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Hamman: A nearly-naked cultural experience

Posted by Squiffy on April 8th, 2008

Boy, I wish I had a better aptitude for learning languages. My GSCE in French may mean that I’m able to buy train tickets and order a coffee, but it certainly didn’t equip me with the vocab necessary to understand an attendant briefing me on the intricacies of hamman etiquette.

A ‘hamman’ in Morocco is similar in concept to spas in our country, but they’re generally not so fancy and are a more integral part of everyday life; a place where people go to wash and relax. After a few weeks of cold and dirty showers, the idea of a hot steam bath greatly appealed.

As typical in this culture, boys and girls are separated, so I waved goodbye to Dave and entered the hamman for my ‘Top Massage’ – a soaping followed by a scrub and a 30 min massage. I was led to a cubicle to change and given some flip-flops and a small sarong. I wasn’t sure whether this was supposed to cover my top or bottom half once naked, so went for the middle option, tucking it under my arms and just covering my bum. As I prepared to step out of the cubicle, I could hear the two members of staff mustering their best English to communicate something to me:

“Your slip?” one said. I handed her the receipt I’d been given downstairs. She looked puzzled and repeated herself. I looked equally puzzled back at her, causing her to motion to my nether regions. Suddenly recalling some French, I realised she was talking about my pants. “You must….”, but that’s as far as she got in English. “I must what…keep them on or take them off?” I asked, but she didn’t understand. In a final attempt to communicate her point, she gave up on verbal language, leaned over and felt through my sarong. Ah, no pants as, as they had feared. I was sent back to the cubicle to re-install my underwear before being led down to the hamman

Once inside, the lady, who had so gently led my by the arm, handed me over to a woman who was a bulldog/shot-putter/scary matron cross, and before I could say “bonjour” she had whipped off my sarong with one flick of the wrist and was dragging me into the steam room. There was to be no delicate treatment for me. After pouring buckets of water over my head, she rubbed me down with a traditional Moroccan soap, before leaving me to simmer for half an hour and then leading me to a marble table where I was instructed to lie down. Out came the scrubbing glove. Ouch. The words ‘gentle exfoliation’ did not enter her dictionary in any language. I was scoured from head to toe, including under my arm pits and behind my ears. I left behind at least two layers of skin on that table. If this doesn’t give you a rosy glow, nothing will.

Next, I was invited to wash my hair at a basin, before lying on another marble table for a massage. To be fair to her, the matron/shot-putter was quite gentle, though she did put me into some limb wrenching positions, including my arm up my back. Privacy doesn’t seem to be a major concern here. At one point she whipped away the curtain separating me from the Italian girl on the next table, so that she could gossip more easily with her fellow shot-put team mate.

I couldn’t stop giggling throughout the process but by the end of it all I was thoroughly clean and pretty relaxed. It was a great experience and one that I would like to repeat… Ensha’llaah (God willing). Unfortunately I’ve heard that not all of the masseuses were quite so forgiving… I’ll leave Dave to tell you about his experience!

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