How to Survive a Hammam in Morocco (with some dignity)
The idea of spending a lazy afternoon at a hammam, or Moroccan bathhouse, seems like a wonderfully relaxing way to pass a few hours, right? I thought we’d cleanse our pores in a hot steam bath followed by an indulgent massage. Uh…no. Not so much.
Though absolutely pleasant, our experience was also a little bit funny, a little bit embarrassing, and a whole bunch of what the hell? If anything, the hammam offered incredible insight into Moroccan culture. I learned that men, women and children visit their local hammam on a weekly basis to bathe, scrub and gossip. Of course, the males and females are segregated, as we also were during our bathhouse experience.
The hammam adventure begins
Our hammam adventure began when we stumbled upon Hammam Ziani. After a quick tour of the facility, we decided to try a “package” hammam consisting of a Moroccan black soap scrub, a steam room session and a massage – all for about USD 28. A super steal! Having read about hammams, we thought we knew what we were getting into, but it turned out to be way more “hands-on” than I expected.
I skipped to the ladies’ dressing room in anticipation of having my shoulder knots worked out. Straw bags containing disposable underwear, a towel, a robe and rubber slippers were thrust into our hands and our two attendants/masseurs motioned for us to take off our clothes – all of them. Any humility I had went kaput as I stood completely nude in front of a stranger…well, except for my knickers, but they didn’t cover much. My personal masseur held out the tight, little blue thong whereas I politely shook my head no, I intended to wear my own knickers, thank you very much. Though nudity is absolutely accepted in hammams, I couldn’t jump on that bandwagon just yet. The fluffy robes went untouched, and we were encouraged to slip into the two-sizes too big rubber flip-flops. This made shuffling around the slippery environment rather interesting, especially since the entire area was thick with blinding steam. It’s a good thing that my lady held tight to my hand and led me around like a child for the entire process.
The first stop was a rather chilly steam room — an oxymoron, I think. Steam rooms are suppose to be delightful hot boxes. This one was not. We were told to lay down on marble slabs as cold vapor puffed from the vents above us. Then we were left alone for about ten minutes as water dripped from the ceiling and I got colder and colder in my near-naked state. Just as I was about to go search for my warm robe to sooth my goosebumps, the attendants returned, grabbed tight to our wrists and marched us toward room two.
That’s when the real fun began because, in a hammam, you get bathed. Yup – everyone gets a Freudian trip back to the pubescent stage. As we stood in front of a free-flowing faucet, the ladies proceeded to throw bucket after bucket of luke-warm water over our heads, and not in a gentle manner either. It was a bit bewildering, and my poor mom looked equally confused and drowned.
I think I still have some skin left
The exfoliation process was next. We were lead to another set of cold marble slabs where our bodies were slathered with traditional Moroccan black soap. Then, using a hammam glove, the elated attendants hummed with joyful candor as they sloughed off impressive quantities of dead skin. Seriously, little black balls of “dirty” skin were falling on the floor. Gross, right? I’m a very clean person, but my Western methods of exfoliating are not up to par with the Eastern world. Satisfied with my new level of cleanliness, she pulled me back to the faucets for another forceful hosing down.
Room three, the massage space, was a domed room with plastic-lined massage tables. Trying not to ruminate about how many other naked behinds had touched that plastic mat, I did as I was told and climbed on to the table. For approximately thirty minutes, the woman touched and rubbed every part of my body with oil. EVERY SINGLE AREA. Nothing was off limits. I was constantly thinking, “hhmmmm, well this is interesting – that wouldn’t happen at home.” As I got oilier and oilier, it was actually difficult to stay on the table so I had to grip the sides with my hands as my lower body slid back and forth. I tried not to giggle at the absurdity of the moment, especially when my attendant slapped my butt, signaling me to flip over. Then the procedure was repeated on the backside. Again, hands and oil were everywhere.
Finally, the afternoon concluded with another rinse-off and a hair shampoo. It wasn’t exactly a comforting note to end on. Soap suds burned my eyes, and I choked on the massive buckets of water begin sloshed in my face. But I had clean hair, and the goal was accomplished. Still blinded by soap, I let myself be led one more time back to the dressing room. My attendant wrapped me in a towel, shoved me back into the ladies’ room and shut the door behind me. And that was that. My mom arrived shortly after, looking a bit frazzled yet relaxed. We laughed about our experiences as we dressed and pondered a few of the peculiarities of the afternoon. Though we were both out of our comfort zone, it was fun and enlightening to fully immerse ourselves in the local culture. That’s what travel is all about, after all! I will say that I look forward to indulging in a 60-minute deep tissue massage back in the States though.