Originally printed in 2009.
One goal I have on this trip is to visit a traditional hammam and discover more about the Moroccan rituals of cleansing and purification. In Essaouira I finally have my chance. The hammam I choose is not to be one of the ones offered in the hotels, the watered down versions costing upwards of $100 dollars. I want to experience it as the Morrocans do, so for $5 I go to a hammam in the middle of the medina.
After following many winding alleyways to reach my destination, I am escorted inside by a large woman of indeterminate age, with just two front teeth in her smiling mouth. She shows me into a room surrounded by a low wall and a bench where I am instructed to take off my clothes and shoes. The question of states of undress in spas has always bewildered me, and considering the Moroccans are modest in their everyday attire, I opt to keep underwear and bra on. When I step out of the changing area I am met by the woman who originally greeted me, now naked but for a pair of enormous panties. She gestures for me to take off my bra, which I do, and follow her behind a black rubber curtain into a steam filled, white tiled chamber. The room is crowded with women and young children, some walking around carrying 5 gallon buckets of water, some standing, but most sitting on a tiled bench two feet off the floor around the perimeter of the chamber. My guide points to a spot on the bench halfway down the wall and I wait there while she hauls several huge buckets of water over to me. After dousing me with water from the buckets, she rubs the Moroccan “savon noir”, black soap made from olive oil all over me. It smells like eucalyptus and is very pleasant in a slippery way. I enjoy the unusual infantilizing intimacy the experience is creating with this woman as she matter of factly washes my body.
Next, she takes a rough glove and begins rubbing my arms vigorously. Grinning her wide toothless grin, she points to where the dead skin is rolling off my limbs. Apparently, I am desperate for this treatment and am showing the inferiority of my culture which takes this weekly sloughing for granted. As she is rubbing, I have an opportunity to notice what the other women are doing. All kinds of cleansing is being performed. Women are washing their hair languorously over their buckets, brushing their teeth, shaving. There is also a clear bit of bonding happening, between friends, and mothers and daughters.
I leave the hammam invigorated by the novelty of the experience, but so relaxed I can barely move and with my skin feeling incredibly soft. I realize that I have had the good fortune to have a real glimpse into the true culture of Morocco, with its wonderful scents, rituals, and community of bonding.