By Bella Pori
Studying abroad in your junior year means you have the opportunity to potentially do very unique things on your 21st birthday. For my 21st birthday, instead of going out to a bar or out to a party, I got bathed by an old Moroccan woman.
Allow me to explain. I studied abroad in Morocco, where most people forego showers in lieu of public baths. When people imagine public baths, they likely envision a large tub with steam, and perfumed soaps, where people soak together, like a hot tub, in a luxurious spa-like setting. Or they imagine the well known gay sex clubs of San Francisco and New York, which are a whole other subject.
A Moroccan public bath (or a hammam, if you want to be bilingual) is neither of those.
Instead, it’s three cement rooms, each hotter than the last, with faucets. People sit on small stools, often accompanied by big plastic buckets, and you can purchase special henna (soap? Paste? Attempts to figure out what this object was were not successful across a language barrier) but you’re expected to come with your own soap, shampoo, and scrubber. To set the scene: it’s a bunch of naked women either lying flat on the steaming floor, or perched on small stools, in an overheated, often overcrowded, room. There are no perfumed soaps, there are no rose petals, and there is certainly no gay sex.
At the hammam, I stripped down in what was basically a locker room, but way worse. I was a head taller and about 14 shades lighter than everyone in the room, and I stuck out like a big, white sore thumb. Plus, you need your hands to hold your stool, bucket, and bathing supplies, leaving no hands to cover your bathing suit areas. While it would be considered odd to wear any sort of bra or top, mercifully, thanks to a loving God, underwear is fine.
So there I was, newly 21, standing fully naked except for my underwear, and being led through a hammam by my very short host mother and her…friend? Niece? I never did figure out how this woman was related to my host mom. Yet another thing that was lost in translation.
Kindly, the ladies bought me some henna/soap, and while my host mother set up her hammam station in the second room, her friend took me to the third room, saying something to the effect of “come on, this is the best room!” I, being a dumb American, and momentarily forgetting how much I dislike the heat, followed.
Each room in the hammam is progressively hotter and this third room was approximately 7,500 degrees fahrenheit—and that is probably a conservative estimate. It was so hot, I wondered if I had died from heatstroke and been sent to Hell to live out eternity in the hottest room known to mankind. To make matters worse, my host mother’s friend left me alone on my stool while she filled my bucket with equally hot water.
What possessed me to stay in the hot room while I rubbed henna all over myself and rinsed it off with water that felt like it was from a Yellowstone geyser? Well first, I wasn’t completely confident that I could find my host mother in the larger second room. Second, I didn’t really know how to say “this is too hot, I am leaving” and I thought it would be awkward to just stand up and leave. Third, it was so hot, my thighs melted to my stool, and I wasn’t sure I was physically capable of standing up.
Eventually, I could stand the heat no longer. I stood up (thighs thankfully unsticking) and did a pantomime of waving my face from the heat, hoping that friend-neice would get the idea, and let me leave. On an unrelated note, this is the second most awkward pantomime I did in my time in Morocco, chiefly because I was not wearing a shirt. The most awkward pantomime is also a story for another time.
Back with my host mother, I was in for a reality check. See, I thought I had been doing a good job with my little scrubber, taking off a whole lot of dead skin. My skin turned pretty pink, and the heat was opening my many pores. My host mother kindly offered to scrub my back, and I figured it would be nice to have a hammaming expert help me get my back clean. And besides, who doesn’t love a good back rub?
Huge mistake. That woman scrubbed my back like she was punishing me for the ~400 years of imperialism inflicted by my country. If I knew how to cry Uncle in the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, I would have. As it was, all I could do was grit my teeth and pray that she didn’t scrub right down to the bone. After all the tough scrubbing, soaping up with my loofa felt like the gentle kiss of an angel. My host mother also helped me wash my hair, and as she dragged a comb through it to get out the tangles, I found myself transported back to my days as a six year old, and wished desperately for some No More Tears shampoo.
There may or may not have been tears, which I will never divulge. I have my pride. Also, no one would have been able to tell, I was still sweating like I had just run a marathon. Other than the mild heatstroke, the back pain, and the first degree burn I got from accidentally touching the hot water before mixing it with cold, I made it out the hammam unscathed.
And I will admit, I never felt cleaner than I did that night of my 21st birthday. My skin felt like a newborn babe’s, my hair has never been softer, and I felt like I sweat out every bad thought I have ever had. I long for a place where it is ok to just sit and scrub myself, so I can feel that cleanliness again. In another life, I could have settled for a cold beer to celebrate my coming-of-age night—but this makes for a better story. And sometimes, after a particularly sweaty New York day, I even wish my host mother could scrub my back down to the bone again.
**Please note: the bath house featured above looks nothing like a traditional Moroccan hammam–fooled you, didn’t we?