Pleasures of the Hammam

When I tell friends about my hammam experiences in Morocco, they tend to look at me with serious side eye. The most common question: Why in the world would you flop around on a tiled floor, nearly naked while a perfect stranger scrubs you all over until you are pink and slick like a seal?!

The reality is that in order to really experience the culture of Morocco, one must experience a hammam. For those who don’t know, a hammam is a traditional bathhouse. Unlike most things traditional, hammams are still very much in use and part of everyday life. With water scarce in much of the country, many homes do not have showers. Or if they have one, there may not be hot water. So, public baths are a necessity.

Paula, Susan and I have been to several hammams, both in small villages as well as in larger cities. So far, my favorite experience was in the village of Merzouga, in the eastern part of the country near the Algeria border. It was my first hammam and fills me with so many fond memories. We also visited a more spa-like one at a hotel in Essaouira and another in a town in the southwestern part of the country. They were all generally similar but each had its own personality, if you will.

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Black olive soap, semi-solid, with a very special fruited scent

Hammams are either men only, women only or have different hours for each. You walk into a large dressing room with benches, often with a counter where you can purchase soaps and scrubby mitts. You pay about 15 to 20 dirhams (about $1.50 to $2 U.S.), strip down to your underwear and hand over your clothes to an attendant where they are stored in a cubby hole. You are then led into a hot, tiled room where you are sometimes given a rubber matt or stool to sit on. Unless you are in a private hammam, there may be others there bathing with you. This is most likely to occur on Thursdays or Friday mornings before the Muslim sabbath. If you have hired an attendant, she is also stripped down to her underwear, which is at first quite awkward.

The attendant starts by filling a plastic pail (like a child uses at the beach) with warm water and pours it over you to wet you down. She then covers you with a smelly black soap made from olives and olive oil. It is not the best smelling stuff, but it’s definitely one of those things that grows on you. Sometimes the soap, which doesn’t get sudsy, is left on for a few minutes to loosen the dead skin. The attendant then dons a scrubby mitt and proceeds to scrub, usually starting with the arms and working to all parts of the body. At first, this is awkward. I found myself being quite tense at first, not quite knowing what to expect or what to do with my body parts, not knowing the language very well and having a hard time hearing with the weird acoustics of the hot tiled room. In addition, there are times where your hand may graze the attendant’s body. But eventually I just closed my eyes, let the heat wash over me, relaxed and just gave in to the experience.

Throughout the 45-minute session, you may be asked to lie down, flip over or lie on one side or another. Susan best described it as “flopping around like a baby seal.” If you open your eyes, you will most likely see blobs of dark skin sloughing off your body. It’s quite normal, and if the attendant doesn’t see it, she will often start scrubbing harder until it does. (This is problematic if you have more than one hammam a week, which Paula and I did on the last trip. Paula had to ask her helper to not scrub quite so hard!) Once you’ve been scrubbed, you are rinsed off with pails of water, and then your hair is shampooed and rinsed.

Depending on the hammam, this may be followed by a gentle stretching session, a massage or even a Rhassoul mud treatment. During the final rinse, your underwear is removed, rinsed out and returned to you and you are escorted back to the front room to dry off and get dressed while you bask in the glow and relaxation.

Our guide Abdul summed it up best: A hammam makes you feel like a new person. And when you are clean on the outside, you are able to feel clean on the inside.—Stacey Wigmore