One of the things I really wanted to do in Morocco was visit a public hammam. For those of you who don’t know what a hammam is, its public bath house in which the men and women of Morocco perform their infamous gommage. There are all-female/all-male hammams or single hammams have special times of days for each gender. But its not just a place to wash up, it holds a special place in Moroccan culture as going to a hammam is very much a social affair where locals can kick-back and catch up with friends. Women of Morocco are known to spend hours there, literally letting their hair down and going in groups with their best gal pals. Think Sunday morning brunch with the girls is fun? Try four hours of self-pampering as you reconnect as your weekly ritual. To me, it sounds like pure heaven. I had read somewhere that Sex and the City: The Movie was shot in Morocco because the racy subject matter of the film was frowned upon in Abu Dhabi – and I think they missed a great opportunity to shoot a scene where Carrie fills the ladies in about her encounter with Aidan at a steamy hammam.
Now, there are many different hammams in Marrakech – some like luxury spas, and some in intimate boutique riads, but even though I can be a bit of a vain girly girl, doesn’t mean I am a sheltered flower. I wanted the local experience. So, the owner of the riad we stayed at arranged for his own esthetician to bring me to the hammam she goes to and scrub me down. I initially thought I could just skip into any old place, but Michel warned me that I might get hassled but people offering to exfoliate me and also become overwhelmed and confused.
So, I set out with Tulia, my fellow esthetician, for a local women-only hammam. And Michel was right, I was so glad that I had a beauty guide with me. Firstly, the women working at the hammam didn’t seem to speak much French and I don’t speak Arabic. Secondly, I forgot how antsy I get when I don’t know what I am supposed to do. My Canadian roots come out in full force and I become afraid of offending people, coming across crass, or “doing the wrong thing”. I also didn’t know my way around the place. Instead of lockers, there were three meaty women napping in their pajamas who watched your things for a tip. It was a bit maze-like too – there were three rooms, each with different temperatures. And, it was on the grimy side. No, it was not a place for the squeamish, but I also wouldn’t call it dirty… it reminded me of being in the change rooms of a public swimming pool. But there was no pool and little light. Each room had high domed ceilings with a tiny window at its peak that let in just a hint of sun. The walls were decorated with taped up paper posters of Pert-Plus and Sun Silk advertisements from the 80s.
Tulia started to undress, and I told her I had put on my bikini. She shook her head and said I was to take everything off.
“Les deux?” I asked making sure that I wouldn’t let my high school French let me do something inappropriate and get naked.
“Oui!” She replied, as if it was the silliest question.
It was strange seeing these women who were all covered up in the streets so comfortably naked. In fact, I who is supposed to be a liberal North American (who has worn one too many pairs of hot pants) was sheepish, and a little awkward. Tulia led me into the warmest room, which was actually not particularly hot, it was just warm enough to not be cold when undressed and sat me on a mat that she brought with her. At the risk of sounding bourgeois, I was happy for the mat. She then took three large plastic buckets, that looked like they’d seen better days, filled them up with water from a faucet in the wall and began to scoop up the water with a small metal dish and pour it over my head and body. After a while, she handed my the dish to pour water on myself while she did herself. I liked this participatory spa experience because instead of feeling like I was the only one being pampered she got to treat herself too. It was more like two friends going to the hammam rather than focusing on me alone. I liked how it took the servile element out of the service.
When I was all rinsed, she applied black soap to my skin. I am particularly interested in black soap, which is made out of olives or argan and is known to be gentle on the delicate Moroccan sewer systems as it is biodegradable. Also, Morocco is experiencing water-shortages, and the water form the hammams are able to be used to in agriculture when black soap is used. She then smothered herself in black soap as well and laid down, miming that I was to do so too.
I, of course (the control-freak) couldn’t relax. I wanted to know what was going to happen next, looking around curiously, but also trying not to be obvious that I was looking around curiously. Tulia was cool as a cucumber stretching out her legs and massaging her breasts. I wondered if the recent women’s movement in Morocco had been in part spurred by these women-only spaces where women could be themselves and celebrate their bodies. And, I realized how uncomfortable in mine I was. After resting with the black soap soaking into our skin there was another round of rinsing, dishing out water and the noisy gushing of the faucet. I liked occupying myself with the rinsing because I felt useful.
She then took a scrub glove and started with the gommage. To my delight my skin was shedding in chunks like a snake. Everywhere it pilled then was rinsed away! But unlike the Korean Body Scrub, it didn’t need much pressure and didn’t hurt at all. Tulia let me know it was the magic of the black soap. “But so usually I need to press much harder!” I exclaimed. “But you have sensitive skin,” she said back. And while I think something was lost in my French, she was right. She was so confident that I even let her scrub my face with it, which I would never normally do.
After scrubbing me, she took the scrub glove and scrubbed herself down. I was surprised that she used the same glove as me, it was an intimacy I don’t even share with Ben. But she also let out a big spit and dished out some water to wash it away. That was oddly refreshing, instead of feeling like we had to be feminine and proper, she was casual and comfortable with herself.
She then applied an orange blossom water and rhassoul clay mixture to my skin and shampooed my hair. Rhassoul (the ‘r” is not pronounced) is actually a cleansing clay that was traditionally used in many parts of Asia as shampoo, and is native to Morocco. We laid down again, and I started to feel a little more relaxed. I was beginning to see how four hours could be spent here.
After rinsing off the clay body and face mask, there was yet another round of rinsing and a soaping of our bodies with a netted dish cloth followed by more rinsing (but not before miming that I was to soap my girlie parts, which I giggled at). By the end of the process I was actually a little exhausted and would come back to the riad and pass out for two hours.
When we were all done, I saw her get all dress up again in her black robes and ties a cloth around her head to protect her wet hair. Tulia didn’t seem tired like I was, and told me that she comes to the hammam with her friends all the time, and usually visits twice a week. On our way back, we wove the narrow streets of the Marrakech medina and she stopped at chatted with many different women she knew. “C’est mon quartier.” Translate: this is her hood. As a tourist I never got to see the lively community behind scenes, and I liked seeing Tulia and her friends laugh and joke with each other in Arabic. I felt a little like an observer, but one of her friends – a young girl – said something to me in Arabic. As she said good-bye to Tulia she kissed her on both cheeks, then she came up to me and did the same. I didn’t know what to do (say thank you?) so I just smiled and nodded, but while I looked like a muppet, I appreciated her warmth.
Yes, Sex and the City, a series that was always about female friendship in the modern age, really missed a golden opportunity with this one.