Could you strip down in a foreign place like this with strangers? (Photo: Dongyi Liu/Flickr)
Morocco would be one of the last countries where I’d have expected to end up in a room full of almost naked women. Nudity or toplessness is the norm in a Moroccan hammam, and little foreign me would have to embrace it.
It’s not really a done thing in Western cultures, bathing with others in a state of undress. Sure, when I was a kid my mum would throw my younger brother and me in the tub and create an endless amount of embarrassing photos that would magically reappear on our 21st birthdays. But since then, bathing has been my own private alone time.
Not so in Morocco.
At this point you may have two questions racing through your mind:
- Isn’t Morocco a Muslim country, where people are quite conservative? Yes. Women do cover up here in public. Most women adorn the head scarves, and there are quite a few that wear the full-faced burka.
- Why would you, a 31-year-old woman, honestly want to go and bathe with a bunch of complete strangers? Just for fun is the only response I have. Plus, it’s the done thing in a Moroccan hammam. Completely normal.
Upon arriving in Morocco, I actually had never heard of hammam, nor was I aware that it was a popular pastime here.
So first, let’s back up a bit:
What is a Moroccan hammam?
A hammam entrance in Marrakech … always segregated bathing.
Hammam is just another term for bath.
You may have heard of Turkish or Roman baths, but in Morocco, public bath culture is just as important. In fact men, women and children (segregated, of course) make it a weekly ritual to visit their local hammam. They spend hours bathing, scrubbing off all their dead skin and gossiping with friends.
It really is a very social occasion — just a more nudie one. I am not someone who is backward in going forward, so I decided to give it a go.
What to expect at a Moroccan hammam: (tales from the girls-only zone)
Naturally we cannot show any photos inside the hammam. But take my word for it, it is very different from the streets of Morocco.
The hammam is the only place where women will be uncovered outside of their homes. And it was truly amazing to see how perfectly comfortable they are, even with me there. In fact, many chatted to me and giggled with me as I was led through the hammam ritual for the very first time.
Also, it’s great how curvy everyone is — there are no hangups about weight, and curves are much preferred over skinny in Morocco. My boyfriend, Tom, was (as a joke) offered 300 camels for me as the guy insisted, “I feed my wife couscous day and night and she still doesn’t put on weight — your wife would do a fine job”. As positive body image is a topic I have written on a lot, it was refreshing to walk in and not to feel self conscious. Ladies of all sizes can be comfortable in a Moroccan hammam.
Upon entering you will be in a change room, much like any gym, where you can undress and give your clothes to the ladies who will take care of your belongings for you. In many hammams in Morocco it is acceptable to keep your underwear on — just letting you know so you don’t go full birthday suit unnecessarily.
At this point a lady came over and took my tickets. This had been given to me by the guy at the front counter, so that the ladies knew exactly what I had paid for. My hammam lady didn’t speak any English, so I knew things were going to be interesting.
Next stop is the steam room. Here you will see loads of ladies bathing themselves and each other. There are also usually a few kids just sitting in buckets messing about (super cute). There were no baths in this particular hammam, but warm water was readily available for you to fill your bucket up.
The entrance to the Eranouk Hammam Essaouira, Morocco, where I visited.
The location I visited was in a residential district of the small city of Essaouira. This was not designed for tourists or luxury visitors and is rarely visited by foreigners. It was the bare, basic, tiled walls and floors with little decoration. A place to clean and socialize, not to be pampered. It’s down a side street and a little tricky to find. Taxi drivers will know it though.
This was the real local experience.
I was led to the scrub room, where a mat was placed on the floor and I was instructed to lay down on it. Putting aside the thought of how many other semi-naked or naked asses had been on that mat, I did as I was told. The lady then took the keesa glove and proceeded to scrub all of the dead skin off my body.
Things to note at this time:
- The keesa feels like a piece of sandpaper that has been fashioned into a glove of sorts.
- It’s actually really gross how much dead skin comes off you.
- It can be a bit ouchie. Remember what I said about the sandpaper?
I think she was being gentle with me as I had read accounts of other Westerners being scrubbed red raw. But although it was a little uncomfortable and painful, it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. Just remember that if she does get a little too rough with you, say “beshwiya beshwiya” which means “slowly, slowly” and she should lay off your poor skin a little bit.
After the scrub and wash down with water it was time to move to the shampoo room. It is here where she proceeded to wash my hair, and not in the nice, salon-like “I love it when people gently wash and massage my hair” way. It was much more basic than that but certainly got the job done. She then dumped a massive bucket of water on my head to remove the shampoo and repeated the dumping one more time for good measure.
The black soap massage
Black soap is said to be full of antioxidants and have amazing benefits for the skin. So I thought this sounded pretty exotic, but I didn’t know what to expect with a massage. I’ve had massages in many countries that ranged from soothing bliss, to “OMG why are you causing me so much pain I thought this was supposed to relax me!”
Today, however, lying on a mat of questionable cleanliness on the floor of a strange bath house, I was given the white-woman massage treatment. Even though I told her she could press harder — she did, but only a very little bit. Tom, who was having the man treatment next door (his story’s for another time) was apparently twisted into a pretzel of pain.
I think I’ll take the white-lady treatment thank you!
After my mini-massage was over, she then proceeded to unceremoniously dump another massive bucket of water over my head to wash away the suds of the black soap.
Regular soap time
Now it’s time for the regular soap wash, where she washed my body down for me (leaving me to do my own lady bits). I have to say it is a weird experience having someone bathe you — you see old pictures of ladies of leisure being bathed by their servants in baths full of milk. But in Hammam Eranouk, it’s a quick scrub down before dumping another bucket of water over your head.
And that was the end of my hammam experience. I was taken back to the change room, where the ladies handed me back my clothes. I managed to get out a quick shokran (thank you in Arabic) before she was off to scrub another lady raw. After 45 minutes it was all over and I was off into the real world of Essaouira, all scrubbed clean and positively glowing. All in all, not too bad of an experience.
Naturally this was the uber-local experience — not touristic in any way. There are some fantastic Moroccan hammams that offer first-class spa treatments that soothe and pamper you to your heart’s content. But I kind of like my crazy local experience — at least it gives me a good story to tell.
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