My bare back slips and slides over the stone slab. The only thing that keeps me from toppling over the edge and onto the hard flooded ground is a strong Arabic woman, she firmly grasps my arm above my head. I hope I remembered to shave last night. She stands over my exposed form, dressed in damp togs, furiously scrubbing at my naked chest. I stare up at the stone ceiling, at my friend to the left, at the naked stranger to my right. The kessa mitt, or exfoliating glove, feels like sand paper on my skin, like the scorching fingers of a wandering flame. I feel exposed, vulnerable and completely out of my comfort zone. I’m in Morocco–
The day before, my friend announced that ‘we are going to Hammam’. Her mum seemed apprehensive, but as she only spoke Arabic I didn’t understand why at first. ‘I go there every week’, my friend told me ‘to get clean. You can take your swim suit if you want.’
The next day we walked into the Hammam, paid our 50 dirhams ($7 NZ) and gave our bags to the woman at the reception. In the changing rooms we began to strip. I was still weighing up what I was going to do. But as my friend pulled off her shirt and bra my resolve hardened. I’m a strong, independent woman. I’ve been on my own for seven weeks traveling through Europe quite capably. I can get the girls out if I want. I’m not some prudish foreigner who can’t even join in on the local culture. The bra was off and we walked through to the steam filled room in nothing but a pair of undies.
— Oops! Undies down undies down! RED ALERT! The woman who had been scrubbing my back was now tugging at my last scrap of modesty. No where is safe from her meticulous work–
The darkened room was lined with sinks and taps and stools. We chose a place over in the corner. Filling our basins with warm water we began to cover every inch of our bodies in black soap. This would lift the dead skin and make it easier to scrub ourselves smooth. After quite some time we washed it off and went through to another room where slabs of stone, much like operating tables, stood side by side. A burly woman helped me onto my table. The surface was so slippery I was sliding all over the place. She said something in Arabic and my friend told me to lie down on my back. The woman yanked me towards her and began.
— For this last bit I sit up and watch as she scrubs the skin from my arms. I watch it shed from my pale limbs in sheets. Who knew there were so many layers? And there were still so many steps left to go. We would have to keep scrubbing back at our sinks. Then apply some mud type stuff to soften our skin. Then wash our hair and soap our bodies. Then so much more rinsing!
The woman helps me off my slab. Shukran I say as I make my way unsteadily from the room. My friend is still being scrubbed. She’ll catch up with me in a bit.
I must say there is something liberating about walking through the rooms completely exposed in the presence of other naked women. I’m beginning to feel comfortable in my own skin. Skin that is becoming increasingly softer and smoother as each moment passes. Maybe this isn’t so bad after all. In fact, maybe I will be yearning to do this all again before long–
In total we spent three hours at the hammam. Being a somewhat conservative girl from New Zealand who can’t even wear a bikini in public, this is a pretty huge deal. As I continue to travel and explore new cultures, who knows what boundaries I’ll shed in the process. There’s no telling how I’ll turn out after all this, but I’m excited for what the next adventure will bring!