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The Turkish Bath (in Fes)

MOROCCO | Monday, 16 June 2014 | Views [381]

The zeroeth room of the Hammam is just like any changing room in the U.S., with one notable exception: you don't exactly change in there. You take off all of your clothing except your underwear and, at the end of your visit, you put on all new clothing. Once that is done, leave behind everything that you'd be upset about getting wet and take only a bowl, your scrubby-glove thing, shampoo, soap, conditioner, etc. Tie everything else in a bag and put it away in a compartment. If you wear glasses, put those away as well, since the Hammam will be very steamy.

 There are different kinds of Hammams, but all have three rooms. The hot room, the warm room, and the cool room.

 For the Hammam in Fes, you sit down in one room and stay there. You sit down in front of a bucket, and other women will come up and fill it with water from the three rooms. If you speak enough Darija, you can play a game of “hotter, colder” to get the perfect temperature. Otherwise, you need to need to hope that it ends up close enough.

 You're supposed to dip your bowl in the bucket in front of you and then poor the water over yourself. There are drains in the floor, so although the ground is perpetually wet, the ground never gathers. The feeling of warm water running down your shoulders. Buckets of water aren't typically dumped on you, but when they are they have a tendency to be cold. Even if they were warm, the outside air would quickly make your skin (and clothing) cold. But without clothing to worry about, and with the warmth and steam of the rooms, the experience is purely soothing. It feels the way a waterfall sounds.

 Once you've poured several bowls of water over you, it's time to apply soap. The soap is black and made from olive oil. By itself, and in large quantities it smells terrible, but the scent isn't strong enough that you can smell it without trying. The soap wants to stick to itself, so you need to use your fingernails to dig some out.

 It works like a quick-dissolving bar soap. You rub it all over your body. Once it's on you, it starts to smell like the Mediterranean black olives you can find at any Moroccan meal. It makes your skin shiny, and even more slippery then it was before, a fact you notice as you try and switch legs so you can soap your left leg. You continue rubbing the soap in until the section you took is all gone.

 You rinse the soap off with more bowls of water and wait for your turn to be scrubbed down. Occasionally, perhaps following the example of others around you, you will fill the bowl with water again and pour it over yourself. At some point you realize that this is to keep the skin wet. If it dries off, the scrubbing will hurt even more than it would otherwise.

 Every time you feel your back to see if you have still on it, you can feel a small chunk. So you fill your bowl with water and pour it down your back. Then you feel again, and there's still a chunk. It's not until you really look at your fingers that you realize they've become prunes that you stop trying. The soap has probably been washed off.

 It's now your turn to be scrubbed. You hand the woman your glove and sit in front of her. The “glove” is square and roughly the texture of a dish scrubber. Once the woman starts rubbing, it begins to feel more like steel wool.

 She doesn't scrub your face, underneath hair, the palms of your hands, or the soles of your feet. The last part is a shame, because those are the only parts tough enough that they wouldn't be hurt by the vigorous scrubbing she is giving you.

 She keeps motioning when she wants you to move. Each time, her hands rotate and spin over each other. This can mean “lie down,” “go on your left side,” “go on your right side,” “lie on your back,” “stretch your leg out,” “switch legs,” or “sit up.” Hopefully you were paying some attention to the other people, because that's your best chance of interpreting what you're supposed to do next.

 As if the scrubbing weren't painful enough, at one point she yanks back your arm farther than it wants to go so that she can scrub the skin underneath. She does this again a minute later on the other arm, and it hurts less, though you can't tell if that's because your left arm is more flexible, or because you were prepared for it.

 You look down and notice what looks like dried paper clinging to you. You try and touch it, but your fingers have spent so much time surrounded by water they've lost all sensitivity. The woman isn't using paper, or soap, or anything that would come off the glove. Oh. That's dead skin. Some of it was still alive when you walked into the Hammam.

 Sometimes she pours a bowl of water over you. This time it doesn't feel relaxing.

 Finally, she is done. “Ca va?” She asks. What does she expect you to respond? “Excusez-moi, mais est-ce aue vous repetez avec plus de force cette fois?” No. You force a smile and manage to remember “choakaran” before scurrying away. Your skin is red.

 Now it's time to put in shampoo. This can be your favorite brand brought from outside. It's the most chemicals you will sue for this bath.

 Once you wash that out (without getting any in your eyes. Good luck) you get an explanation of the conditioner you will be using today. “It's soil, and roses, and flowers, and herbs, and other things that are really good for your hair.”

 Once, someone had told you that the purpose of shampoo was to get “dirt and gunk” out of your hair, and conditioner was “dirt and gunk,” so that's why you should always put in shampoo before conditioner. Until today, you had never realized that that could be taken literally.

 You mis the “conditioner” with water to make it more liquid, then rub it through your hair. Then you rub it on your body too, for no reason other then you were told to, and this is such an unfamiliar environment that you do whatever you're told.

 You make a mental note never to go to hot springs in Finland. “I don't know what to do, but at leas tit water is nice and warm. Wait, everyone else is jumping into near-freezing water? Well, I'm not sure what else I could do...”

 You once again pour buckets of water over your hair but not into your eyes, and over the rest of your body. If you do a good job of washing out your hair, then once your hair dries it should feel nice and soft. If you do a bad job, then once it dries it will feel like you rubbed mud into it.

 Next comes henna. Unlike the other times you might use henna, this time it shouldn't cause any significant cosmetic change. It's supposed to sooth the skin that just lost a layer or two, and end by making it feel soft. Men get neither this nor soil-conditioner, so they usually finish earlier.

 Finally, rinse yourself off a final time. One of the women responsible for scrubbing and filling the buckets might decide you're taking too long with your pitiful bowl and dump the entire bucket of water on you. Then clean everything (“everything” probably meaning your bowl, shampoo, and the mat you were sitting on) off, and you're ready to go.

 Before you leave, there's a decent chance you'll have another, fuller, bucket of water dumped on you. It's still warm water, and the room is still steamy, but... really? Was that necessary?

 The changing area will feel much cooler than it did when you entered. Find your clothing and towels (if you took off your glasses, finding those might be a helpful first step) dry off, and change. You might want a scarf to cover your hair, because it's supposed to be much colder outside than inside. And that's the Hammam.

Tags: hammam, moroccan customs

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