It’s not this traveller’s custom to go off with strange men in exotic destinations – but in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh, a compelling melange of modern and traditional, Abdeljalil Aït Elhaloui made me an offer I could not refuse.
Abdeljalil (a.k.a. Abdel), the driver of the Petit Taxi I too from the airport to the Sheraton Hotel, exuded the warmth and friendliness that has made the city of Marrakesh the tourism capital of this North African Kingdom. Our chat in French (next to Arabic it’s the country’s second language) turns to the subject of the ancient hammam, the public bathhouse and very much a part of the Moroccan Islamic culture.
I asked for the name of a good, traditional hammam – away from the tourist scene. That’s when Abdul made the offer: ‘my mother will take you,’ he volunteered in French. ‘She goes every day.’ I wondered whether his mother knew he was volunteering her to share a very personal ritual with a stranger he’d literally picked up at the airport, but the offer was too tempting to pass up. We arranged for a morning rendezvous, but before we took off I left his name, cab number and cell phone number at the front desk telling them if I didn’t return by 5 p.m. to send out a search party.
It was as we drove off that Abdul announced a change of plan.. His mother would not be accompanying me; this was a holy day and she was spending the morning in prayer. Instead, his new wife of eight months, Karima, would be my bath mate. Yes, she speaks a bit of French, he advises.
When we arrive where Karima lives with her sister’s family (the couple is saving money for a wedding celebration before she moves in with Abdel’s family) she is still in her pajamas and doesn’t seem too thrilled with the prospect. It’s obvious that this is a surprise. Nevertheless, after a brief discussion with her husband in Arabic she gets dressed in the traditional jellaba and we’re back in the Petit Taxi heading to the neighbourhood hammam a few minutes away. She warms up with a compliment on the beautiful henna designs that cover her hands.
Dating back to the 7th century when Muhammed himself endorsed these sweat baths, Islamic hammams can be found in most Moroccan neighbourhoods. There is usually one for men, another for women but in some cases, like this one, a hammam is shared- women and children in the morning and afternoon, men at night. Unlike the naked co-ed spas of Europe, never do the two sexes mix in hammams.
The Hammam Zahour is housed in a very plain reddish coloured concrete building, the doorway is covered with a bright violet fabric that waves with the breeze. Entrance fee is 7 dirham (about $1.05) per person and there is no time limit. ‘Would I like a massage?’ the attendant asks in Arabic and Abdel translates into French. Price? Only the tip I’m told. Sure, why not?
Just inside, a dimly lit change room is simply furnished with a few wooden benches. Two women, heads covered in traditional dress, are preparing to leave, others are in the various stages of undress, a few are nude and ready to enter the hammam. Following Karima’s lead, I too disrobe. Clothes and bags are left on nearby open shelves watched over by an attendant.
We proceed through an old wooden door where there are three more dimly lit rooms each with high vaulted concrete ceilings, white tiled walls and stone floors – the first one room temperature, the next warm, the last steam-room hot. Sitting on the floor or on small rubber mats that they’ve brought with them, the women, surrounded by buckets of water, are chatting among themselves while bathing themselves, one another and their children. It’s a pleasant, wholesome, social scene and one that I had a very quick glimpse of a few days earlier in Fez.
While in the Fez medina, a Unesco World Heritage Site, our tour guide had pointed out a hammam and the women in our group, asked to see inside. The guide paid the attendant a few dirham and she ushered us in fully clothed and toting cameras into the melange of nude, bathing women who, no surprise, seemed a little shocked to see us tromping in. We looked and left as quickly as we could, a little embarrassed by having intruded. The thought was fresh in my mind and I couldn’t help hoping that the attendant at the Hammam Zahour could not so easily be paid off. I didn’t relish the thought of being turning into an attraction – a nude one at that. In reality, it wasn’t too much of a worry as we were not is a tourist area.
A few smiles, nods and ‘bonjours’ are exchanged as Karima leads me into a corner of the furthest and hottest room. Here, she sets out her rubber mat and plastic bucket filled with bottles of shampoo, soap and other bath amenities that she’s brought from home and motions for me to sit. Once she and the attendant have filled a half dozen buckets with hot water from a nearby tap, we begin to bath using smaller plastic containers to scoop the water from the buckets. There are eight other women plus a few children in this room when we arrive. During the ninety minutes there are a lot of comings and goings.
At one point, Karima dons a rough glove and begins to rub my arms and back then hands it to me so I can continue for myself. It’s about that time that the ‘massage therapist’ enters. She too is nude except for a pair of black undies. From a kneeling position she pulls my arm towards her and starts rubbing with the glove. A massage was what I expected, but a full body exfoliation with something that feels like a pot scrubber was what I got. After about 20 minutes of rubbing, my skin -now a bright pink from the friction and the heat – is screaming ‘stop.’ She’s wanting a tip? I’d pay her to go away. After dousing me with water she moves on to torture someone else.
Karima asks me something. I smile and nod and she pours a container of water over my head. I guess she was asking if I wanted to wash my hair. We continue the process of soaping ourselves then splashing it off with hot water for the next hour or so. At one point Karima gets up goes over to the opposite corner and washes her friend’s back then returns to our mat.
One concern of this public bath house might be the health aspect of sitting here in the flow of someone else’s bath water, but the hammam floor dips slightly towards a centre drain and since most of the women are seated around the edge of the room, the water flows away as quickly as it is poured.
Our bathing ritual wraps up in about 90 minutes. Outside Abdel is waiting to take us back to his mother’s house. Yes, she too is surprised by this unexpected guest, but is nonplused, charming and hospitable, and serves up homemade Moroccan sweets with steaming mint tea (the national drink) in the sitting room of her meticulous home.
At the end of the day, back at the hotel I learned that Abdel’s final surprise was actually on me. As I relate my tale of the day to Jalil Mazouara, guest services manager at the Sheraton (they are about to open an in-house hammam for quests), he tells me that a hammam experience is not less than three hours with a ‘traditional Moslem lady’ moving from the hot to warm to cool room and bathing with certain traditional soaps. He says Karima was probably a more ‘modern Moslem lady.’ His wife Najat takes their two children at least once a week, not just for the bathing (they have a bathroom in their home) but ‘because it is the custom.’
Either Karima was in a rush or I got the edited tourist version of the traditional hammam. Does it really matter? Not a bit. The experience was enlightening, I made new friends and, hey, after 90 minutes of intense bathing with a buddy I’m squeaky clean. It will never become a habit but sometimes it’s worth taking a chance on a stranger in an exotic location.