Now you know what I knew. While in Morocco visiting Mohamed, I vow to experience this first hand. He is kind enough to arrange this for the last night we are to have in Taza (Wednesday, March 11). It’s 8:00 p.m. when he picks up Guido and me from the Hotel Boujida. We take a short ride up to the picturesque medina looking over the city. Mohamed chose this one because it stays open 24/7. Others he goes to had closed too early for us. This will be Mohamed’s first visit to this particular one. I have packed lightly; a backpack with a towel from the hotel, a small bar of soap, a packet of shampoo, a small amount of money in my pocket. With nothing more than the clothes on my back, I make sure not to have a phone, camera, or any other superfluous thing that I will regret being stolen. As anxious as I was about this, such directives make my “What am I getting into” radar beep a little faster. We park the car, gather our things, and begin walking down a narrow, dark stone-paved alley, wet with water from someone’s mop bucket. Thirty steps later, we turn into a classic arched, unmarked doorway.
Now, I need to digress to earlier in the day to explain my state of being. The food was wonderful the entire stay here in Morocco. But, something wasn’t agreeing with me. Our schedule was rather full that day including school visits, a lunch appointment, and a farewell meeting with his principal. I’ve been in my dress coat and it was getting warm. A pain I’ve had before was haunting me again under my lower left ribs on my back side (to this day I don’t know what causes this). I was glad to get to the hotel and lie down. Was this a mild fever I feel? Please, no. Not now. Take my antibiotic. Take my Alleve. Drink water. Rest in bed. I have an hour and a half. I’m not missing this.
My mind engaged in the moment, I enter the hammam oblivious to my aforementioned infirmities. This place is about 70 years old. Others can be much older. We enter a narrow entrance with a counter to our left and right. Two men looking to be in their 60’s lean on the counter, one with a white beard, the other wearing narrow glasses with lens too thick for their frame. Mohamed speaks to the spectacled gentleman. Ten dirhams each ($1.00). I fish for my coin. He collects our toll as we step into a large room. This space measures about 40 ft. square, with a ceiling reaching 20 ft. and an open center revealing a second floor with doorways behind the banisters. The walls are a colorful mosaic of small tiles from the floor up to about 7 ft. From there up the wall and over the ceiling is a mottled patina of flaking plaster. This room is populated with about 15 men at this point. Some are dressed in towels, others with robes, or just underwear. A couple of them are getting dressed to leave. A few are lying down on a cushioned floor mat that extends around the perimeter of the room against the wall, wide enough for you to lounge prostrate. At this point I’m confused. What is this? What do we do now? At no point in our trip to Morocco do I feel more like an alien, a foreigner that’s utterly ignorant of what to do next. This “when in Rome” thing can be work.
Mohamed has been a most excellent host. He spent a semester at Clemson during the spring of 2013 through IREX’ ILEP program. IREX chooses hosts for us TGC teachers who have spent time in the US themselves. This way, they have an idea about where we’re coming from culturally. Mohamed was fully aware of our need for guidance and talked us through the next couple of hours beautifully. Have a seat. Remove your shoes. Undress here. Put everything into your bag. Put these slippers on. Have your towels and soap/shampoo. Put your bags behind the counter. Follow me.
So we did.
Now, it can be a challenge to explain a picture. You can read about how to ride a bike, but doing it is very different. So, if by chance you are not visiting Morocco any time soon, this will have to do. I will attempt to paint this picture as best I can.
The giant wooden door opens to a small room lined in white tile and plaster. It is warm, and somewhat humid. A small sink is to our right, another door to our left. We follow Mohamed through this second door into a chamber lit by two wall lights on each end. The heated fog slaps my face as I take my last gulp of dry air before going in. This room is 30 ft. long, 12 ft wide, with an arched ceiling about 15 ft. high. Two wooden beams at about 7 ft. high cross the room. Men’s towels hang from them. Eight or so men are here sitting, talking, rubbing their skin, washing, being washed. More on this in a moment.
Let me be clear on one issue. First, this is a public facility. Second, the Moroccans are an extremely modest people. At no time this night would I ever see anyone not covered (with the exception of one small boy about 5 years old). Dark underwear is worn at all times by everyone.
We walk through a small arched doorway in the center of this room to another room just like it. Now, it’s hot. More men. We find a place to drape our towels on the wooden beam above our heads. We walk deeper, through the second arched doorway into the third chamber. OK, now it’s hot. Mohamed has brought two thin rubber mats that the three of us can sit on. We find a high place against the wall in the corner, place our mats down, and have a seat.
As we begin our roasting session, I see maybe six men of various ages sitting on a tile bench along the wall to our left. These guys are locals. Black hair, olive skin, svelte. They are looking at us. I return the favor. Guido, Mohamed and I exchange comments and laugh at ourselves. This is fun. I’m sweating. I’m hot. But, I’m mesmerized by what I am experiencing. This evening I feel I’m inducted into a brotherhood that’s 2000 years old. This is new to me; I’m very much a late-comer. This hammam is open in the mornings for women to use, too. The switch occurs in the early afternoon and lasts until late in the night.
I look across the room and see an attendant that’s bathing a customer. If you’ve read about what actually happens to you in a hammam, you are aware of the goal: exfoliate and clean. Sounds nice. The attendant has the customer lying on the floor on his back. The attendant (scrubber) is sitting on the floor also, with the customer’s head on his thigh. The attendant wears a mitt that he rubs over your skin. It appears to be something I will enjoy. But then the attendant turns the customer onto his stomach, crawls on top of him, and attempts to tie his legs into a pretzel. This goes on for another minute or so, which includes a move that looks like his leg could actually be unscrewed from his body. It is about now that I feel I’ve stepped too far. My trance is broken by Mohamed’s laughter. He’s humored by what he sees - my quiet stare with my mouth agape. He assures me this torture will not befall me. This customer has asked for some extra stretching.
We sit a while longer to allow our skin to brown (I mean, soften). Did I mention I’m hot? Another attendant brings Guido and me two packets of black soap made from olives and used in hammams. We are to smear this all over us now. This will soften and clean as we receive our scrubbing momentarily. I’ll take his word for it. But this stuff looks like used axle grease. Doesn’t smell much better. This is why Mohamed tells us he does not partake. On it goes. Now having basted ourselves, we roast a little longer and drip and sweat and squint and wipe and try to breathe in what little oxygen we can detect. Mohamed asks if we are ready. I am.
I get up and return to the second room where the towels are. I take the mat with me and put it down where my scrubber awaits. He has lined in the center of the room several plastic buckets full of warm and hot water he has dipped from pools in the corner of the room. A small plastic dipping cup floats in one of them. He directs me to sit in front of where he’s sitting, with my back to him. Now I’m going to get clean. This will be nice.
Then he starts.
I saw him with the mitt on as I took my seat, but surely he switched to a kitchen pot scrubber made of woven copper. You know the one. It raked once across my back. Twice. Back and forth. Over the same place. Then he moves to damage other parts of my back. Is there blood? I have no way of knowing. I can’t stop now. He works my back, my sides, my neck. What have I done to deserve this? He mumbles something and pats me into the direction he wishes me to move. I now am lying down, on my right side, with my right ear firmly on his left inner thigh. He holds up my left arm and rubs my side and upper arm. I’m told to flip, so as to have the other side be made to glow as red. Sit up. Both of us are now sitting, facing each other. He grabs my right wrist as my torso leans forward toward him. He begins rubbing my whole arm.
Only now do I see it. Now I see the fruit of his labor. It looks like thick strings about 1-2 inches long have been placed on my arm’s skin. This is not string on my skin. It is my skin. Rolls of it. Each time he moves up and down my arm, he flicks off these chunks of rolled up dead skin. He’s been doing this the whole time. I’m amazed.
He douses me with hot water. I feel my back sting. Is the floor red? He does my chest. Under my chin. My face does not escape this torture. My forehead, cheeks, chin, under the ears. I lie on my back, again resting my head on his left thigh. He rubs my torso. I think I’ve just lost my right nipple. Another splash of water. He places a leg on his thigh and continues. Then the other. I watch him rub off skin that has wanted to come off for weeks but didn’t know how. I watch strings of skin pool onto the floor and run down toward the drain, mixing with the effluent of other customers. He takes the soap bar and bathes me, never touching where I’m girthed. He rinses. He rubs my shampoo into my hair. Rinses. He walks away.
At some point during my session, Mohamed has joined me with his own attendant. Guido is just to our side with his attendant. I hope they’re doing OK. Hard to tell. Not knowing what to do next, really, I sit until Mohamed is ready to go. This will be a test. I didn’t know air could be 109% saturated. I think I’m a fish now. I’m breathing hot water, and it ain’t workin’. Now…now I’m hot. That last dunk of hot water over me is still dripping. That means it’s sweat. Please, please get finished. I’ve got to find some oxygen. Mohamed’s through. He directs me to rinse once more. I wrap my towel around me, change my underwear discreetly, and proceed with them out to the large room where we first undressed.
Do we dress and leave? No. Now, we take our place on our towel on this large mat that encircles the room as I described earlier. Here’s where we stop, catch our breath, cool down, and relax in silence. This lasts for several minutes. Mohamed and I reflect on my experience. He fetches our bags, we dress, tip our attendant 50 dirhams, and exit into the cool night air.
How do I feel? I feel WONDERFUL. Stomach, check. Side, check. Fever, check. Skin, check check. It throbs with energy. I’ve never felt cleaner. I’m 5 pounds lighter (1 pound of skin, 4 pounds of sweat). My skin is softer than from any product you could buy to slather on it. It makes sense. We try to soften dead skin. Moroccans just remove it. Mohamed says locals may come here once a week or more. If I lived here, I would do the same. But no more often than weekly. There would be nothing left of me.
We leave for Mohamed’s house. We stop to buy a liter of water, have a light soup at his house, and bid farewell to his wife Badia. It’s been a long day for all of us. Mohamed confesses to us that this is his 50th birthday. I feel badly for not knowing. Nothing we’ve done today would be celebratory of such a milestone as this. But, I feel Mohamed would have it no other way. Entertaining two foreigners is taxing, but I think we all have enjoyed each other’s company.
Happy birthday, Mohamed. We wish you many, many more.
We head back to the hotel. I give Mohamed a big hug and express my appreciation for his hospitality and kindness to us these past six days. I have a new friend.
The next day still feels wonderful, though my right nipple is still angry.