Rabat - Afternoons after work in Rabat are spent mainly at my host home, journaling about my ever-changing perception of the Muslim world and its people, sharing stories of clumsy conversations with the Souk vendors with my housemates, and of course, napping.
Rabat – Afternoons after work in Rabat are spent mainly at my host home, journaling about my ever-changing perception of the Muslim world and its people, sharing stories of clumsy conversations with the Souk vendors with my housemates, and of course, napping.
My naps are usually short yet profound, uninterrupted, and satisfying. So when my roommate and host mom woke me up from one of my usual naps with an unusual request—a trip to the hammam—I was surprised, excited, and a little bit nervous. I had heard of the hammam before, but only very briefly on one of my mothers’ Turkish telenovelas and during my school mandated research of Moroccan traditions.
No amount of research on the internet could have really prepared me for the interesting cultural immersion waiting for me in the very near future. Half asleep, holding a bag of toiletries, and wearing a bikini under my loose clothing, I set out toward the infamous public bath house in the medina with my roommate and host mom.
A Moroccan hammam is very similar to traditional Roman baths complete with hot air, cold water, and nudity. The baths are separated by gender, so men and women are welcome either in separate buildings or during different times of the day, which is the case here in Rabat. During the day, women in the hammam strip down completely and begin the sometimes multiple-hour process of intense scrubbing, shaving, washing, cleansing, and scrubbing again. So much scrubbing.
Our host mom decided that my roommate and I were capable of scrubbing each other, so we skipped out on hiring one of the hammam workers to scrub us down, although I’ve heard from other foreigners in Rabat that it is quite the experience. Once we paid a small entry fee of 15 dirhams and stepped into the hammam it was go time—our host mom was undressed within seconds and gesturing for us to do the same. With slightly nervous but mostly, “well, why not?” smirks on our faces, my roommate and I stripped down to our bathing suit bottoms and embraced yet another opportunity to fully experience Moroccan culture.
No one holds back in the hammam—women scrub every inch of their aunts, sisters, daughters, mothers, and friends’ bodies—yes, even the private parts.
After entering the farthest and hottest room in the hammam, (they’re separated by temperature levels—really hot, not as hot but still hot, and cool) our host mom told us to cover our face and bodies in henna. We quickly went to work, laughing at our obvious lack of experience in the hammam and talking about how bizarre this would look to our friends back home. Our host mom noticed our nervous giggles and laughed with us or maybe at us, I’m still not sure.
One thing that made the experience more enjoyable was how quickly my roommate and I became comfortable with each other—perhaps it was the fear of sticking out as the prudent Americans in the back corner of the hammam scared to look at a naked female body or the fact that we’ve become good friends since living with each other, but the experience was never awkward once we got past the initial shock and began the actual process.
We realized that it was much easier and quicker to help each other rub the henna on our backs and, similar to the other women in the hammam, soon began helping each other scrub it off too.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t out of my comfort zone at some points, but I’d be lying even more if I said that I didn’t welcome the challenge to my pre-existing beliefs about nudity and personal space, which certainly isn’t a thing in the hammam.
With that being said, the lack of personal space by no means brings a lack of respect toward each other’s bodies. The hammam is all about community and cleansing—it is a space to bond, converse, relax, and cleanse the body to remove oneself from, both literally and figuratively, the filth that seeps under our skin in the outside world.
Speaking of filth, the amount of it that came off of our bodies as we scrubbed them vigorously was actually incredible. And here I am, thinking that my ten minute showers before bed are the most cleansing things in the world. “I feel like a new woman!” I yell almost every night before lying down; finally clean after a long, hot day. Yeah, right. The loads of dead skin and dirt that washed off of my body beg to differ.
After scrubbing for ages in the “really hot” room, we moved to the “not as hot but still hot” room and grabbed buckets to wash off with cold water from faucets lining the room. The cold water felt amazing and refreshing; I began to understand the appeal of the hammam in no time. This is where most of the action happens, meaning that groups of women not only scrubbed their bodies but also shaved them, shampooed and combed their hair, brushed their teeth, and shared laughs over conversation, as women often do.
The moment reminded me of the hours spent in my kitchen with my own friends, laughing over silly gossip and giving each other advice about the latest events in our lives. I wondered if our group dynamic would be as strong as that of the women in the hammam if we were all sitting here half naked, or if we’d focus instead on feeling insecure about our bodies or silently judging each other on our appearances.
Just then, the hammam became a place void of any judgement and insecurity—I realized that not one single woman glanced at another with judgmental eyes or with the intention of making them feel insecure about their bodies. “Fat” and “skinny” bodies seemed to disappear; after all, they’re just bodies. What I witnessed and experienced in the hammam that afternoon was an incredible bonding experience between women of all shapes, sizes, and ages. From here, we moved on to the “cool” room and washed off any remaining henna and soap.
Both my roommate and I left the hammam feeling clean and rejuvenated. I remembered something my program director said to us a few days prior to our visit to the hammam—“You’ll feel different—I want to talk to you after the hammam!” With little explanation as to why or how we would feel different, he laughed and assured us that we would soon understand.
I think I get it now.
I curled up in my warm bed as soon as I reached my room, felt every muscle in my body relax completely, and drifted back into my sleepy state, feeling as light and free as a feather.
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