Hammam-ing it, Turkish Style

Our number started as many, but whittled down to just the three of us (me, Maggie, and Winnie) as we finally set down a date to go to the hammam.  This trip took almost a week to plan, as we hunted down references and fixed a day that suited all of us. We didn’t really know what to expect. Images on the web ranged from something out of the movie, Arabian Nights, to rust filled horror scenes where the inhabitants are awaiting the imminent arrival of the Jigsaw Killer. Depending on who I asked, I got different accounts of what a hammam is like, ranging from something very public, to something very private. Some of the other girls (who, ultimately, decided not to go on the hammam trip) were concerned about nudity. How much were they expected to strip? Who would touch them? Who would see them naked? And of course, won’t it be awkward?

Well, the answer to the last question is no. Although there were mildly startling moments (Le soutien-gorge, aussi?* The bath attendant looked amused. Bien sur!**), our clothes or lack thereof didn’t bother us. I think, as Americans, we have a very narrow sense of privacy, as defined by and limited to the individual. Despite the abundance of nudity we are exposed to in movies, it nearly always revolves around slapstick comedic humor, sex, or the more culturally scandalous bits (nipples, vagina, clitoris) are subtly hidden. We’ve been raised to associate nudity with sex, which still has its own taboos and as such, we create a kind of awkwardness around everything associated with it, including casual exposition of a little more skin (I am now pointing to the accusations that someone is asking for ‘it’ if they are dressed a little scantily). Talking to a few friends who have gone on ‘nudist retreats’ (of which, Pennsylvania has many) only confirm my belief in this. They told me that the most common questions that they get from newbies are How am I going to keep from staring at there, ahem, you know?, Is it okay to look?, and Won’t it be awkward? Notice a pattern here? In contrast, privacy is a broader in range in Morocco, and seems to be segregated by gender. Not just in the case that women don’t necessarily mind stripping down to their delicates in front of each other, but in other ways, ranging from the kinds of conversations in all-women groups to dancing.

While I can’t speak for all hammams, I’ll certainly try to describe my experience here to the best of my ability. We went to Salon Laly***, near L’Ocean (although not in that neighborhood). It cost around 100 dh for each of us (not including the cost of the scrubbing mitt and the black soap which was around another 40 dh)****. We brought with us our shampoos, conditioner, and lotion as we wanted to wash our hair as well. The hammam in Salon Laly is subterranean, and housed in a warm, steamy room (private, just for us three and the bath attendant) that smelled of lemon verbana. After being told to strip down to our undies in a separate room, we moved to the steam room where each of us, in succession, were treated to three treatments. The first treatment involved the bath attendant rubbing us down with some kind of  gritty substance that smelled darkly of henna. After rinsing off, she applied the black soap and then proceeded to use the scrubber all over our bodies. Not a single place (I repeat, not a single place) was not scoured with the mitt within an inch of its life. When we finally got up to wash off, quite a bit of dried skin had to be washed off too. Finally, we each were treated to a mini-massage with a gritty coffee oil to loosen any kinks in our muscles. It was wonderful.

I think, by the end of it, we all agreed that we were going to hunt down a hammam spa when we get back to the U.S. The entire thing was very relaxing and left our skin feeling smoother, softer, and cleaner than ever before. However, I would like to include a few small notes to future hammam-goers. Firstly, when they say strip, strip everything, including your underwear. It’s simply not worth it to spend forever trying to wash out gritty coffee and henna bits from your panties. It certainly doesn’t protect any modesty as the attendants scrub and massage there too. Secondly, they do scrub everywhere, so if you are not comfortable being touched, or being watched by your fellow hammam-goers, it’s probably not something you would enjoy.

But, if you’re willing to try it, it is definitely something worth experiencing!

*The bra, too?

**Of course!

*** Salon Laly opens its hammam services at 2 pm. I’m not sure what other places do.

****I do suggest getting out of Agdal for a hammam. The ones in Agdal charge exorbitant prices, starting at around 200 dh for semi-private ones.

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