By Brianne Kelly
By Brianne Kelly
Bouarfa, Morocco – My first experience in a hammam was about a year ago, shortly after arriving in Morocco. I was staying in a small city outside of Rabat with a host family for ten weeks.
I am a Peace Corps Volunteer from America. A year ago my Moroccan Arabic was very limited and the only foreign language instruction I had previously received was in Spanish and French. I knew enough to order food in these languages, but my memory failed me on most all other vocabularies.
So there I was, listening to and living in a country where the letters seemed to resemble hieroglyphics and the language was just as difficult to grasp; it was as if with every sound easily spilling out of a Moroccan’s mouth, I would listen intently to eagerly place each syllable while frantically channeling my comprehension skills… which would undoubtedly fail me on countless occasions. “Ma-fhmt-sch” would become my new “Je ne sais pas.”
One of the great advantages of working with the Peace Corps is the intensive language training we receive as volunteers; we also receive intensive cultural training. One afternoon class was dedicated to the hammam, complete with a bucket, a kees, a mat and a ladle. This was a very informative class prepping us for the inevitable hygiene ritual. Mental preparedness was necessary for this communal activity that none of us had ever participated in.
In America, there are locker rooms in which women sometimes change in front of one another. Often, there is little or no conversation exchanged when completing the necessary tasks of stripping away work clothes in place of athletic wear. Even though I competed on a swim team where we all walked around confidently in a one piece and swim cap, as teenagers we would shyly change behind a towel or shower curtain. The idea of wearing just underwear in front of a room of strangers was a bit startling to many of us.
After a week of living with my host family and smelling like a teenager again, my family finally took me to the hammam. All insecurities stripped away with each article of clothing as I eagerly anticipated the scent of Dove and baby powder. Due to my inexperience in the hammam scene, I was not to be trusted to clean myself. Even after my attempts to scrub away all the residue left on my skin from the days worth of integration, anxiety, and Moroccan life, my host sister proceeded to scrub my skin until a light pink hue glowed through.
She scrubbed my arms, legs, neck, and back the same way she would her two young sons. It was an out of body experience, though not a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I quickly learned that my family would likely do this each time we went to the hammam; them not realizing that I was well aware of how to clean myself, and me lacking the language to express this.
Luckily, my host family purchased a shower head and a hot water heater soon after my arrival in Morocco, though they still insisted on cleaning my back during the showers. This, I finally accepted as culture, although it was a stark contrast to the hygiene rituals that I had become accustomed to while growing up in the United States. The most painful experience of a childhood bath is the soap finding a way in one’s eyes, here it is the much-feared kees; a very course hand sponge meant to peel away dead skin leaving a body feeling baby-soft.
My family and friends back home initially expressed concern for the infrequency of showers here, although living in the culture has given me an alternative perspective and new understanding towards hygiene. In America, I would shower just about every day, cleaning my hair each time. Here, I usually shower every other day or every third day, although I have been spoiling myself with the hammam this winter.
I have already gone twice this week and will probably go again before the week finishes out. The heat sits in my body most of the day and boosts my mood immensely. This is so necessary when far away from home and enduring the kind of cold that gets to my bones!
My hammam experiences have transformed over the course of a year. In my last experience, a girl about the age of seven screamed herself into a hyper-ventalation while her mother dutifully keesed her body in a similar fashion to how my mother would untangle my hair on early mornings before school.
I empathized with both the mother and the daughter; the mother for knowing that it would probably be some time before her daughter felt the sauna-like heat of the hammam and therefore needed to clean her as well as she could, and the daughter because I felt just like her a year ago when my body was being scrubbed with the same harshness.
This past Sunday a girl offered to clean my back with my much softer hand sponge (I will risk the dead skin), while four other girls gathered around to the mistakenly-French woman speaking their language. They were all about the age of my students and perhaps I will see them at my fitness and film classes on Saturday. Talking about why I Iived here led to the discussion of my work! Turns out the bath house is a social gathering of sorts.
Thankfully my language has improved during my time in Morocco, and my patience as well. “Ma-fhmt-sch” has frequented my interactions less and has been replaced with the Moroccan Arabic equivalent of “Wait, I don’t understand that word, could you explain.” I find that my patience and my hygiene/comfort have a positive correlation and therefore I do not expect to minimize my hammam time during these cold months in the desert. It’s a great way to integrate into the community and experience a side of Moroccan life that may often be overlooked by non-natives.
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