Sure, lying face-down on a stone slab, nearly naked, while a stranger thrashes away at you might be a fantasy for some, but it certainly was not for me. And yet there I was, having willingly signed myself up for the jarring experience — and, truth be told, enjoying it. Welcome to a Moroccan hammam.
These traditional bathhouses are a staple of Moroccan life, and have been for centuries. Every quarter in each city’s ancient medina revolves around four neighborhood requisites: a mosque, a public fountain, a bakery, and a hammam, the last of which is frequented by residents at least once a week for a thorough scrub. I managed to avoid visiting one on my previous visit to Morocco, but this time, after eight sweltering August days mired in sweat, feeling as though I would never be clean again, I knew it was time to forsake my inhibitions and give it a whirl. But how to decide which one?
There are thousands of options to choose from, ranging from the public neighborhood spots used only by locals (with either separate entrances or separate timings for men and women) to the swanky luxury palace hammams patronized predominantly by tourists. If you’re a bit squeamish at the prospect of going too authentic — and the idea of joining dozens of nude strangers and subjecting yourself to a tough, no-mercy scrubdown is a bit nerve-wracking — check if your riad or hotel has a spa with a private hammam. Which is exactly what I did (call me crazy, but bathing for me has always been a private occasion). The place where I happened to be staying, the magnificent Riad Maison Bleue, has a lovely spa which recreates a full-fledged authentic hammam experience in complete privacy. Well, almost.
I entered the rooftop sanctuary at the riad and I was at once completely cosseted from the madness of the medina beyond. An attendant handed me some flimsy paper underwear, a robe, and a pair of sturdy rubber sandals — one of which would not be with me much longer. She (your hammam executor is always of your gender) led me to a small, sky-lit room, relieved me of my robe, and doused my head with argan oil. She coated my body with henna, then left me lying there, wondering what was to come. But it didn’t matter anymore, as I was slowly lulled into a fog. An actual fog, courtesy of steam hissing its way into the chamber, seeping into every crevice. I gazed up toward the tiny window in the ceiling, now completely obscured by millions of hazy, misty particles, and started to nod off to a peaceful sleep.
Not for long. After about 15 steamy minutes, the attendant reentered the room and stirred me out of my reverie by hosing me down, not relenting until every last trace of the henna was washed away down the drains. “This isn’t so bad,” I thought to myself, certain that the worst of it was over. I was so naive.
She led me to an adjacent chamber where two massive, uncomfortable-looking stone tables lay in wait. I clambered gingerly onto one, and then the main event began. For half an hour she went to work, liberally layering me with a rough orange blossom body scrub then sloughing me down, stopping periodically to wash off the residue of dead skin that accumulated. At first I politely held back my yelps, but after a few minutes of feeling my skin being rubbed raw, I no longer upheld any formalities. She maneuvered me around like a rag doll, flipping me over or splaying my arms at random, while I struggled to maintain my dignity (not to mention my balance on the slippery surface).
Soon my body had been scoured as much as it possibly could, and she tried to win me back by rubbing soothing ointments and bath gels on me, and administering a wonderful shampoo. Just when I finished smarting from the scrub, she led me to yet another room. A massage isn’t a part of the traditional hammam experience, but here’s a tourist-centric innovation I can get behind: it was the perfect relaxing ending to the thrashing that preceded it.
I was sent home with a little parting gift: the coarse mitt that was used to scrub me down. I fully intend to use it regularly, just with more gentle strokes.
Hours later, I was back in the medina, dodging donkeys and aggressive shopkeepers, but this time, with a newfound glow. Forget once a week — I could do this every day.