The Hammam

Let me tell you about the time I found myself in the center of Fez, sitting on cardboard, on the wet floor of a dilapidated old building, naked, while a plump old Moroccan woman scrubbed me vigorously with sandpaper…
There are varying degrees of luxury when it comes to Moroccan Hammams. The Turkish Bath style spa can be anything from a 5-star pampering to a 10 dirham scrub. Regardless of the comfort level, however, the basics are all the same, and you are guaranteed to come out at the end feeling fresh and clean!
I opted for the public Hammam: one that I’m pretty sure no tourist has ever stepped foot in: because that’s how I roll.
Hammam’s are all separated for men and women. Sometimes they have two different rooms: one for men, and one for women. But often it is one area with separate entry times: the morning for women and the afternoon for men. Once inside there are all sorts of steps and etiquettes to follow. Even after reading the process extensively online, I forgot all of the rules upon walking into the building. How many buckets do I need? Where do I fill them? What do I do with this black soap? Which room am I supposed to do each step?! I was definitely a tourist.
I never would have guessed from the outside that the building held a Hammam. The man from the convenience store where I purchased my black soap pointed to a doorway in a back alley, said “Hammam,” and that was that. The building was old and looked as if it could crumble at anytime. I walked through the front entrance and was greeted by two smiling old women.
“As-salamu Alaykum”
And that was the last word I understood. From there it was all charades. The two ladies ushered me inside to what must have been the dressing room. Flickering fluorescent blue lights; a rough, concrete floor; tiles falling off the wall; a thin bench and an alcove with a mop and bucket in it. One lady motioned for my to take off my clothes while she did the same, and then she unceremoniously dragged me into an equally aesthetically pleasing second room. This was the cold room. A beginning and ending point to fill your buckets and cool off from the heat. She grabbed four empty plastic buckets from the corner. The buckets were much larger than I had imagined, each able to hold around 20L or so. They were dust covered and old, but clearly they did the trick. When the buckets were sorted I was motioned into the second room. This was the hot room.
It was not quite as hot as a sauna, but definitely warm enough to start sweating. Two other women were in the room with children, lathering themselves in a thick black soap. They both smiled, probably a little shocked to see me in there, but then excited as they started talking to me in rapid French. With the sound of rushing water and the echo of the room I couldn’t make out a single word they said to me. While I smiled and nodded to the ladies, my little, old, plump bucket lady organized the water. From what I read, at least one bucket needs to be cold water and one hot. The buckets need to be filled from a larger, communal wash tub, and wasting water is frowned upon. But all four of my buckets were mixed to be a warm, but not particularly hot, water. Bucket lady poured water from one bucket to another, clearly in some sort of order, until all was set. When that was organized, she found a piece of cardboard, threw it on the ground and motioned for me to sit.
First was water.
Bucket lady used a small pail to scoop water out of the water buckets and pour it over my head. After about 8 or 9 small pails, the large bucket was picked up and dumped over me… About 16 liters of warm water rushed over me and my little cardboard seat on the floor. By the time I had wiped the water from my eyes the woman had the soap ready. The black soap I had bought from the convenience store was like an oily jelly. She passed it to me and said something in Arabic, while she motioned for me to start rubbing it on myself. The other ladies were still chatting away to me in French. They didn’t seem to care that I didn’t understand them. They talked away and showed me how to rub the soap in the way they did. Just as I was getting the hang of it, I was doused with more water. Splash! Another 20 liters of water was poured over my head!
Next, Bucket Lady sat down next to me and put on a sandpaper-like glove. With the soap washed off, it was time for my hardy noticeable tan to go as well. It started with my back. She scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed until all the dead skin was gone, and then arms and hands and all the way down to my feet. It was painful, but also relaxing. Kind of like getting a Thai massage, where you’re not sure if this is the worst experience of your life or the most relaxing one. The scrubbing went on for quite a while. All the dead skin needed to be removed. And when bucket lady was satisfied, another 20L of water was splashed down over my head.
With my freshly pink skin, it was time for more black soap, and a shampooing for my hair! Then more water and then more soap again. I must have gone through 16 tubs of water by the time the process was over! My eyes were stinging lightly from the amount of water in my eyes, and my bum was getting sore, despite the cardboard cushioning between me and the cracked tiled flooring. When it was all done I was moved back into the cool room and then back to the dressing room, where the first woman toweled me off and gave me back my clothes.
It wasn’t a luxurious spa experience by any means, but I wasn’t looking for one. The women were so nice and I felt refreshed as ever as I walked out from the dark building and into the bright world outside. I had survived a Moroccan Hammam and it was great!
But all the scrubbing pain was worthwhile, when later that night I hugged a friend goodbye.
“Your skin is soooo soft!” She exclaimed afterwards.
“Well thanks! An old, naked lady scrubbed me down with sandpaper today!” Looks like it worked!