This Guest Post is brought to you by Geordon Omand, a University of Victoria graduate who has recently returned from a five week trip exploring Morocco. Follow him as he endures the truly unique experience of being thoroughly scrubbed down and exfoliated at a Moroccan bathhouse by a very enthusiastic elderly man. Yikes!
Traveling truly is one of life’s greatest joys. Most of us would agree that immersing ourselves wholesale in an exotic environment can be an educational, even revelatory, experience. At times, however, the benefits accrued during these brief ‘emigrations’ from our comfort zone are most easily appreciated post-facto – through the rosy lens of hindsight. Especially when such an encounter involves being held captive, scalded, flayed, and beaten in Morocco. Sado-masochistic eroticism, you might ask? No, far worse – a Moroccan hammam. Read on, brave reader, read on.
As a recent university graduate, traveling on a shoe-string budget was something of a necessity during a recent venture through Morocco. My opted-for mode de voyager posed particular challenges. One such issue arose from the dearth of sanitary shower facilities in the, shall we say, negative star establishments which I chose to frequent. Not having been afforded a good wash for nigh a week, I decided the time had come to make the much-anticipated visit to one of Morocco’s renowned hammams.
A Moroccan hammam is essentially a public bath, a modern-day descendent of Roman predecessors. Not only popular but also of practical necessity in a world where many homes lack washrooms, hammams are a ubiquity of Moroccan city life. All sources had strongly recommended them to me as cleansing experiences par excellence.
I had little trouble locating a local hammam as I wandered through the winding medina streets of the Rif Mountain city of Chefchaouen one particularly chilly evening. The doorway, pointed out by a helpful passerby, was exclusively in Arabic, assuring me of an authentic bathhouse experience. If only I could have anticipated then what was in store.
This particular hammam alternated as male-only and female-only throughout the day. Eight o’clock had just rolled around; men’s time had come. Entering the noticeably humid antechamber, I undressed down to my underwear and handed the front desk clerk the rest of my affairs.
The cost of admission was 10 dirham – the equivalent of $1.25 CAD. For an additional 40 dirham I could receive a gommage: the full-body spa works at the hands of a seasoned hammam attendant. Six dollars for a wash and massage from an absolute stranger? When in Rome, err, Morocco, as they say… Agreeing, I stepped further inside.
My attendant was a petite, elderly man of an obscurely ancient age and of uncertain dental endowment. A hammam is traditionally divided into rooms of differing temperatures and he was taking me straight for the steamiest option.
My initial doubts arose virtually immediately, as several buckets of scalding water were poured in quick succession over my head. Fortunately, the shock to my system halted me long enough for my expressionless attendant to begin applying soap to my newly-minted burns, assuaging the most acute of my concerns. A discrete, cursory inspection revealed no peeling flesh – always a good sign.
Viscous, moist, and the colour of tepid sewage water, Moroccan soap is derived from olives and is purported to be an excellent exfoliant. Thus ensconced in a copious layer of soothing, suds-less slime, I was left to marinate and afforded the opportunity to better appreciate my surroundings.
The room itself – one of a total of three – measured approximately 10×30 meters. Its floor was composed of rudimentary tile work, as were the lower half of its walls, which rose sharply before tapering into an unadorned, rounded, cylindrical ceiling. The only light available was admitted through a series of opaque and steamed skylights, likely a
sage feature given the incompatibility of electricity in this decidedly aqueous environment. An ever-running fountain spouted steaming water into a large basin located in the room’s far corner.
As places of socialization, hammams play an important civic role in Moroccan culture. My current establishment was no exception. The house was alive with the echoing sound of lively adult discussion and the roughhousing of youngsters. The cavernous splashing of bodies in animated exchange and bubbly discourse could be heard from all
With my soap-seasoning complete, my ever-straight faced attendant returned to guide me to the second of the hammam’s three chambers. Virtually identical to the one room I had just vacated – although almost imperceptibly cooler – a mat had been unrolled for me in the corner.
Hot dang, bring on the spa treatment!
Stretching myself face up on the still very hard tile floor, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pity for my seemingly melancholic masseuse. I wondered how often he was made to run through this very routine, and what sort of toll it must be taking on his diminished form and aging muscles. That sympathy would soon to evaporate.
The first order of business involved the removing of my dead skin. This was achieved using a specialized scrubbing glove. Imagine a standard winter mitten. Now picture a square of rough-grade sandpaper, or a ball of steel wool, or even a generous handful of glass shards embedded into a mat of razor wire – whatever evokes the most vivid imagery. Now combine these two mental manifestations and you will have something of an approximation of the instrument of torture used to scour virtually every square inch of my body over the course of a quarter hour (or was it several?). A certain loosening of terms would by useful here: as it was most certainly not only dead skin but a great deal of healthy, living, happy flesh that was removed.
The “scrub glove” was so effective, blackened rolls of skin were beginning to cover my reddening flesh, like traitorous earthworms emerging from the sanctified soils of my skin. They rained down to the floor, abandoning me to my gruesome fate.
It would appear that I had passed premature judgment on my dungeon-master’s physical faculties, as his unassuming, wiry, oh-so-underestimated frame stretched me to his will.
Completing one of my sides he would conclude by stretching me out and providing a firm (and dare I say wholly unnecessary) slap to my unprotected ribs, before rolling my wheezing form over and recommencing my desquamation in earnest. Protest proved to be a challenge with the wind constantly knocked out of me.
At length my tormentor arose from my pitiful, pink, prostrate self, his sadistic inclinations presumably requited. No such luck.
My hopes for salvation were dashed when a sharp pain suddenly shot through my left calf. Then my right. Wrenching my head around, I realized with horror that my maleficent masseuse was standing fully supported on my lower legs. Fortunately, my bruised flesh was able to provide his feet with ample cushioning.
Apparently, it was massage time.
I may have been delirious, but I could have sworn I witnessed a one scrub-gloved Arab Michael Jackson moon-walking up my thighs.
My already damaged body was contorted into positions I did not know I was even capable of achieving (in all likelihood I wasn’t). I was folded in half, full-nelsoned, leg-locked, and in general wrenched across the wet and unforgiving bathhouse floor.
Fortunately, my falls were cushioned in part by a mat consisting of rivulets of my own recently-removed skin. (Although that may be somewhat of a moot point, given that they would doubtless have been as effective still covering my body.) I probably owe something to the paper-thin bath mat as well. Something, but not much.
Socially, I fared about as well. The acoustics provided by the rounded ceiling of the hammam interior ensured that no one was saved from my whimpering groans. Apparently the tap-out and cry of ‘uncle’ are not as universally understood symbols for mercy and surrender as would have been helpful.
Finally, after what felt an eternity of abuse, my apparently sated ‘benefactor’ released me to the third and final room to rinse off and lick my wounds.
And a few minutes later, clothed, dazed, and in repossession of my belongings and the shredded remains of my dignity, I found myself once again in the cool night air. Pausing outside the bathhouse entrance, I took stock of the ordeal.
It was at this point, however, that a curious thing began to happen. Already the memories were starting to morph and fade. Reflecting anew on my recent trial, I began to realize all the pros of what I had just endured: I had not only witnessed but been an active participant in an ageless and purifying North African experience; I had honestly never felt as clean and fresh; and to boot, I had even received a free undergarment laundering – a pro not to be underappreciated in a backpacker’s world. As my hitherto dour attitude gave way to a newfound positivity, I even found myself planning for my next hammam visit.
Notwithstanding my emergent optimism, as I strolled down the brisk, medina streets, squeaky clean and culturally enriched, one fact remained absolutely irrefutable: cleanliness, in Morocco, is clearly taken very seriously.
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