Standing almost naked and being scrubbed down by a stranger wasn’t a particularly appealing activity to me, however I found myself booking a hammam in the final days of my stay in Marrakesh as I felt I would be missing out on an important part of the Moroccan culture if not.
Most Morrocan’s go every week, sometimes several times, and it is considered a social activity in villages and towns, with men, women and children all participating. The hammam is probably the oldest surviving bath tradition in the world.
For the most authentic experience, consider a public hammam spa, like Hammam Dar el-Bacha in Marrakesh. It’s the city’s largest traditional hammam with women-only hours in the afternoon and evening. However my fear of public nudity (similar to my fear of public speaking) has directed me to a slightly more modified version of the hamman located via favourable reviews on Trip Advisor.
Off I go from my Riad to the hammam, Google maps in hand (how anyone found their way around the medina before technology I have no idea) and enter the beautiful wooden door which in typical Marrakesh style is small and hidden. The reception girl checks my name as there is 2 of us booked in at the same time. “Your not Brian are you?”, she asks. “No sorry, not a Brian”… (do I look like a Brian?). Oh dear, not a great start for someone who is thinking of bolting anyway.
I put on my big girl pants, take a deep breath and sit down and choose a rose oil from an impressive selection of Moroccan oils while sipping mint tea which is required at about every social interaction (and is very delicious until you see the amount of sugar that goes in).
I am taken to my locker to strip down and am handed a small package which contains my disposable underwear which is pretty much a small strip of paper with some elastic. Oh dear, why didn’t I go and chill at the gardens Marjorelle instead?
My friendly attendant who only comes up to my chest (how in the hell is she going to scrub me down?) thankfully puts the robe on over my paper g-string and takes my hand through a labyrinth of corridors to a cell like room fully tiled which is to be my washing/scrubbing room for the next 30 minutes or so.
Off comes the robe and I lie down on what looks like a marble slab in this small windowless cell which is as hot as a sauna while she lathers me up head to toe with soap and water. The slab is very slippery, I feel like a seal. OK it is a bit weird, being a 48 year old I haven’t been washed by someone else since I was about five, but that was generally a parent not a person I hadn’t met until 5 minutes ago.
I am instructed to turn over while she leaves no stone unturned, I am well and truly lathered. Then comes the hose. Yes she hoses me down, I close my eyes just in time but my mouth is slightly open in surprise and I swallow a tiny bit of water, I nearly start laughing, my daughter 9 year old daughter would be loving this, my 48 year old self, not so much.
Next comes the full body coating in black soap which is the prelude to the exfoliation. Off she goes for 15 minutes for it to soak into my skin, I rub my eye as its itchy, oh dear, I do remember the receptionist saying whatever you do, just be careful of your eyes. Damn. How do I clean my stinging eye? I am pretty much naked, lathered up, sweating and with no towel in site. Should I pop my head out? I can hear a male voice – Brian must be in the next cell. I could scar him for life, maybe I will just blink it out? I try and sit up, I nearly slip off sideways from my marble slab. Dear god, this is no fun. I see a small bottle of water next to me, splash it over my eye and blink frantically, deep breaths, the eye stops stinging.
After a very long 15 minutes she comes back. Scrubbing time. She scrubs. And scrubs. And scrubs. She must of scrubbed off several layers of skin, surely I have lost about 3 kilos of water and skin by now? I am hosed down again, and quite relieved as the water is cool and the marble slab has started to burn its so hot. My hair is washed, I have to bend down for her, I feel like she is going to dry me off and my maids will strap me into my corset before I take tea in the drawing room. Hose down time again, face scrunched up, this time I am prepared.
I feel all the black soap, the weeks of sweating it out in those souks and layers of skin go down the drain (or rather onto the floor with the previous occupants skin which I am trying not to think about).
She bundles me up in my robe, grabs my hand and takes me to sit in a small tea room to recover, I mean relax.
I drink some (more accurately about 1 litre) of water with fresh mint leaves, I politely decline the mint tea, I have noticed many of the Moroccans have terrible teeth, I am not surprised. And then I relax. My skin feels amazing, I am tingling from top to toe.
Even though I am not Moroccan, and don’t fully appreciate the ritual of this regular bathing, living in the intense heat and often dusty surrounds, a thorough cleanse must be a highlight of the week, especially combined with the social aspect. I hope this cultural event will continue to be part of the Moroccan way of life as it has for hundreds of years.