Violated, but clean... A proper, local hammam experience is not for the fainthearted or for those who insist strongly on their personal space and comfort zone as inviolable.
28.03.2016 - 04.04.2016 19 °C
Someone more bashful than me would have felt violated. I had apparently walked into a prison shower, not a hammam. Something I will get back to in a moment.
A hammam – or a Turkish Bath as they are known as in the West - is basically a public bathhouse. They come in all shapes and sizes and are widespread outside the Western world. In the Russian-speaking world, for example, they are known as ‘banya’. They range from what is essentially a locker room shower to luxurious spas. Hammams are also a hugely important part of daily life, as most people in the world do not have access to hot running water. However, it is the Arab world that has made them famous.
Not only a place of relaxation and personal hygiene, hammams are also places of social, religious and spiritual importance. It is a place where both women and men can relax with their peers, outside of public surveillance. In a sexually repressed society, where public affection is taboo, the hammams offer a sort of time-out, where men and women, in their almost nakedness, can relax together. So, it is not uncommon for the men to joke around, throw cold water at each other and, in general, have a good laugh about life. I obviously do not have any experience with the women’s hammams but I am told that they use it to conversate freely, outside listening range of any (abusive) men.
Religiously, a Muslim must be clenched and purified before attending prayers at a mosque. This is done by washing hands, lower arms, nose, mouth, ears, feet and ankles. Have he or she had sexual intercourse that day, a full body wash is expected. As usually with the three big religions, there have weirdly enough always been a repulsive interest in human reproduction and what goes on in peoples’ bedrooms. Likewise, a preference to somehow dictate what is allowed comes with most organised religions. The hammam is, therefore, an important place to show off one's clenching before going to the mosque.
The hammam experience is not new to me. Siberian banyas where the best places to reheat my frozen body during the Russian winter and to clear off the dirt after climbing central Asia's mountains. In Syria the price of a wash, scrub and quick massage was less than five euros, providing a little luxury to our shoestring budget, and when visiting Turkey, going to a ‘Turkish Bath’ is a must-do. Here in Morocco, the hammam is necessary because my host family does not have hot water. The required installations are simply not installed in their house. Hence, most morning washes are done in the sink. Face, armpits and privates are washed, then it is off to school. So, once a week a proper bath is needed. There are a couple of hammams nearby. The cheapest sets me back about a euro and a half. It resembles a standard locker room, with the addition of a small sauna. There are no showers. Instead, a number of taps are placed along the walls, about 30 cm above the floor. These are for filling the colourful plastic tubs that are available. Once you have filled a tub, you have to use a large plastic bowl to pour water on yourself. Most locals, therefore, bring a little stool to sit on. They also bring a harsh glove/wash clout to scrub themselves. Once you have washed, scrubbed and saunaed, you are done.
The other hammam is one of the fancier kinds – by local standards - and cost a heavy (again, by local standards) ten euros. Meaning that those fancy hammams in tourist areas tend to resemble luxurious spas that are all about the relaxing experiences of a wash and massage. Contrary to that a fine local hammam is all about getting clean. Real clean. The fancy part is that you do not have to wash yourself. At my local hammam, an athletic and smiling guy from Mali is during the washing for you. Real thoroughly.
Once I had stripped down to my boxers, which you wear throughout the whole experience, I was brought into the standard hammam-room with a row of hot-water sinks along the walls, which were decorated with dark green tiles. I was sat on a stool while my Malian orderly washed me. First, with shampoo, giving me a rough head massage, then with a thick brown lotion/soap. This greasing of me included my face, arms, back, chest, stomach, outer- and inner thighs, legs and feet. Then another wash-down, with the hot water from the sinks, before I was placed in the sauna for a good fifteen minutes. Once cooked, I was splashed with more hot water, this time with a boiling temperature. Only half way through and I had been massaged, marinated, cooked and scalded. To be honest, I did feel a little like a beef brisket.
Once washed, it was time for my scrubbing. With a rough glove – imagine something between sandpaper and field turf – the outermost layer of dead skin is simply scrubbed off your body. While lying on a stone table, more and more skin was scrubbed off and in the end, I was lying in hundreds of small rolls of my own dead skin. This was the beginning of the violating part. As is was not bad enough to lie around in my own dead skin, the scrubbing goes everywhere. Everywhere. Having my face scrubbed, including my eyelids and throat, is bad enough. But it would be worse. My crutch apparently needed a scrubbing as well, and while lying on my stomach, my Malian friend decided to scrub the inside bits of my butt-cheeks too. Everything except my reproductive organs got a scrub. I am still considering whether the only proper thing to do is to ask him to marry me…
Thus spotless, I was yet again splashed with something that felt like boiling water, and slightly more embarrassed than when I arrived, I was washed for the third time. This time with a notably nicer smelling soap. Thus cleaned in places I did not know needed cleaning, I was left in the dressing room in a rope by myself. Thus, giving me some time to contemplate what had happened over the past hour. This is apparently the standard way of doing a washing in a fancy hammam outside the tourist areas, and I have to admit that I have never felt that clean. So I probably won’t press charges. Though I might keep to the cheap hammam, where I do the washing and scrubbing myself, for the future.