Friday, December 16, 2011

The Hammam and its role in Moroccan female culture

When one thinks of Morocco, what comes to mind? I know for me, Morocco was once nothing more than a painting by French 19th century painter Eugène Delacroix. I thought of camels, sand, women behind mysterious veils lounging in dark and opulent salons, and of Arab bath houses.

Before my first trip to Morocco, the hammam, or Arab bath house, was an important aspect of my oriental fantasy. I imagined day-long trips to these sumptuous bath houses filled with essential oils, steam, and women sharing ancient beauty secrets.

In reality, the hammam is so much more than a superficial Western Orientalist fantasy. I still can remember the first time that my homestay mother took me with her to the hammam near our house in the medina. She told me that all I needed to bring was whatever I used in the shower, a towel, 10 dirhams for entrance, and a clean pair of underwear. After school one night, we carried a stack of buckets and cups, rubber mats, hand scrubbers called kees, and savon beldi (special soap that women use at the hammam that is made by combining olive oil and henna) a few blocks down the street to the hammam. I remember being nervous about not knowing what to do or how I would react to whatever scene awaited me.

Typically, there are two or three different tiled rooms that make up a hammam. The first room that you enter is slightly warmer than the changing room. With each room, the temperature of the space increases. The last room of the hammam is usually so hot that it is difficult for me to stay there longer than 10 minutes without water and so steamy that its visibility decreases down to only a few inches in front of you. I remember walking into the first room with my homestay mother, each of us holding our buckets filled with shower supplies.

The experience felt almost existential: here I was, in a country where women are traditionally covered heard to toe out on the street, completely naked. As I tried to get my bearings in this unfamiliar environment, I felt if I had floated outside of myself and was watching the entire scene from up above. The temperature rose and the room filled with steam. Women of all ages, shapes, and sizes were sitting in groups around the different rooms gossiping, laughing, and cleaning themselves and each other. LittAside from the novelty of me being clearly a white American, barely anyone stared at me the way I worried they would. At the faucets located on a wall of each room, older women would smile and try to help me fill my buckets. I soon felt foolish for ever thinking that this experience would be anything less than an eye-opening experience into an intimate facet of traditional Moroccan female culture.

The process at a hammam goes something like this:

1. First, you fill your buckets with water. Be careful not to fill your buckets with just hot water, as it will be boiling hot and scald you. Also, you must be sensitive to the established hierarchy at the water line. Under no circumstances should you try to move someone else's bucket or stick your hand under the faucet to test the water before it's your turn.
2. Carry/drag the buckets back to your determined spot where your shower stuff and bath mats are waiting for you. Once you have doused yourself with water, use your kees and begin scrubbing every inch of skin that you can reach (you will usually have to practice reciprocity with a friend or family member to scrub backs). The kiss has a very rough texture, which will soon loosen all dead skin cells and make you feel like feel like your body is being buffed and polished. Apparently, this powerful exfoliating tool is great to ward off cellulite.
3. Rinse intermittently to get rid of all the dead skin.
4. Once you have successfully scrubbed your entire body, apply the special savon beldi. 
5. Do everything else you usually do in the shower.

The last time I went to the hammam was a few weeks ago with two friends of mine. While scrubbing, we had a discussion about hammam culture and the type of women who still go to hammams. Originally, hammams were created because most families did not have a way to bathe themselves in their homes. It became a tradition among both men and women to visit the hammam about one a week to clean themselves and socialize with neighbors and friends. Now, in an age where Moroccan society is becoming increasingly more stratified between the rich and the poor, hammams have become a marking of the lower class. Many friends and acquaintances that I have met here have told me that they have never gone to the hammam, or haven't gone since they were very little. While I have always been fortunate enough to have a bath and shower at every house I've lived in,  I went to the hammam first out of a burning curiosity and I continue to go on occasion because I see it as a very special facet of Moroccan culture; one that cannot be depicted through photographs or from a National Geographic special. It is something that must be experienced for yourself. I promise, you will never feel cleaner.