)

I had to do the same thing I do when women pull their breasts out in public to feed their babies: figure out how to translate it.

Breast-feeding women I translate to bottle-feeding. There's no need for massive eye-aversion; I can watch just as much or just as little as I would if the mom were holding a bottle instead of a breast. (And when I did avert my gaze, as I did when I was new in country, I actually made the women uncomfortable; they couldn't figure out why I'd suddenly gotten so distant.)

Here, I translated the hammam to a ritzy spa, and mentally wrapped all the women in fluffy, terry-cloth bathrobes (or seaweed-mud wraps, or what have you). A hammam, like a spa, is a warm, safe, innocent space for women to pamper themselves. I can look around the room - and be looked at - as casually as if we were all in bathrobes.

Of course, my American modesty mores kept fighting this, but 22 months of learning how not to react when women pull their breasts out in public has paid off.

So I let her wash my back, and later scrub my back (with my kis, the scrubby mitt thing), and even offered to do hers, but she passed. Her sister had taken care of her before I'd come in.

When I'd exhausted my first bucket of water, I went back for a second, and found a friend I haven't seen in a while. I smiled, and then realized that she was expecting a half-hug and three cheek-kisses - the usual greeting between women here in Berberville. Which is something I enjoy when I'm, y'know, clothed. But kissing a woman when we're both nearly naked? Slightly different vibe, to say the least. But I reminded myself firmly that This Is Normal that moreover, acting in any *other* way would be seen as bizarre, and leaned in and kissed her cheeks.

Eventually, after a few more refill trips to the taps, I got head-to-toe clean, lhumdullah. I rinsed off a final time, then rinsed my area, and then headed out through the Warm Room and Cool Room into the changing area. While putting on the many layers of clothes necessary to survive the winters here, plus the extras that the other women would expect (to help me "keep the heat in"), I got invited to tea - something that hasn't happened in a while.

[[So tomorrow, you get to hear about my tea latest party. :) ]]

My solo mission to the hammam not only achieved its primary goal - Get Kauthar Clean - but scored multiple hits on the secondary goals of social integration.

Fears conquered, social minefield crossed unscathed...

For the win! :D

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