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On Tuesday morning, I spend a long time choosing my underwear. Not too big so I look dorky, but not too small either. I’m going to a hammam, where I will wear only my underwear, and I want to find the perfect balance.
This is my first visit to a hammam. They had them in Mauritania, but I was put off by my Arab friend Aicha’s description of waxing. “You leave a bottle of Fanta orange in the sun until it’s become just a paste, it’s sticky,” she told me. “Then you smear it on your arm and yank it off!” I curled my body into a ball and shrieked at the thought. I have very sensitive skin.
“No, no,” said my friend Sumi. “A hammam is a bath. It’s so relaxing, and afterwards you are so clean!” To top it off, an American friend described going to a Westernized upper-end hammam, where afterwards you lie on a heated marble slab while getting a massage. That did it. I was convinced I had to try it.
I wanted to try a traditional Moroccan hammam rather than one that caters more to expatriates. Sumi offered to take me to the one nearest her house, in L’Ocean. (Guess where that part of the city is?) She bought me a keiss at the market, which is basically sandpaper disguised as a sponge. She bought the traditional soap, which is piled in goopy brown pyramids in the medina. She tells me it’s made from “olive bones.” I don’t correct her because I like this imagery.
The hammam has women’s hours in the mornings, and opens about 10. We meet at her place where we drink water before heading over. When we walk in, we see piles of wood, roots of trees, etc. “That’s very traditional,” she points out. The burning wood heats the water. Usually next door there’s the neighbourhood bakery, and the same fires are used to heat water and bake bread, but for some reason, next door in L’Ocean is a garage.
We pay our 11 dirhams (about $1.40) and enter a large tiled room. I sniff appreciatively—chlorine! Smells like a swimming pool! I feel like I’m in a locker room as we put our bags down on a bench and strip to our undies, then hand our bags, plus 1 dirham (12 cents) to a woman who’ll watch them for us. We walk in to an empty room that’s only a little warmer than the one we just left, and from there into a room that’s definitely warm. Women sit round the edges, several of them accompanied by children. Each has several buckets in front of her.
We keep going into the hottest room, and take our places in the corner closest to the oven, which is behind the wall. “If it’s too hot, we can go back,” says Sumi, but honestly although it’s quite warm, it’s not even as hot as a sauna. We spread out our plastic mats and sit back. I’m impressed with this place—it’s very clean and tiled. We have plenty of company—there are probably 20 other women in the room, surrounded by their buckets, but everyone keeps to themselves.
Sumi’s already spoken to the woman who works there, who is wearing a headscarf in addition to her underwear. She brings us bucket after bucket of hot water, filled from the taps near us.
Sumi instructs on how to smear one’s body with the traditional soap, which she swears is unique in its properties to penetrate layers of dead skin cells. I dunno—my money’s on the sandpaper, but I don’t deny that it’s pleasant and may have exfoliating qualities. She even puts a little on her face.
We sit back and relax to let the soap soak in and loosen up those dead skin cells. We sit there, eyes mostly closed, for about 10-15 minutes before the woman comes back. She takes my keiss and briskly, professionally, rubs my entire body. It hurts! I grit my teeth and squinch my eyes. It feels lovely on my back, though. I open my eyes and view with amazement the fat grey little rolls of dead skin on the mat beside me. The woman laughs! Yes, it really works.
Afterwards, she rinses me off with the hot water from the buckets, at one point dumping an entire bucket over my head! Then she moves on to my friend. My skin is lobster red and I look parboiled, but I’m very relaxed. She refills our buckets, and I take my time shampooing my head, rinsing bits of dead skin off my mat.
We pad our way back out to the first room and retrieve our bags, then we wrap ourselves in towels and just sit on the benches for a while. We apply lotion to our bodies. Then we dress and head out back into the cold, draping scarves round our heads to ward off chill. We tip the “scrubbing woman” 30 dirhams each—about $3.75. Grand total for this expedition—a little over $5.
Back at her house, we drink several glasses of water and eat some oranges, chatting of this and that. Later, at my own home, I eat lunch and then just sort of sink into my bed. I can’t keep my eyes open. But my skin feels incredible. It’s never been this soft. I feel deeply clean and relaxed. I wake an hour or so later feeling refreshed and renewed, and totally addicted to this new experience. I can’t wait to go again.