A hammam is a traditional Turkish-style bath in Morocco; however, not all hammams are created equal. I discovered this fact one Sunday afternoon, after I’d spent a week in Rabat.
After six days of working under the hot sun, I needed a good body scrub. Rather than taking my host-sister’s advice and staying home, I set forth into the medina find a local hammam.
The medina is the historic section of a Moroccan town, the part the French left intact.
Therefore, the streets maintain an ancient air: Most roads are so narrow that cars do not pass.
Scrawny cats slink down rooftops to find shade under food carts.
It’s easy to get lost if you don’t know where you’re going, and of course, I got lost.
I was approached by a beggar who asked me in French “what place are you looking for?”
“The hammam,” I told him, and he pointed me in the direction of a hammam a few streets down.
Following the instructions of a beggar, I found an unmarked, seemly indiscriminate door, just off one of the side roads:
The hammam! The entrance was an open room with a rudimentary receptionist’s desk on one end and a dark changing space on the other.
Behind the receptionist’s desk stood old woman with teeth so rotten that they looked like wood.
I pulled out a 10 dirham piece. The old woman accepted the money, but continued to speak in Arabic, pointing to her chest and then my chest.
I didn’t understand. So the old woman went to the changing area and asked if anyone spoke French.
A smiling woman with gigantic bare breasts stepped forward. She told me in French: 10 dirhams to use the facilities, 10 dirhams to use the soap, and 10 dirhams to be scrubbed by the old woman, so 30 dirhams in total, (which is about $3.65).
I un-dressed facing the wall in the changing area, and followed the old woman into the spa.
We passed through a cool room, then a warm room where I hung my towel, and finally a dark hot room.
Unfortunately, this hammam was not nearly as clean as I would have hoped. The marble floors were cluttered with globs of hair and dirty suds. Bare-breasted women bathed on mats or small plastic chairs, but I was told to sit on the floor.
The old woman took a few buckets, filled them, and sloshed warm water over my head. I held my breath.
She began to wash my hair with the hammam’s special shampoo.
Next, she scrubbed my back with kiis or gloves that are used to scrub away dead skin.
I closed my eyes, not wanting to look at the rolls of epidermis folding from my arms, nor did wish to see all the dirty suds splashing at my sides. A veteran of Korean spas, I had never experienced anything as unsanitary as this hammam.
“This will be a fine addition to my caché of international spa experiences…” I thought to myself.
After the scrub, the old woman splashed me down again with buckets of warm water, and washed me with Moroccan black soap.
I felt uncomfortable sitting there naked with the old woman, who was also naked. The other patrons stared at the two of us as they filled their own buckets of water.
The woman stood to fetch more water, and I noticed a growth on her back — a third breast growing from her exterior!
“Perhaps this is my mistake,” I told myself. “Maybe I should not have taken the beggar’s direction to the hammam.” Maybe I should have researched Hammams a bit more thoroughly, rather than wandering into an unmarked spa in the medina. Or perhaps I should have taken my host-family’s advice, and just done my bathing at home.
When the old woman was done scrubbing me, I rushed out of the hot room, dashed through the warm and cool rooms, and into the changing area. The patrons continued to gape at me as dried myself with my towel, and put on my clothes.
They all smiled and said goodbye as I passed through the gates and into the streets into the medina.
You were quick! The old beggar said to me as I walked by him.
The moral of the story: do your research before visiting a Moroccan hammam.