The Hammam

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Every day, I feel more a part of this family…although I still can’t get everyone’s name straight. Then again, pronouncing my own name is still quite an ordeal around here. Amina will yell “INZI!” from the kitchen then I’ll hear Salma whisper to her “la, c’est LinssAY” and mama Hakima will shout “WINDEE!…INZA!…LISSAI!…Lindee..?..ZAYYY!!” I’m responding to everything at this point.

I have mastered the art of making Moroccan mint tea! Soon, I’ll be the designated server. At our crowded elbow-to-elbow 10pm dinners (I’m still struggling to adjust to the absence of napkins, rarity of dish soap, and infrequent use of utensils), the eleven of us communicate better and better each night. Salma’s mom tied an apron around me after tonight’s dinner and I entertained them all by washing the dishes. “Bravo, Bravo ya bintee Winzee!!” shouted Mama Hakima from the living room. She has such a magnetic personality—often reminds me of Mrs. Pisini. At meals, especially when we have company, she points to me across the table and announces to the lucky people seated beside her: “Hathi BINTEE. Bintee jameela, la? Hathi BINTEE!” (That’s my daughter. My daughter is beautiful, no? It’s my daughter!) Then the whole table tries to pronounce the English word “BEAU-TI-FUL” as if I can’t understand Arabic. On another note, I think I ate quail last night. Or rabbit. Or pigeon. No, I’m convinced it was frog (see photo).  

And I now present to you the Hammam Saga. I am a new woman. There is absolutely nothing in America I can compare this to. Hammams are traditional Moroccan bath houses normally visited once a week.  I packed a towel and water and waited at the door for Amina and mama Hakima. Their insistence that I change my clothes, pack another towel, find other shoes, and carry the duffel bag they had packed effectively kicked my nerves into high gear. Anima and mama Hakima threw towels, bars of soap, three different shampoos, a big container of mud, tiny stools and seating pads, small bowls, and combs into the duffel bag. What an excursion! We lugged everything into the medina, and I was guided into a warm, high-ceilinged room filled with half-clothed women resting or sleeping on wide cement benches. Moments later, mama Hakima was in her underwear next to me, tugging off my shirt as I tried to ignore the stares from other women. I carried my bucket behind Amina and we entered a larger, hotter steam-filled room. Naked women lined the walls—sitting on stools or on the floor and scrubbing each other, surrounded by giant buckets of steaming water. I squeezed in between mama Hakima and a lathered-up older Moroccan woman who proceeded to spend the rest of her time watching me, the only white-skinned amateur in the place.

First, get comfortable (read: remove any remaining clothing or risk looking ridiculously self-conscious). Next, fetch water. We treaded through the hammam and I very awkwardly stared at my feet until we reached two large fountains overflowing with boiling hot and cold water. Settled back in our spot, we started with the mud. Ah, the magical, legendary mud. I did as mama Hakima, and washed my whole body, face, and hair with this sticky black goo made from olive oil byproduct. We used little bowls to pour water from the buckets over ourselves. Mimicking the other women, I pulled an exfoliating mitt over one hand and got to work scrubbing away once again—using a rough pumice stone on my feet. Watching Amina aggressively take off a layer of her skin with all the strength she could muster, I took it easy on myself, imagining my skin tearing apart if I imitated that. Not satisfied with my technique, Amina pulled me up off the floor to show me how it’s done. A seriously abrasive head to toe massage ensued as I stood vulnerably in the middle of the hammam wincing in pain. To give you a better sense of the power of this woman, I had to hold onto buckets for balance as she positioned me in poses I didn’t know I was capable of. By the end, I felt raw, exposed, and cleaner than ever. Ready to escape the heat and, well, maybe take some ibuprofen, I sat down to wait for mama Hakima. Little did I know, this was just the beginning.

In the hour that followed, I was thoroughly scrubbed down more times than I can remember in an equally rough (but loving) manner by Amina, then mama Hakima, then Amina and mama Hakima, then the rando in the corner. By the last time, I was feeling relaxed and pampered. The pain was replaced by enjoyment, the wincing by a satisfied grin. We switched rooms a few times and fetched countless buckets of water, taking breaks in a cooler room to shampoo for a third or fourth time. Women spit on the floor, washed clothes on the floor, and drank water from the buckets. Big thanks to Amina for providing Crocs. Upon leaving, mama Hakima was charged the usual ten dirham for herself and Amina but fifty dirham for me, the American. After insisting that I was indeed her daughter, they charged the Moroccan price. Alhamdulillah. We walked home, every inch of new skin smooth and glowing, and I was made to wear a bright red towel wrapped tightly around my wet hair. Even in the heat, Moroccans are convinced that a bear, wet head is the quickest way to catch a cold. Pretty hilarious sight. We ate soup and melon, drank mint tea, and retreated to our respective corners for naptime.

I could get used to this!

Not quite sure what this was!