I had always wondered about the Moroccan hammam. I had experienced all kinds of fancy scrub treatments in Vietnam, Thailand and Oman, and I had been in saunas and steam rooms. But I had never been in a traditional hammam steam bath. So in Morocco I decided that my time for a hammam had come at last.
The first large town we came to in Morocco was Essaouira, so I booked myself in for an hour, but the experience was rather poor. Steam was blown in through a pipe, but the clouds of mist and the room generally were cool. So when we arrived to Marrakech I did some more careful research to find a traditional place where the locals go.
Traditional Moroccan Hammam
I discovered that entrance to a local hammam costs around 10 dhs ($1) but at this price, you bring your own soap, kessa glove and flip-flops. Also you carry your own water and wash yourself, or pay one of the attendants extra to wash you.
The traditional Moroccan hammam I chose was more foreigner-friendly. Still comprising hot steam rooms and serving the locals, it also offered visitors a 150 dhs ($15) service including soap, towel, flip flops and attendant service.
This was the one for me. I felt it would be much more of the real experience than anything I had received before on my travels. I left Nick with the girls at the gateway of the Hammam Mouassine https://goo.gl/maps/Gei2n4jTC4jy5ggE8 in the depths of Marrakech Souq.
First challenge: The entrance to Hammam Mouassine was labelled for men. So where is the ladies entrance? I asked, with my broken French. Yes, I had the ambition to learn French a few years back, but that had taken me to the level of “Je ne comprends pas.”
Men sitting by the entrance pointed me in the direction an unlabelled corridor. I squeezed past some building materials and then a gang of workmen cooking scrambled eggs in a small pot. Patting myself on the back for having already ventured well outside my comfort zone of five star hotel spas and cosy Far-Eastern boutiques, I found the ladies entrance.
Entering the Hammam
Clutching the basket and towel issued at Reception, I went on to the room where I was told I should change. It was an enormous rectangular space with stone benches and some cushions. While wondering how much should I undress, an old Moroccan woman appeared. She was wearing only a turban, a loincloth and a smile which revealed several missing teeth. She wrapped my towel around me, and immediately I was feeling even more bizarre and confused. Such old women on the street would typically be totally covered. Here she was already more naked than me. I thought that I come from a less prudish country than this, and yet I was hiding behind a towel. She was completely unselfconscious in her crinkly skin.
“Relax, girl” I told myself, “and follow this woman.” We passed through the another room where Moroccan ladies were sitting on benches quite naked. They were surrounded by big buckets of water and chatting to each other while washing themselves.
I was led to the third and hottest room, where others were already spreadeagled on the floor. All were completely naked. Realizing that I should have removed my undies, I did so and obediently lay down naked on the stones. Again that bizarre feeling came over me; the only comparable feeling for my compatriots would be lying in your own bathroom so drunk that staring at the ceiling from the hard floor would seem like a good idea. My reverie was interrupted as my attendant smeared warm black soft soap onto my body.
Moroccan Hammam – Experience The Kessa Glove
After she finished. I was left alone to contemplate again. A serene feeling of happiness washed over me. This was new and strange, but it felt good and right. My contentment evaporated when my semi-naked companion reappeared wearing a large kessa glove. This is an abrasive contraption and she used it with all the gusto of someone determined to re-surface an old floor. She commanded me to roll over and scrubbed my back and legs, then I had to roll again so she could scrape and scratch my front – oh my poor boobs! Then she took my hand and guided it to my hip where I could feel layers of scrubbed-off skin still clinging to my surprised flesh. Is this how snakes feel?
It transpired that we weren’t done yet. She poured water over me from one of the big buckets, and started scrubbing again. This time she scraped away everywhere, including all the nooks and crannies of my poor body which might have escaped her attention the first time.
I was now pink and tender from top to toe. I believe I must have lost at least a kilo of dead skin. Once again, she dowsed me with a bucketful of water and left me to rest.
Presently, she was back again and this time she rubbed me all over with an argan oil skin-conditioner. Now I felt even smoother and truly silky.
Leaving the Hammam
I floated back to the changing room. While I was pulling old sweaty trousers over my ever-so-smooth legs, an old Moroccan lady came in and started undressing layer after layer, scarf after scarf. All the while she chatted away with other ladies. She was clearly at ease in her old-lady underwear, and suddenly again I felt shy. We learn our various shynesses. I had learned something of this in Icelandic swimming pools, and again this very different culture was teaching me new lessons.
I zipped my pants, put my tee-shirt on and left to catch up with the kids who were exploring Marrakech. My Moroccan hammam had been quite an experience, weird and wonderful.
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