Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Moroccan Hamam

I went to the hamam, a public steam bath, for the first time yesterday, and it was wonderful. (Okay, so I almost passed out, but that was due to user error, and I fully expect my next trip to be fine. Turns out, exhaustion and health related dehydration [remember that gastrointestinal distress I mentioned before] plus extreme temperatures isn’t the best combination, though honestly, I could have passed out and it would still have worth it to be this clean.)

Hamams are common in Morocco and all across North Africa. Almost all Moroccan towns have at least one small hamam, and going to the hamam is common. Most Moroccan homes don’t have showers (or even hot water), so lots of Moroccans make due with bucket baths during the week, and go to the hamam once a week for a good scrub. It’s about more than just bathing though. Going to the hamam is a social event, and friends will go and spend a few hours at the baths the way American teenagers might go to the mall or a café to hang out. (Only, you know, everyone is naked. And people think Muslim cultures are repressed.)

I went to the hamam with Kim (a fellow PCT), Soukayna (my host sister) and Fatima (my Arabic teacher*). When we got the hamam, we paid our fee and Kim and I bought ssabun lbldi (special soap made from olive resin) and l-kiis (the abrasive washcloth used for exfoliating), then went to the changing room, where we stripped down to our underwear (and just underwear, not underwear and bra). Right, the whole naked thing. You’re naked at the hamam. Naked around other ladies (hamams are segregated by gender) and the people you came with. You will see other women naked and other people – total strangers and people from the neighborhood – will see you naked. Some women even go sans-underwear. Nudity is such a non-issue at the hamam, and once I was in the steam room, I almost immediately felt comfortable, but I still had to steal myself (gird my loins, if you will) before taking off my bra in the middle of a crowded changing room, and I spent the past two years going to the Korean public baths, which are also sans-clothes and privacy.

So, once we were properly naked (and possible hiding behind our stools, like Kim), we entered the steam rooms. There were three rooms, ranging from super hot and humid to regular type hot and humid, but all of them were hot enough for my hair to immediately go POOF. We went to the hottest room to fill up our buckets (decent sized buckets, probably as tall as my knee) with water, and then retreated to the medium heat room to claim a corner and wash. First, using small cups, we wet ourselves and rubbed the sabun lbldi, which looks like a thick, black goo, all over our bodies. We let it sit for a few minutes, rinsed it off and then, using the kiis, began exfoliating. I like to think I keep myself fairly clean, but I’ve never done a full body exfoliation before and I was amazed by how much dead skin came off. It reminded me of those deep cleaning pore strips every girl used on their noses in middle school: you’re horrified by how dirty you were, but every pore strip filled with gunk (or in this case, l-kiss covered in a white film of dead skin) makes you feel virtuous and proud, because at least you’re no longer that dirty. Scrubbing took a long time, probably close to an hour, which I didn’t think was possible when Fatima told us about the hamam in class. I just kept scrubbing, and the kiss kept coming back with dead skin on it. Turns out, my armpits were full of dead skin. (Sorry, that’s probably TMI.)

After about an hour at the hamam, I started getting dizzy. I’m sick, sleeping poorly, not eating much and thanks to last weeks bout of gastrointestinal distress, I’m just a little dehydrated, none of which is good when combined with long periods in a hot steam room. I stumbled out of the baths and spent twenty or so minutes sitting on a bench in the changing area until the world stopped spinning around me, and then took the rest of my bath in cold water in an attempt to keep my body temperature down. It felt like such waste, since I’ve missed hot water so much, and when I finally had an unlimited supply of it, I couldn’t use it. Next time I go to the hamam, I’ll make sure to drink plenty of water during the day and eat lunch, and I’m sure I’ll be fine. And there will definitely be a next time. I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so clean, and it was the first time I’ve felt completely clean since arriving in Morocco. Plus, my skin was noticeable softer today, even my elbows, which are normally dry and rough. I want to make going to the hamam a regular part my life here.

  • I’m glad I went with Moroccans, because I would have been a bit lost by myself, and the hamam might be the one place where I don’t feel comfortable looking around to see what other people are doing.

  • Soukayna and Fatima brought stools and a plastic mat so they wouldn’t have to sit on the ground, which was nice.

  • Bring a spare pair of underwear. Most people bring an entire change of clothes (my host mom was horrified that I came home from the hamam in the same clothes I wore there), but the underwear is the essential part, since the underwear you wear to the hamam will be soaked.

  • You can pay more to have an employee scrub you. I opted to scrub myself the first time, but at some point I’d like to experience a true hamam experience.

  • There’s usually a separate area for shaving. Look around and see what other people are doing before you whip out the razor.

  • I’m serious about the water. I bought a liter and a half bottle of water on the way home, killed it in an hour, and still slept through the night without having to wake up and pee. I was pretty seriously dehydrated.

  • *An aside about Fatima. She’s 25, making her the youngest person in our language group. She’s feisty and independent and confident and ambitious and everything America’s perception of women in Islamic country isn’t. She can speak six languages, has absolutely beautiful English that is being corrupted by our horrible American slang (we taught her the proper way usage of duh and the word doohickey today) and just got accepted into a graduate program in Fes. She can wear a pair of purple and green paisley parachute pants and make it work. Yesterday Jenn commented on how cute Fatima was and I agreed, saying that Fatima could hold a baby panda and still not be any cuter, that she has reached maximum cuteness. I’m really glad she’s my teacher.

    1 comment:

    1. so exciting to read your blog posts and follow you on this new adventure. i agree about the scrub...i got an adjuma scrub in korea at the jimjilbang and LOVED it. i felt like a new woman once the dead skin was all gone. so good. i recommend trying it one day--having an employee scrub you. weird at first, but so nice to have someone get all the parts you cannot. loving your adventure!!!