The Hammam

In 2001, when I was 25 years old, I had the opportunity to travel around the world with my boyfriend for a year.  We spent every single day, 365 days, 24 hours a day, seven days a week together for the entire year minus 2 nights!  In our 11th month of travel we were in Morocco.  It was around Christmas time and I was feeling weary from travel and missing my friends and family.  I was feeling PMS-y, a little depressed.  I wasn’t a newbie. I’d been exploring and having experiences outside of my cultural norm for nearly a year at this point.  I decided I needed to do something for myself, by myself.  I read about the hammam, a bath house, in a travel guide. The description sounded like what I was looking for, an invigorating cleansing.  I gathered my soap and washcloth and sarong and exactly the amount of money the guide book said I needed to bring to the bath house to enter and to get a massage.

During my experience in Morocco, I did not see many women.  They were not working in the hotels, restaurants and cafes or even at the market.  I would see clusters of women walking in the markets to do the shopping all covered from head to toe.  But I hadn’t had any interactions with them. This was to be my first time to be communal with Moroccan women.  The hammam was for women only.  I walked up to a ticket window and purchased my massage and entrance into the bathhouse.  When I walked in to the changing area I was shocked to see many naked women of all different shapes and sizes, but all very different from myself. Feeling shy and rather exposed, I went to a corner and undressed down to my bathing suit bottoms (I was the only one wearing anything at all) and wrapped a sarong around myself.

I walked over to a desk where they would keep my belongings.  No one spoke English.  Only French or Arabic.  I didn’t speak either language, but could understand a little French and say a few words.  The lady at the desk was irritated with me because I was supposed to pay her to keep my things, but I didn’t have any more money. I had only brought enough for the bath and massage (the guidebook didn’t mention this coat-check place!).  As she was arguing with me, a round, jovial woman appeared at my side and argued on my behalf for the woman to take my things.  She reluctantly agreed, but first reached across the counter and snatched the sarong that was carefully wrapped around my body saying that I wouldn’t be needing that.  I was left standing there topless wearing only my bathing suit bottoms and holding my washcloth and bar of soap.
I quickly figured out that the jovial woman was my massage person.  She led me into the bathing area which was a giant walk-in steam room.  It was quite shocking. There were about 60 women off all ages, shapes and sizes in the steam room.  Women and children, friends, grandmothers and their offspring.  They were clustered together in groups or twos washing each other’s hair and backs.  They had dark hair, olive skin and large breasts.  In the center of the room was a trough of water flowing to a drain full of black hair and orange peels.  Women were brushing each others hair and eating oranges to stay hydrated. It was also a very social situation. Women were animated and speaking loudly. Children were laughing.  Clearly, I was not part of this group: tall, thin, blonde-ish and no boobs.  And I was alone.  Very alone.  The hammam is where  everyone came to wash.  They didn’t have a bathtub or shower at their home.  This was their weekly ritual.  In addition to coming in groups, they also came with many toiletries: brushes, shampoo, exfoliating soap and gloves, baskets full of goodies. They had small stools to sit on and little bowls and scoops that they used to pour water on themselves and each other.  I had only my washcloth and bar of soap.  Feeling under-prepared is an understatement.
My round jovial woman walked me to a corner of the room and motioned for me to sit and wait.  She came up to about my shoulder, was wearing a large pair of thinning underwear that came up over the top of her belly and sat beneath her large breasts.  She was topless and her hair was wrapped up in a cloth.  She was very friendly, but left me in the corner with no instruction. I didn’t know what to do.  I looked around and saw the other women scooping up water from bowls and pouring it over their heads.  So I thought I would do that, too.  I squatted down. There was a bowl near me.  So I reached over and scooped some water and poured it on my head.  The woman next to me glared over, pointed her finger and shook it as if to say “No way, that’s my water!” Then she pointed to another area and said in Arabic that I should go get my own.  I felt embarrassed and panicked!  Where was my jovial woman?? Another woman admonished the mean woman for yelling at me. She waved her off and looked at me and said something in Arabic which I’m sure meant “ignore her.” But I was already feeling really uncomfortable and alone.  I felt fragile.I just wasn’t up for this cultural experience and decided to stand up and make a run for the door. Not literally. I tried to walk quickly to the door to leave.  I had forgotten how slick the tile floor was and slipped and fell flat on my back. My long legs sprawled out on the floor.  As I sat up, two young kids stood in front of me staring with mouths open.  I started to cry.
Just as I carefully went to stand up again, my jovial massage woman reappeared again.  She saw my tears and started belly laughing.  She motioned to me that there was nothing to cry about. She helped me up smiling, speaking and laughing and led me by the hand back to the corner.  I cried harder.  Then she sat down, pulled me down to the ground and literally slid me on my bottom between her legs and started dumping water on my head. At this point I was heaving and crying so hard I couldn’t catch my breath.The more I cried, the more she laughed.  I could feel her large breasts jiggling on my back with each of her belly laughs. I had turned into a little baby as she shampooed and washed my hair.  She was speaking in Arabic and French and saying that “no one comes here alone, no solo, only in tourist groups!” She also may have been telling me that I was very brave or a very silly American, but I’m going with brave!  After awhile I stopped crying and started to slowly catch my breath again.
She then wanted me to lay down on the floor (not a very clean floor!!) so that she could scrub, exfoliate and massage me.  I did NOT want my body to touch that floor, but there was no fighting it.  She was pushing me flat and almost forcing me to relax.  She scrubbed my legs and back hard and flipped me over and did the same to my front. When I say exfoliate, I mean vigorous scrubbing and skin flying.  It was intense.  But at last I was shiny, glowing and clean.  I could leave! The crying had stopped and I could almost breathe again without making that hiccup sound that little kids make after a tantrum.
I walked out laser focused willing myself to make it back to the hotel in one piece with no tears. As soon as I stepped out of the bath house that was at the end of a long pedestrian cul de sac, I was faced with hundreds of men sitting outside at the tea houses.  It seemed that all of them felt necessary to call out to me “How was your bath?”  “Did you get a massage?”  “Can I give you a massage?”  “Take me to America?”  I walked briskly, keeping quiet.
When I got back to my hotel.  My boyfriend said with open arms “Hey!  How was it?!”  I burst into tears and said “It was terrible!!”
Each time I share this story I learn something new about myself.  I’ve learned that I am brave and vulnerable and that allows me to have authentic experiences. I’ve wondered what was it that made me cry so much that day?  Many possible answers:  not being part of group, cultural barriers, language barriers, PMS, homesickness, etc. Experiences like this have made me do my best to show empathy and compassion when I see someone struggling to fit in. And I’ve learned that sometimes the things that make us cry at the time, make the BEST stories later!

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