My Trip to a Moroccan Hamam.

A henna design on the palm of a hand that was inspired by the traditional Moroccan Fezi style of henna.

A henna design on the palm of a hand that was inspired by the traditional Moroccan Fezi style of henna.

On a visit to see my sister, who was living in Taza, Morocco (pronounced Teh-za), my mother and I got a special treat of a trip to the local bath, or Hamam (ha-mem).  My sister Sarah and her Moroccan friend “Layla” were our guides.  We stopped at the local market where we bought our necessities: some scrubby mitts, a chunk of raw, black, pumice rock, and mineral mud as a beauty splurge.

Snaking through the narrow alleys of the Medina, I was surprised when we came upon the door to the Hamam, because, as far as I could tell it was not labeled or marked in any way.  Two older, smiling women greeted us, ushered us in, and directed us to strip and hand over our belongings for safekeeping.  They stood with us, grinning, while we hung our clothes on pegs on the wall, saying that they were excited to see our white skin; my sister is very fair with almost blue/white skin and freckles, I’m very fair, and my mother is blonde, so we really stood out as being foreigners.  They seemed to be very happy to have us Westerners there, to show us a small part of their way of life.  

The Hamam had three rooms; the first was warm, followed by hot, and then very hot.  The lighting was very dim, the walls were cement block, or something similar, and it was very moist and steamy, giving the whole place a very cave-like feeling.  Everyone in the hamem was completely naked except for some who wore their panties (including the two women who were running the place), which they kept on while washing too, they would just reach underneath to clean their private parts.  We went into the warm room where Sarah and Layla set down little plastic mats that they had brought for each of us to sit on, and gave us each a scoop of some sort, either a measuring cup or a short handled ladle or a large plastic mug.  Lined up cross-legged in front of one of the walls, we waited while the two ladies brought out black plastic buckets of hot water that they set on the floor in front of us, about seven in all, then, adding from a bucket of cold water, they tempered the hot buckets to a bearable temperature.  Using our scoops, we ladled the water over ourselves.  Then we got out the mud.  It was a silky black glob that we smeared all over ourselves, even through our hair.  We had a lot of fun with this part, laughing at each other all mucked-up. Our giggles attracted attention from the other patrons, who seemed to be happy that we were enjoying ourselves, as well as a few young boys who were there with their mothers.  We washed, shampooed, and pumiced, as our ladies continued to keep our buckets filled with hot water.  As we were washing the two ladies came over and sat us down on the floor in front of them.  Taking our scrubby mitts, they scoured us from head to toe, each of us in turn, scrubbing the skin on our arms, backs, bellies, and legs; everywhere.

We moved from the warm room, through the hot room, where the majority of the women were sitting around on the tile floor, and into the very hot room.  Here I could see where the women filled their buckets; on the far wall there were two openings where water was falling from somewhere above into a catch basin way below.  As it fell the women would reach in with the buckets to fill them up with water.  One opening had very hot water falling down and one had cold.  Here the ladies had us lie down one at a time, to give us a massage.  While waiting for my turn, I was so hot in the room, that I stood next to the opening where the cold water was rushing down in order to get some relief from the steaminess all around me.  Standing with me was a lovely woman with beautiful henna all over her hands and feet, my sister and I agreed that she must have just been married.  When it was my turn for massage, my lady motioned for me to lay face down on the tile floor.  It was hard for me to find a good position to lie on the floor where I felt that my “soft” spots were protected and my “hard” spots were comfortable.  As she started to press down on me, the floor was bitingly hard on my knees and face.  This was not a gently relaxing massage, but a workout to get your blood flowing throughout your body, and to open you up to let the heat of the hamam soak into your muscles.  So, after letting myself relax, and trying to ignore the small places of discomfort, I appreciated the rough and thorough massage.

Collecting our things, we moved to the outer room, where we dried ourselves and sat on wooden benches that were along the walls in order to cool off.  We put our clothes back on, and Layla handed out scarves that she’d brought along for us to wear on our heads.  I was confused about the necessity of this, since we were not Muslims and were not going to a holy place.  Layla explained to me that a woman cannot walk around outside with wet hair.  Wet hair means that a woman has just washed which means that she was recently naked, and that she may have been washing from necessity after having had relations with her husband, to keep men’s minds from this train of thought, and therefore, for modesty’s sake, it is necessary to keep one’s hair covered.  

The two ladies had donned their kaftans (Moroccan dresses) again and joined us in the outer room where they helped us with our things, collected their payment of approximately $5 for each of us, and a tip, as we were sure that we received special treatment.  They told us that they hoped we enjoyed our day there with them and they wished that we would return, not just to their hamam, but also to Morocco.