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Tribes and Tribulations in a Marrakech Hammam

 

By Lara Caine

The first thing I had to overcome was that old gym-shower paranoia. There was really no reason to fear being naked in a room full of strange women. Especially since, as far as they were concerned, this was perfectly normal.

But for a first timer in a Moroccan hammam, or public bathhouse, this was far from normal. My North American Puritanism and pale, white body just weren't ready for this kind of exposure.

Entering the Ancient Bath

"Relax," said my friend Fatima, as she guided me through the procedure of disrobing down to my underwear, gathering my bucket of supplies and entering the steam-filled chambers of the ancient bath. I tried to get past my self-consciousness, but I was acutely aware of being a stranger and the only Western woman in this neighborhood hammam in the heart of Marrakech'smedina. I felt more naked than ever.

Everywhere, women of all ages were lounging, chatting, washing their hair, massaging each other with rough stones and sponges and soaking in the steaming water heated by the communal oven next door. Read Marrakech hotel reviews

Children scampered, splashing and laughing. An elderly woman in the corner eyed me suspiciously as she rubbed her callused feet with a cloth, and several teenage girls shuffled closer, whispered to one another, and then retreated. I could tell all eyes were on me as I placed my bucket on one of the benches that lined the stone walls and approached the faucets of hot water.

Socializing and Scrubbing

As I got involved in the ritual of bathing, I became more accustomed to my surroundings. Looking around, I realized that bathing wasn't the only purpose for coming here. This was where the women came to socialize, to gossip, to bond. In a culture where women and men move in different spheres, and many women don't leave their homes except for Friday baths or special occasions, this was a place of freedom and camaraderie. And in a country where many women are also covered from head to toe in public, this was where they removed the veil--and everything else--and let it all hang out.

I tried to listen in on the nearby conversations. Fatima translated. Two women were discussing an upcoming wedding, another group was engaged in vociferous debate about prices in the souk. The teenagers were giggling and whispering about boys. Three middle-aged women were talking about the teenagers, assessing their virtues for their own sons. The woman next to me leaned over and asked if I was married. When I answered in the affirmative, the woman shook her head. "Too bad," she clucked. I guess she had a son for me.

In all, it wasn't much different than a beauty parlor, sewing circle, spa or gym back home. No matter where women get together, this is what happens. It was comforting, in a way. But I still felt naked and displaced.

Time for the Massage

Once I had finished bathing, it was time for a massage. Like many other hammam, this one had three rooms. The first, which is the least steamy, is for bathing. The second and third, which are hotter, are for massaging and relaxing.

Fatima and I moved into the third room and she instructed me to lie down on the marble floor while she rubbed several layers of grime and dead skin from my body. The massage felt wonderful and the radiant heat of the floor went straight to my tired travelers bones and muscles. When Fatima finished, I closed my eyes and, breathing in the moist, eucalyptus-scented air, forgot where I was and relaxed into a light sleep.

Subconsciously aware of being watched, I opened my eyes to find a large, older woman seated beside me, gazing curiously at my body through the steam. I peered up into her wrinkled face, tattooed on the chin and forehead with blue geometric markings signifying her Berber tribe. Her dark eyes shone against her deeply bronzed skin and long, black hair. Though it was hard to discern her age, her body had clearly borne many children, and from the look of her hands, she had worked hard for many years.

Instinctively, I moved my arms to cover my chest. She reached down, roughly pushed them aside and put her hand on my tattoo, a small red and black star on my left shoulder.

"What is your tribe?" she demanded in broken French.

Tribe? I had never considered my "tribe" before. As far as I knew, I didn't have one. I tried to explain that my tattoo was purely decorative. It has a personal meaning to me, but means nothing to anyone else. Many women have tattoos where I come from, but they aren't tribal markings like hers.

She wasn't satisfied with this answer and asked me again, this time insisting that all women have a tribe. What was mine?

I was honestly stumped. I shrugged my shoulders helplessly. "I don't know," I said apologetically.

The woman broke out in a deep laugh that echoed off the marble floors and walls and filled the room. "I know your tribe," she smoothed my wet hair from my eyes. "You are of us."

I looked at the smiling woman and then at the other women surrounding me -- wide and thin, dark and light, old and young -- talking, bathing, relaxing, comfortable with themselves and each other--and suddenly, I no longer felt naked, nor painfully aware of my difference. I was -- whether because of my tattoo or my willingness to expose myself in their presence -- of them.

Hammams in North Africa

Almost every city and town in North Africa has a hammam. Major cities have several in different neighborhoods. The easiest way to find a local one is to ask at your hotel for a hammam nearby. Hammam have separate bathing times for men and women, so it is also important to ask when the women's hours are.

Most hammam charge a nominal fee for bathing and a separate fee for a massage. Inquire at the entrance.

Ammam Etiquette

Bring your own towel and bathing supplies. Some hammam sell individual shampoo packets and provide buckets. If you are in the souk, it is easy to pick up a bucket and some local shampoos and pumice stones. When undressing, leave your underwear on for modesty (everyone else does), and bring a spare pair to change into.

Read about a similar experience in a Korean Bathhouse.

 

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