Toole Castle on the Gulf of Finland [again, courtesy of the panorama setting on my camera]

Friday, November 12, 2010

Into the Hamam

It's half past 11 p.m. in the Medina of Fez, and I'm face down on the floor of a public bathhouse, while a man whose name I don't even know works up a lather on my back and scrubs me down with a brillo-pad glove. This is my friendly neighborhood Hamam, and my very first (much needed) bath since coming to Morocco. My host father is the aforementioned nameless man. Already I've been a week in his home and I still don't know what to call him. I've heard him referred to as Baba a few times, which is the Darija equivalent of "Daddy." I have yet to adopt this cutesy term of endearment, but I'll need to figure out some name for him soon. As a rule, people don't really introduce themselves by name in this family. I think this is because everyone comes and goes with such regularity, formal greetings and goodbyes aren't necessary. It's basically understood that you will see the other person again, and probably within a couple of hours. 

Anyway, back to the Hamam. Also known as a Turkish bathhouse, the Hamam is a public place where people come to relax, socialize, and get clean. Hamams are segregated by sex; ours is for men from 6 am to noon, for women and small children from 12 until 9, and then for men again from 9 until midnight. Just about every neighborhood in the Medina has a Hamam. My family--like many in the Medina--doesn't have a shower in the house, so everyone goes to the Hamam once a week--twice a week in the summer. And if you think one shower per week is not enough, you clearly have not been to a Hamam.

And until now, neither have I.

I am completely clueless in the Hamam, so I mostly keep a sharp eye on my host dad and try to do as he does. First we grab about eight big blue buckets, and line up with some other men by a fountain of hot water. We fill our buckets and then find a spot in the corner of the room. We dump out a bucket of water on the floor, and then sit in the hot puddle. The bath has begun. From his toiletry kit my host father procures a sandwich bag full of what looks like axle grease. He slaps a handful into my palm and mimes a scrubbing motion on his body. I follow suit. Every few minutes he dumps a bucket of water over me, while I frantically scrub at myself, trying to work up a lather and rinse off within the same bucketload.

Then it's time for the scouring.

Shick. Shiick. Shiiiiickk. This is the sound of me losing skin. As my father labors away across my hide, I notice white flecks on my bathing shorts--spongy crumbs of sluffed off skin. The novel experience of being vigorously scrubbed in a public place is complicated by the fact that I'm not sure if this is customary, or if I'm receiving special treatment. Do all Hamam-goers help each other in this way, or is this process usually reserved for infants and the infirm? There's no way to know, so I might as well just enjoy it while it lasts. This proves more difficult than it sounds--my host father scrubs very hard. It's no problem for most parts of the body, but he gets really overzealous with the armpits and the collarbone area, two very tender spots.

The shower chamber is a large vaulted room of glossy green and umber tile. It's clouded with steam, and cluttered with the clatter of men maneuvering their plastic buckets and toiletry kits. Two young men sit together in the corner, several blue five-gallon buckets of hot water by their side. They look on, probably curious and amused to see this pasty Westerner in a Hamam for the very first time. My host father taps my shoulder and gives me a smirk, nodding toward the men as if to say, "look, you have an audience," then dutifully continues to scrape off several pounds of my flesh.

After that, my host father retreats to the other room to scrub himself (so I was getting special treatment back there) and I sit amongst our buckets, following the example set by other men and massaging my legs, arms, and chest. Then we shampoo, followed by one last scrubbing, this time with a softer sponge. By the end, I'm pruney, pink, and thoroughly refreshed.


  1. steve! this is an AWESOME story! i was there with you. ...kind of. is that weird to say? well, you know what i mean. awesome writing.

  2. I'm glad your sister linked me to this - very interesting to read! I think group bathing is really underappreciated here in the states.

  3. " this process usually reserved for infants and the infirm?"

    Hysterical. I can picture this scene and that thought running through your head perfectly. Way to stick it out with the mildly embarrassing new cultural practice. So proud.

    I love study abroad.