The word of the day is...awkward.
Never in my life did I imagine that I would be laying in only my bathing suit bottoms, on a tile floor, being scrubbed by a large topless Moroccan woman. Oh yeah, and I was trying not to make eye contact with the equally naked Jami, Kristen, Alexandra, or Rachel...for fear of bursting out laughing as a response to the uncomfortableness of the situation. Did I mention that what was supposed to be a serene experience, ended up with Moroccan women screaming at us...which only became more intensified by the echo from the tile walls? True, and awkward, story.
What started out as wanting to experience more of the Moroccan culture, I casually suggested to Jami that we go to a Hamman before she leaves Morocco. Hammams are an integral and cultural tradition within Islamic society. They are public bathhouses dating back to when most homes didn’t have a bath so people made weekly gatherings at a Hammam.
In an attempt to fully explain this ridiculously awkward story, Jami and I joined forces to give the full and naked scoop...So, here goes...
Khadija, our house "mom" talked us through the experience to be sure we were prepared - she warned us to take soap, shampoo/conditioner, and a towel and to expect to be in topless and in bathing suit bottoms or just fully naked altogether...basically check our prudish ways at the door. She told us to expect 3 rooms - a cool room, warm room, and the hot room. And she said there would be buckets. Somehow we pictured something so much more Western than what we encountered. If Seinfeld was still running, you can bet they would capitalize on this story.
We took these blue tickets from men at the gate and we walked through a frosted glass door that was on the bottom level of what appeared to be an apartment complex. Through that door, my friends, was a world for which we were totally unprepared. In this society of women who are modestly dressed and sometimes mostly covered, there lurks a subculture of nudiness - and comfort with such nakedness that caught us completely off guard. We walked in and before us was a room of women, tits to the wind, and some all the way bare. Whoa. It was really challenging to know where to look so we weren't staring at someone else's goodies. We knew right away that this was the authentic Moroccan hammam experience because no one (and I mean NO ONE) spoke English or French. Imagine the fun in trying to figure out what to do with the buckets, where to sit, and all the other details of a very involved bathing experience.
Once we paid our 12 dirhams and got our 1 dirham-worth of authentic african black soap (goopy, molasses-like and smeared onto a scrap of paper...nasty, yet interesting...I am thinking), we stood around like, well, Americans, trying to determine what to do next. Jami's words of wisdom to the group: "It's time to get naked." So we did. Awkwardly. Because how else do you get mostly naked with people you've known for 4 weeks?
Then they gave us buckets. Ahh, the buckin' bucket confusion. We walked through the swinging door and into some antechamber of nakedness were a woman was squatting and scrubbing. Nice. And that was just a sort of hallway, actually, so that should give you some sense of the level of modesty we were dealing with.
In the hot room, 3 of the girls found their spots against one wall trying to be out of the way and inoffensive as we were already quite the spectacle in this place....there was not a set of eyes in the room that weren't watching our every (clumsy and confused) move. It takes us forever to navigate the buckets and determine which faucets are for bucket filling....and how to not scald yourself - as, based on the temperature - the water appears to flowing straight from the gates of hell. It should be noted that most all the women were totally naked...and all of us prudish Americans were standing around with bathing suit bottoms on, with our arms in front of our chests...well, and I of course, being the germaphobe that I am, was still wearing my flip flops...because nobody wants a Moroccan foot fungus. So, the girls, attempting to "do as the locals do" once again....began smoothing the smelly black soap on their skin, and me and Alexandra set up camp across the room from the rest of the crew (antisocial while naked? who knew!). Only problem was, was that we had a huge bucket filled with water...but no smaller cup to pour the water over ourselves. So, I laughed in a "what the hell, now?" kind of a way....and attempted to "splash myself clean". Unfortunately, we didn't realize that we'd set up shop in front of the faucets for bucket-filling, and that caused a bit of a ruckus. We were shooed away like little American flies and forced to come sit in the other part of the nakedly-packed room. So, there the girls were...American, naked, and soapy. Good clean fun, right? Then, as Jami began rinsing off, she saw a river of suds flowing in our direction...well, MY direction, really. And it was in that moment, that Jami saw that I was downstream from, and in the direct path of a large lady's bath-time run-off. Bad news, sportsfans. Jami said that watching my face, as the realization dawned was me that I was sitting in filthy suds that were not my own, was one of the funniest things she has ever seen.
As the washing and rinsing ended, it was clearly time to go ask one of the naked Moroccan women in the first room to give us the rubdown for which the hammam is famous. After leaving a hammam, you are supposed to be so thoroughly scrubbed and exfoliated that your skin should be likened to that of a newborn baby. Everything up until this point turned out to be mild and semi-normal compared to what happened next. But, let's be clear...when I think "exfoliated"...I think of that St. Ive's apricot granular scrub that all of us girls have used at least once in our lives...apparently I was way off base...
There were 2 ladies. I'll call the first lady Berber Mama because 1) She had 2 tattoos on her face - forehead and chin - that were symbols of her tribe and family, common in Berber tradition a few generations back; 2) She was older - 50s or 60s, perhaps, 3) Her boob saggage suggests that she was someone's mama at some point; and 4) She scrubs with the force and authority of one who has scrubbed more than an ass or two. And then there was the other lady...which, in retrospect she reminds me of some of the scary women from American Gladiators. Apparently, that's her scrub style.
Berber Mama splashed a bucket full of hot water on the tile wall and floor in a corner of the warm room and motioned for us all to sit down. I didn't realize at that moment that she was staking her claim on us. So young. So naive. So American. She pushed Jami down and so she sat, but she gestured that she needed to lay down, so she did. Partially because she had face tattoos and partially because she couldn't run out of there naked. And so it began. Lying on her back in only bikini bottoms, this woman put on a single scrubby glove, and with no soap and no precursor, she ran that gloved hand from her stomach, up one boob, and clean to the shoulder blade. And she got rolling with the scrubbing everywhere. Jami and I made eye contact and were trying to stop laughing like idiots....because, well, when I get nervous I laugh awkwardly to try and take my mind off of things...and because there are no words when you are in a situation like this. All I kept thinking was: 1) Where the hell are we? 2) I really don't want these naked women touching me. 3) I'm gonna freak out if her boob rubs against me in this process. 4) The fact that I wore my good silver sandals in here to "protect" my feet against the "fungi" is kinda hilarious, as I am about to be forced to lay face down on this tile...with nothing between my body and the tiles...but, dirty soapy water. Nice. It was then that I saw Berber Mama slap Jami's right flank and gave her a hand gesture that seemed to mean, "Roll your fat ass over." So she did. But to do that she first had to untangle her legs from Berber mama's lap...which was quite the pretzel configuration.
Oh, God...here comes Gladiator and she's eyeing me...
She has me lay down and she rolls me to one side and nakedly spoons me...we are kinda laying like lovers which is freakin' me out. She begins to scrub me like a maniac, while her lengthy boobs brush across my legs...damn you inertia and gravity. She yells in Arabic and motions that I roll to the other side. So I rolled. And she scrubbed. At this point, I glanced over at Jami and see that Berber Mama has completely ignored Jami's bikini bottoms, as the boundary they were clearly meant to be, and shoved them up her crack and did some cheek scrubbing. And still we laughed because ... when you're naked, laying on tile, and having your skin scrubbed straight off by some woman who speaks no English...and has a glove that could be considered a weapon by the TSA, well, you're not going anywhere...and laughter is really all you can do.
While all of this was taking place, a heated debate was going on, and we're still not sure what it was about beyond the fact that we were clearly the topic because it all took place - loudly and in Arabic - where we were sitting. My theory is this...Berber Mama and American Gladiator had claimed all 5 lily white and gullible Americans as their turf. Other scrubbers were ticked because Berber Mama and American Gladiator were hogging up all the big - stupid - spenders. So while it is supposed to be an enjoyable experience...it's tough to drown out the screaming and even more challenging to enjoy any basic part of this - uncomfortable and strange - world we have willingly walked into. At one point, my lady puts my hand on my leg to feel all of the skin that has been removed as she showcases a big, toothless grin...and then flashes a wild look in her eyes...clearly, she is enjoying torturing me. Once she has finished the scrub-a-thon...she yanks me up and walks me over to the faucet. From here, she sits me down and dumps a bucket of water over my head...I mean, seriously, so much water I felt like I was drowning...I tried to take a breath and took in some water....started coughing it up....and then was hit with another bucket. She then runs that sandpaper glove over my skin once more, stands me up...and then...she fast-as-lightening, yanks my bathing suit bottoms down. Holy hell, I need out of here. My eyes dart over to Jami in a "help me" sort of a way....but she's no savior...as she and Kristen are just watching and hysterically laughing. So, free as a jay bird, I stand while she gives one good last scrub and I anxiously and embarrassingly wait for this horrific thing to end. She throws a bucket of water in my face...slaps my ass and points to the door...wham, bam, thank you ma'am!! Barely able to catch my breath from the direct water hits, I quickly pant through the main door to get dressed.
It's clearly safe to say...we could have lived happily and regretless...without ever having experienced the world of the hammam.
Although...it has made for a good number of laughs these last few weeks...