I squeeze my lips together, holding my mouth tightly shut as a bucket of water is dumped on top of me. My left cheek is pressed against the floor of a public bathhouse. I am lying on my side nearly naked, sprawled in a lukewarm slurry of soapsuds and sloughed-off skin from the women who went before me. A strange lady with enormous bosoms holds my right leg at a 90-degree angle, scrubbing my inner thigh with a sandpaper-like rag and the force of a fire hose. A room full of local children, women and grandmothers look on in mild amusement. On the other side, an awkward group of Western women sit in a row against the wall, trying to avoid eye contact at all costs as they wait for their turns in their underwear.
Welcome to the hammam: the other side of your comfort zone.
I had heard tales of luxurious hammams in Turkey, where guests rest in private hot tubs strewn with flower petals before their scrub-down, after which they are handed a heated towel, soft slippers and a spot of tea.
This was not that kind of hammam.
This hamman put the “once” in “once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
This was real, authentic Morocco, a true public bathhouse for the people in a tiny village called Tinghir, just outside of Todra Gorge. Our guide told us not to bring any valuables or belongings of any sort – just a spare pair of underwear – instructions that he could barely get out of his mouth due to Middle Eastern modesty.
But modesty was of no use in the hammam, which indeed was one of the only spaces in the entire country where I interacted with a local woman – several places, in fact, who soaped me, rinsed me, scrubbed me, massaged me and sent me on my way.
Imagine the bathroom floor at your local public pool. Now imagine lying on that floor topless while being bathed by an unknown woman, surrounded by a room full of friends and strange families.
Accompanied by seven of my traveling buddies, I enter the outer room of the hammam and we strip down to our skivvies. Each of us is given a gelatinous glop of Argan oil soap, which bears an unfortunate resemblance to a lump of warm earwax. Soap in hand, we pass through the first inner room, and then through the main room. Finally we enter into the hottest area of the hamman, like a line of convicts awaiting their fates.
Not accustomed to being bare-chested around each other, we sit bashfully with knees tilted inward and arms over boobage. Everyone is trying to look and feel nonchalant, despite the fact that we left our comfort zones about three rooms back. No one has a clue what to do. Do we scrub ourselves with the soap? Scrub each other? Wait for instructions? Try not to laugh?
The woman with breasts the size of school busses arrives with a friend. They cheerfully grab the soap from our hands, smear us down with it and throw buckets of lukewarm water in our faces. I attempt to keep my mouth sealed away from the treacherous tap water; little did I know I would soon be pressed to the bathroom floor facedown, my lips mingling with unmentionable things.
After a thorough lathering with the slippery Argan soap, we’re all taken into the main room, a bigger space that isn’t quite as hot. It’s half-full of local families out for their public bath. Grandmothers gossip with mothers, mothers shampoo their children, children run around naked and free. Women scrub each other’s backs, brush their hair and give us scant attention.
Our pale crew fills the other side of the room, where we each wait for our turn at the gauntlet. The first victim is pulled onto the floor about half a meter from where we all sit in a row. Her limbs are ratcheted in every direction and her entire body is scrubbed free of several layers of skin, all right in front of us. Arms, legs, faces, fingers, feet, thighs, backs, boobs, bellies, necks – no body part is neglected in the scrub-down, which lasts for several minutes. We stare at the ceiling as her armpits are being scrubbed; we gaze at the floor when her legs are in the air. Her skin peels off in long, thin strips that fall to the floor, and her body becomes bright red. One by one we take turns being woman-handled, and our drowned-rat cabaret line grows shorter and shorter.
Finally, the bell tolls for me. I slide over to the scrub zone and am bathed like a baby for the first time in several decades. I smile when I get nervous, so I must have looked like I was enjoying it. And it was enjoyable, once I got past the moldy floors, the pool of dead skin I was lying in, the group of topless onlookers, my outfit of wet underwear, the strange woman washing my breasts, and the embarrassment of being scrubbed free of my filth two feet in front of my friends.
After the scrub came the massage, on the same wet, hard floor I had come to know so well. I try not to cry out in pain as my joints are pressed into the tiles, immediately gaining a new appreciation for the padded massage tables I had known before. Only a few little moans and grunts slip out and then finally – it is over.
I stand up with wobbly knees, walking out of the main room and into the first inner room to rinse off with a shower. My skin is glowing pink, as soft as a velveteen fleece. I squeak with each step. I feel like a new woman, partly because of the extreme exfoliation, but mainly because I had made it through the ordeal.
Back in the outer room, I slip my clothes back on and exchange relieved giggles with the rest of the girls. We are radiant and happy. Our skin shines with a brilliant blush as we chat about dinner, relaxed and suddenly better friends. Along with several pounds of skin, somewhere in the hammam between the buckets of warm water, we had left our modesty behind.