14 Jan Unexpected Adventures in a Moroccan Bathhouse
We did what was customary.
As soon as Saadia and I were well within the vestibule of her neighborhood’s bathhouse, the local hammam, we paid the bath attendant and took all our clothes off, except for our underwear. This one item, my friend had instructed me, women kept on.
“You can wash the garment with your body and all of you comes out clean,” Saadia said, laughing.
She had told me plenty about the weekly ritual of visiting a bathhouse. Bathhouses are a regular part of Moroccan life: People customarily visit them at least once a week to get thoroughly steamed, scrubbed, massaged, and washed clean.
Saadia forgot to mention, however, that for our visit, not only would I be the only foreigner, but for a bathhouse in a neighborhood so off the tourist track, I would likely be the only foreign visitor in recent memory.
We were in Mohammedia, a port city on the Atlantic Ocean, just north of Casablanca. While staying with Saadia and her family for the weekend, I began to fold into her weekend rituals: visiting the bathhouse, getting our hair done at Saadia’s friend Suad’s salon, going out to dinner together. It was a typical urban Moroccan weekend with girlfriends.
– – –
We handed our clothes to the bath attendant, who stored them on a shelf behind her. A stack of rentable plastic buckets sat on the floor next to her, but Saadia had brought her own. In addition to three buckets, she had packed loofah-like bath gloves, towels, shampoo, and that coveted Moroccan black soap that not only cleans, but also prepares the skin for exfoliation. We paid five dirhams (less than a dollar) each and walked into a room of steam.
This was the bigger of the two blue and white tiled rooms that made up the bathhouse. It had a shallow pool in the center with spigots that delivered water either scalding hot or ice cold. Women were gathered on the tile floor all around the pool: They were chatting and relaxing, scrubbing each other’s backs and rinsing each other’s hair. The other room was smaller and steam-less, where the women went to dry off before gathering their clothes and returning home.
I stuck close to Saadia, my trusted guide, but I noticed that as soon as we entered the big room, the loud, bubbling conversation dropped to a sudden hush. Many eyes fell on me, all of me.
I made furtive glances through the stares and noticed every body type, skin color, and age: the natural human body appeared in every stage of the life cycle, including the eighth month of pregnancy. I willed myself to relax.
We’re all naked here, I said to myself.
Saadia and I staked out a spot and lay down our towels, exfoliating mitts, soap and shampoo. We took two of our buckets to the spouts, filling one with hot water and the other with cold. We carried them back to our spot and mixed the hot and cold waters in the third bucket. We doused ourselves with pleasingly warm water and then lathered up our bodies, shampooed our hair, and rinsed. Then we began to scrub ourselves pink, helping each other with our backs, then doing one final rinse with cold water, “to close the pores and invigorate the skin,” as Saadia said.
While we did all this, the other women looked at me less and less, and the din of conversation grew more and more.
But after Saadia and I made our final rinse and were about to head into the dry room, two women — a mother and her teenage daughter — came over and addressed my friend. They exchanged the usual greetings and established who was related to whom in the neighborhood, a chain of connectedness that motivated their next queries.
“Your friend is a foreigner, yes?” The mother asked.
“Yes,” Saadia said.
“Is she married?” The daughter asked.
“Alas, yes,” Saadia said.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” replied the daughter. “She’s my brother’s type and he is looking for a wife.”
The group exchanged a few more pleasantries and then the two women returned to their mats.
“Is this normal?” I asked, once they were out of earshot.
It wasn’t out of the ordinary at all, Saadia explained. How else would a man know what a woman looked like, if he didn’t have female kin looking out for his interests?
“And vice versa,” she added. Male kin were looking out for their sisters’ interests too, in the men’s bathhouse — just to be sure a guy was what he was cracked up to be before marriage vows were exchanged.
As it turned out, bathhouses are as much social as practical: They are where Moroccans exchange news and gather information, all while masterful plumbing and spa techniques cleanse their skin and smooth their muscles.
– – –
Years later I returned to Morocco as an older — still married — woman, teaching travel writing and anthropology to an American college group on a three-week tour of the country. When it came time to visit the neighborhood bathhouse where I was staying in Fez, I was sure that this time, I would not receive a marriage proposal.
More relaxed, I stepped in, paid the attendant, and stripped down, but for the important undergarment. I lathered up with black soap, rinsed, and then sat in a sauna, waiting for the attendant to come lay me on a marble table to scrub my skin and pummel my muscles. As I waited, I met Najma, a woman in her forties with shoulder-length, henna-dyed hair who smiled at me warmly as she talked.
We discovered that we both loved to travel. She had been to various regions of Africa and had lived for a while in Avignon, France. She was setting her sights on New York and Montreal next.
“Is it hard to apply for a US visa?” she asked.
“No harder than anywhere else,” I replied, thinking of Morocco’s visa process.
When I told her I was an avid reader, she told me she read Camus and Balzac. When I realized I had forgotten my shampoo, she loaned me hers. By the end of our conversation, she had made sure I had her recipe for the perfect fish tajine and the address of the best place in Fez to buy a silk caftan.
When the attendant came to get me and I said good-bye, I realized I had underestimated the power of the bathhouse: It wasn’t just about getting clean or about getting a husband. It was a place with clear rules and elegant aesthetics; it allowed people to let their hair down, relax, and learn; it left them squeaky clean, knot free, silken skinned, and with new recipes, reading lists, and plans for silk caftans.
As was customary.
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