The Hammam

We’ve been out of Peace Corps for a couple months and we’re now partway around the globe from both Morocco and the US. Distant are the memories of our training during our first few months in the country when we felt constantly frozen, indoors or out. During that time bathing could be a hassle, since many families lack water heaters in their homes. We were lucky enough to be placed in a host family where there was hot water, but the ambient temperature in the bathroom was still cold.

In Morocco, in these conditions, showering becomes less and less frequent, and it’s looooong past time that I describe what takes its place: The Hammam. (Incidentally, I write Hammam with “H” and not “h”. Both exist in Arabic, but have slightly different sounds. With my pronunciation, h’s and H’s pretty much all sound like h’s – or is it H’s?)

The Hammam was not a place I looked forward to while preparing for the move to Morocco. I wasn’t scared or nervous or anything like that; it was just that at the time, I considered getting one’s self clean to be an activity best done at home, alone, in a time frame of 5 – 20 minutes. Wait… 20 minutes? That’s WAY too long; conserve some water, already! “But”, you’re thinking, “it’s all toasty warm in my shower and I want to stay in there longer!” There’s a beautiful solution… The Hammam!! I learned during my first step inside that I kind of love them.

So what’s the deal with Hammams? The brief description: it’s a building with a giant fire burning somewhere within. You can often spot a Hammam by the large wood pile nearby.

Hammam wood pile

The fire heats water and this hot water is circulated to various rooms where people come and bath themselves. This much was probably obvious.

On my first Hammam visit, way back during training, I went with my good friend Jeff (a PCV in my training group), his host brother (my host cousin) Mehdi, and Garett (a Volunteer that lived in the town where we had training). Before going to the Hammam we had to gather the appropriate supplies:
• a plastic dipper cup
• sbun l’bldi (soap that is an olive based, menthol-smelling, dark greenish-brown goop)
• l’kis (an abrasive scrubby glove)
• a bag to carry everything

Some folks would include a stool or plastic mat in that list, but the Hammam we visited provided stools.

At the front of the Hammam was a little ticket box-like window, and two doors. One of the doors was propped open, the other was closed and surrounded by opaque glass. Without being able to read the Arabic signs overhead, it was easy to determine which was the men’s and which the women’s entrance. Many Hammams have a picture to indicate this.

Hammam entrance

We purchased our tickets at the window, 13 dirhams each (about $1.30 US) and went inside and upstairs. At the top of the stairs we opened a door and stepped into the changing room. It was steamy and hot; more so when compared to the weather outside. The changing room had benches around the walls with hooks above them for hanging your clothes. In front of the door into the changing room a man sat at a table and took our tickets as we entered. He kept an eye on the empty buckets stacked to the side of the table and we gave him our watches and glasses for safe keeping. We hung our clothes, grabbed a few buckets and our Hammam supplies, and stepped into the first of three Hammam rooms.

If I had thought the changing room was steamy, then the Hammam rooms were like wet hot hell.

We followed Mehdi through room 1: hot.

We passed through room 2: Hot!!

We stepped into room 3: HOT!!

The heat was the only thing I could think of. It was like a wet hot slap to the face; but across my whole body. How many times can I use the word hot? Not enough to describe room 3. “There’s no WAY that I’m going to stay in this room”, I swore to myself. I was wrong.

The room was about 7-8 meters by 15-20 meters. The walls and floor were tiled and overhead the ceiling was arched. The entirety of one short wall was taken up by two waist-high basins with a faucet above each. One hot, one cold. There was a large bottle cut in half, to fill our buckets with whatever mixture of hot and cold water we preferred. With buckets filled, we found empty space across the room and proceeded to splash hot water across the stool, the wall behind it, and the floor below it. Sterilizing one’s Hammam area; safety first? Next, we sat down and used our dipper cups to pour hot water over ourselves.

Now, maybe this is a good time to mention appropriate Hammam attire. If you’re imagining a bunch of naked guys sitting around a steamy room… Stop thinking about naked guys! Gotcha! But, seriously, nudity isn’t the norm in the Hammam. Not even in the changing room as I learned. Boxers, briefs, speedos, bathing suit shorts; any of these are seen in the men’s Hammam. No full nudity. The first time I went to the Hammam I was using a small travel towel and it didn’t quite stretch all the way around my waist. I got some strange looks as I struggled to successfully change clothes and hold the towel around my waist to cover myself. That’s how changing is done. No full nudity.

So there I sat pouring hot water over my head and thinking about how long it would take for my underwear to dry afterwards. After adequately dousing myself with the gloriously hot water, it was time to move on to the next step. Sbun l’bldi, as I listed above, is a dark greenish brown goop. It’s made of olives and has a strong menthol scent. The four of us shared a small container and slathered ourselves with it, rubbing it in to our skin. We left that to sit for a few minutes, and then rinsed off. Now, with skin properly softened from the sbun, it was time for l’kis – the scrubby glove. We used l’kis all over ourselves, scrubbing dead skin from head to toe… Except for our backs. That’s where you need a friend. If you’re in the Hammam alone, asking someone else (a stranger) to scrub you back is no problem; it’s expected. Mehdi scrubbed my back, but it felt more like a belt sander. There are tales of PCV’s getting scrubbed raw by their host-fathers in the Hammam. Mehdi showed us the dead skin he had scrubbed off, proudly. Truly, a Hammam scrubbing is a deeper clean than I’d ever felt before.

After the scrubbing, we rinsed off again, with some of us refilling our buckets from the other end of the room. In bare feet or with slippers, the floor was wet and slick. Carrying 2 buckets full of hot water back to our seats was tricky. Added to this was the fact that everyone in the room was watching everything we did. We were being quietly judged and sometimes not quietly at all, but openly. One particular thing on which we were judged was the temperature of the water in our buckets. The proper mix of hot and cold water seemed vitally important, with each man carefully feeling and adjusting until just right. At some point Jeff discovered that it was much more pleasant to have a bucket full of hot water and bucket full of cooler water. We could cool ourselves off a little with a splash when we got too hot. The Moroccans did not approve of this technique, however. Rapid changes in temperature of things touching or going into your body seem to be against the cultural norms here. Every time we used the cooler water, Mehdi would quickly express his outrage if a single drop fell on him.

The last part of the Hammam bathing was just like a regular bath. We soaped up with normal bath soap, shampooed and washed ourselves off. With all of this finished we went to the changing room, returned our buckets, reclaimed our watches and glasses, got dressed and left. Actually, I should say that we covered our heads and then left. Along the lines of the temperature change taboo mentioned above, covering one’s head is a must when leaving the Hammam.

The first time we went to the Hammam this entire process lasted about 3 hours. We left the house around 7 pm and returned at 10. What took so long, you ask? Well, in between bathing and enjoying the hot break from the cold weather, there was a lot of talking and more laughing. I hadn’t previously looked forward to the experience, but in the end I was the first to ask when we were going again!

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