Saturday, January 30, 2010

There is no ham in the hammam

Once you go to the hammam, your life will be changed forever. I know that sounds dramatic, but it is true. I have never felt as clean as I did when I walked out of that door a week ago. Part sauna, part bath, part spa, the hammam is one of Morocco’s best offerings.

For only ten dirhams, about a dollar and 30 cents, you too can experience the wonders of this public bath. Bring a towel, clean clothes, soap and shampoo, and don’t forget your scrub glove.

The door was unmarked from the outside, just a stone archway down a small street near our house. During the day until the evening it is reserved for women, and then I believe at 7 it becomes available for men. I went with my host dad Rachid. Upon arrival we entered a changing room, stripped to our underwear, and then left our clothes and belongings with the man at the desk.

Weighted with a cinder block, a large door in the center of the wall of the main room drew my attention. I knew that my future waited behind that door. Reminiscent of the entrance to a vault, I was somewhat apprehensive. But I was determined to see it through, to get an “authentic” hammam experience, and at that point there was no turning back.

As we entered a large tiled chamber with high-vaulted ceilings, I was blasted with hot wet air. It was the kind of heavy humidity where you instantly feel sweaty without exerting a muscle. It felt as hot as a sauna but with more moisture, the air so very close and thick. I had been warned that the hammam is intense, but I was not prepared for this.

There are three chambers, and each one is hotter than the one before it. That is because the heat source is at the back, a projection from the wall resembling a fountain or well. The water coming out of it is steaming, probably hot enough to scald you if you were to submerge your hand. We staked out a spot along a wall in the third chamber, and I sat down with our soap. While Rachid drew water into several buckets for our use, I took in the scene around me: A steamy tiled room, strewn with buckets and scantily-clad men in various stages of washing themselves. Mmm, hammam.

Once our buckets had cooled down some we rinsed off, but this first stage seemed a bit unnecessary because I was already sufficiently moist. Then came the soak phase. By that I mean we sat against the wall and soaked in the thick air around us. Talking from my hat, I think the purpose of this phase is for the skin to become fully saturated and ready for cleaning.

We sat for a few minutes, but I couldn’t tell you how long exactly. It was difficult to distinguish the passing of time in the chamber, and I had left my trusty watch with my clothes. The fact that I became a bit faint at this point probably also contributed to this difficulty. Rachid noticed, and we moved to the second chamber, which was still very humid but slightly cooler.

The snake phase was next. I have named it thus because it was when I learned that I too can shed my skin. Using a rough cloth glove, I went about scrubbing myself down to remove the dead skin. I tried to imitate those around me, and it was a lot more exfoliation that I am used to. Apparently it was not enough. Rachid offered to scrub my back, and I accepted.

I had been warned about this most communal aspect of the hammam, and I felt confident that I could handle it. The male bonding I was comfortable with, but I had not been sufficiently alerted about the scrubbing force that is applied. It felt like he was sanding me down like a piece of wood (though with fine sandpaper, not the coarse stuff). It was not painful per se, but it was very intense. And the skin, oh the skin, it came off in lots of little rolls. So much of it, I had no idea how much dead skin the body holds.

After that I went over the rest of my body again more thoroughly. It was disgusting and yet I could not stop. I felt compelled to scrub and scrub, to get it all off. I felt like a new person in a way.

After becoming a snake I lathered up with soap and shampoo to fully cleanse my new skin. Then I sat against the wall while Rachid finished his wash. We rinsed off one last time, but with cold(ish) water, and it felt so good! Then we sat for a few more minutes, I assume for a final soak of the hammam air. By this point I was ready to leave.

The hammam experience can take as much time as you want it to, but at the very least it is a place to wash with hot water (something that is not available to everyone at home). We stayed for about 40 minutes, but I did not figure that out until we left. I have heard that some people stay for an hour or even two, but I do not think I would survive that long. My best pre-hammam advice: drink lots of water. I kept wishing for a drink of water despite the humidity. They do have water in the main room before you enter the vault, but I did not notice it (or know to seek it).

Overall, the hammam was great. I will be going back, but it will not be a weekly affair. Perhaps biweekly. Or I will not stay in the vault for as long, it was a bit much for me.

It was odd to see the openness of the men together in the hammam when I compare that to everything I was told about the closed nature of society here. Everyone is completely exposed to each other, greeting friends and neighbors the same as if they were meeting on the street. It is frowned upon to show your knees and shoulders in the public sphere, but in the hammam I saw a lot more than that.

Then again, it’s really no different than men at a gym in the US. I guess it’s the idea of a changing room space that is free of all the norms that govern behavior normally that perplexes me. If someone dropped their pants on the street, well they would certainly attract attention. But when it happens in a gym or a hammam, we are just supposed to look the other way and pretend it is normal.

That’s the story on the hammam; otherwise all is well here. Yesterday I received my first letter, which changed my day from good to better! The best way to fall asleep is by reading a letter from a loved one.

This morning I helped Farida prepare lentils for lunch. We cooked them with tomato, onion, garlic, and spices, including salt, pepper, ginger, and I don’t know what else. I woke up a little late and I missed the complete spice phase.

Now I am watching Big in the Salon before our lentil lunch. Not sure what is in store for later today, possibly soccer on the beach with Stephen and his host brother’s posse (as Stephen labeled them).

-Rest in peace Howard Zinn. I feel honored to have had the chance to see you lecture on a couple of occasions. Your contributions to our world and our national consciousness will never be forgotten.


  1. What a wonderful description, John David! Thanks for sharing it. Silly question: did you at an early stage also shed the underwear? I would assume so, or it would have gotten completely wet. Also, so there's no actual bath, right?

  2. you are welcome. no, underwear stays on until the end, when we rinsed them off and exchanged them for towels. I have seen one person without them in my two hammam experiences, so I think it is acceptable but perhaps frowned upon. Personal preference I guess.

    Correct, no actual bath.