Thursday, April 29, 2010

Guest Spot on the Hammam

Featured contributer Edith Maxwell's perspective on the Moroccan public bath:

Farida, a mother with smooth skin and a big smile. My son's host mother for a college semester in Rabat, Morocco. She told John David she and her husband planned to treat him more as a brother than as a son, and since she's a scant 10 years older than his 21, it fits. We visit Morocco for 2 weeks, to see him, to tour the country, to understand his experience there. And, as it turns out, for me to accompany Farida to the public bath, the hammam.

Bath doesn't exactly describe it. More like a willing deep slide into into all the senses, no holding back. Daytime is women only at the hammam. When Farida says the word, she lingers on the double M, caresses the consonant like a hug. That fits, too.

Farida dons a black embroidered robe over her gray sweat pants and a white shirt, and covers her head with a black scarf. She takes her plastic basket of toiletries, a gym bag, and me down the alley to a half-empty storefront with dusty bare walls and large woven bags. A brown haze coats a metal scale. In Dirija, Moroccan Arabic, she asks for henna, and pays 10 dirham ($1.20) for a handful of powder twisted in a newspaper cone. We walk another block to the hamman. We give another 10 dirham each
to a man at a desk near the doorway, and then turn a corner to enter a large tiled chamber like the entryway to an American public pool. Sort of.

I, clueless, follow Farida's lead and take off all my clothes except underpants. Asking questions feels futile - our only mutual spoken language is French, not a first choice for either of us - so we follow the universal language of smiles, physical example, and goodwill.

We stash our bags behind the desk on a set of shelves. We grab a few blue plastic buckets and two small plastic mats, and move through a big door into a high-ceiling long room. It is dark and unpopulated. I follow Farida like a lamb into to the next room, a less dimly lit copy of the first. It lines up in parallel with the first and another beyond, three long chambers that the passageway bisects. The ceilings arch lengthways, perforated with dish-sized holes to the morning sky. The stone walls are dark with moisture and centuries of steamed human skin cells.

Farida sets the mats and her basket next to the wall near the doorway in the middle room. We carry buckets into the third chamber where a large trough steams full of hot water. We dip green buckets and pour them into our blue vessels, then shove them along the tiled floor to our claimed space.

Few spots are yet occupied. Two slim adolescent girls are already at work across from us, soaping and scrubbing, rubbing prim arms and legs over and over. Farida extracts a plastic baggie of the gooey black soap I have seen in the market and squeezes some into a plastic dish. She adds the powdered henna and a little water, mooshing it with one hand until the mix is combined. She scoops up a handful and rubs it on my back, gesturing to me to rub it all over my body. We still are garbed in underwear, as are the girls across the way. The soap mixture is dark, gloppy, smooth as it covers nearly every inch of my skin and hers, including my face. I massage it into her back, as well. We rub and rub, over and over, at a slow, relaxed pace. Farida rubs the mix into my hair and twists it up onto my head. I try to say the henna will turn my white hairs orange, but submitting to the treatment just seems right.

Farida signals to me that it's time to rinse. We dip warm water with a scoop from the buckets. For some reason I can't discern, it's now time for the underwear to come off. Mine, a dainty pair in white and pink, are now an unseemly shade of blotchy henna-brown.

A hearty woman in black bikini underwear greets Farida with Moroccan kisses: one on each side of the face, then repeat on the last cheek. The woman greets me the same way, smiling. I ask Farida her name. It's Baresha, and I tell her mine in the French pronunciation: 'ay-deet.' Baresha dons on a black abrasive mitt. Let the wild scrubbing start!

Baresha starts scrubbing me in a casual way at first that soon turns firm. She moves my body around in all dimensions. My arms and neck and back are scraped down, and then she manipulates me to lie on my back, all the while chatting in Dirija with Farida, who scrubs her own arms and legs. The treatment is both luxurious and painful. My head rests on Baresha's ample thigh as she sits splay legged. I close my eyes and submit to chest, breasts, stomach scrubbed and massaged over and over, wishing I had emptied my bladder more recently than I had. My legs are worked top to bottom and then my front torso again. She comes near to my crotch but always neatly avoids it.

She turns me on my side to face her and scrapes my pale skin over up and down. A large pendulous breast is in my face. I close my eyes again, loving it all. She turns me to the other side, extends my arm, scrubs my armpit, side, hip. Now I'm on my stomach, my chest resting on her warm leg, my arms resting on the tiles with heated water flowing over them. My neck, back, buttocks, and legs get the full treatment.

When I'm finally brought back to sitting, Farida laughs and shows me the multitude of particles rolled into tiny dark fibers all over me that have come from my skin. That ARE my skin.

All this time, women are talking. The place has filled up since we came in. Low voices, shrill voices. Greetings and negotiations. Children speaking to their mothers, friends catching up on neighborhood news. Not a word of it can I understand. The language echoes and merges. It washes over me as welcome as the bucket of warm water Baresha dumps over me, even as she still rubs and cleans.

I am sated as Baresha moves to another client. I sit back against the wall in a posture I seldom tolerate for long at home. The warm stone eases my back and my hip joints. Farida tells me she comes every Saturday. I wish I could, too.

Farida still rubs her own limbs. The two girls across are scrubbing each other, taking turns lying flat. They retain their modest underpants, now wet with henna glop and water, stretched across slim hips under beautiful beginning breasts. I wonder what they think about all the well-fleshed out mature bodies around them. Do they accept that they, too, will look the same in 10 or 20 years? Do they think they will break the mold and stay model-slender through childbearing and cooking for a family? Might they envision themselves as lawyers and doctors working out at a Moroccan Curves before they meet at the hamman to catch up on news? Perhaps that world already exists for local women.

Baresha comes to scrub Farida. She encourages me to go sit in the third room, the hottest of the three. I take my mat and walk in my new baby-skin nakedness around the corner. I am gazed upon - my skin is much paler than the rest in the facility - so I smile in my steamy daze and then sit. This room is warmer and steamier. I breathe it in as I press my back against the wall. A family consisting of a young-looking mother, her little sister, and a 4-year old boy in white jockey shorts sit on plastic stools, soaping and rinsing, the boy trying to wiggle away from the rough treatment. Two very dark-skinned old women scrub each other's backs. One arises to fetch more hot water on thick arthritic knees.

The steam overwhelms me and I return to Farida's side, who Baresha still scrubs. The girls are scrubbing on. I sit and watch. A woman across the room washes hair to her waist over and over. A pantsless old woman with long bright henna-orange curls and a big stomach walks around complaining in a high shrill tone that someone has stolen her stuff. She is indignant about it until her bag somehow appears from the changing room.

I see very little middle ground between the young, slim pre-childbirth women and those with well-padded hips, buttocks, stomachs. The older women are not active with the kinds of abdominal exercises that I have been working so hard to maintain at the Ipswich Family YMCA, and the younger ones apparently aren't concerned, either. Even beautiful Farida, 31 and having borne only one child, is amply padded and sports a hearty stomach area.

We have reached shampoo stage. I had rinsed out the henna earlier. Now Farida gives me her bottle of Prell, Maroc version, and I do my usual single application, rub, rinse, do not repeat. She offers me a round rubber object with spikes like a soap dish, but I decline. Turns out it is her hairbrush. She combs and brushes and shampoos at least three times.

Finally we have a bar-soap stage and a last rinse. The girls opposite are not finished. No adult is telling them to wash more, to clean better, to scrub harder. They have learned early how to luxuriate in women's company.

Baresha brings our towels into the steam room and we wrap up. In the changing area, Farida has us sit for a moment before dressing. We each give Baresha 30 dirhams, about $4, and as we leave I am sternly instructed to pull my shawl over my head so I won't be cold. We tip the desk woman about 25 cents and she tells Farida I am pretty.

We walk out into 75-degree sunshine, but I keep my head covered until we reach Farida's home, John David's home, 2 blocks away. My skin smells of henna until the next day, my toenails are tinged with orange, and my white hair is faintly colored a pale shade of hamman rust. I would gladly have this experience every week. Perhaps Ipswich is ready for a hammam? Or maybe not. Somehow Yankees naked scrubbing each other doesn't quite compute.


  1. wow very interesting. good writing mom. good job picking your guest contributors jd