My first hammam (or how I fainted for the first time)

Back in January, during our first weeks in Morocco, Tchin, our newfound friend in Tetouan, made us an offer we couldn’t refuse: taking us to the hammam. Only problem, as a woman, I couldn’t go with them. Before going our separate ways, Tchin hurriedly explained to a local woman with her two children that it was my first time. Before I knew it, I was pushed in and the door quickly closed on the two only familiar faces I knew.

The waiting room. Moment of truth, how undressed do people get? I look around the room and see about 9 women simply sitting down, fully clothed, waiting in their coats. I find a place to sit and remove my coat keeping my eyes on everyone to figure out what’s happening. My appointed ‘’guide” and her children start undressing, but everyone is looking at me, so I remain in place, unsure of what to do. Then, the woman working at the hammam comes up to my guide and they start talking, vividly gesticulating and pointing at me. They make me stand, and my hammam friend puts my bag with hers, making sure I don’t have a phone or money first. Then they look at me and point at my clothes with confused looks. I finally understand that this is the room to undress (and still don’t know what the other women were waiting for). I should mention that, at this point, nobody spoke French, English or Spanish (Spanish is often the second language people speak in the north of Morocco).

The family starts walking towards another room, through a corridor with showers along both sides, leading to a warm square shaped room, surrounded with cold and hot faucets, where a few woman are washing themselves. I follow them in the last room, they call hammam, although I am still not sure what the difference is between the showers and the square, and remain standing up near the entrance, unsure of what to do. The woman quickly gives me a stool and points me to an empty space, where I fill my bucket and start pouring water on myself with a little cup. I slowly start washing myself, still unsure of what’s going on. Is this the hammam? Is there another room? Am I just supposed to wash myself?

Then, the mother comes up to me with a small bowl, filled with a muddy green substance saying ‘’Henna, henna’’, while the woman in front of me nods in agreement. I faintly nod, unsure (as I will be for the whole 90 minutes I would spend there). The woman reaches in the bowl, picking up a good amount of the scrubbing mixture and I raise up my hand, expecting her to give it to me, but she simply plops it straight on my shoulder, and starts rubbing me vehemently. She proceeds to stretching my arm out, strongly holding my wrist while she rubs down my arm, happily pointing at the skin curling up in the process. I laugh, surprised by her lack of boundaries, while she continues rubbing all my body with the mixture, touched (literally) by how caring she is towards me. As she finishes and walks back to her own spot, the other woman gesticulate, indicating to me that I should keep rubbing. I laugh and follow their instructions, rinsing a few moments later when they all tell me.

Then, I proceed to washing myself, thinking I know how the rest goes. I just finished rinsing the soap off when the mother comes back waving shower gel at me. I try explaining that I already used soap, showing the mediocre, 1\4 of a bar soap I just used, but she insists and starts pouring liquid soap on my back and, of course, starts spreading it with her hands. I give in, and wash myself for a second time. Unsure of what to do next, I start washing my hair with the same bar of soap. The woman next to me sees me, and quickly tells my assigned caregiver, who rushes to hand me shampoo, although I try explaining that my soap is sufficient. As it goes, I finally accept and wash my hair, a second time. I think : ‘’Ok, now I’m done for sure’’, when the whole family calls me and invites me to sit next to them, getting up to help me carry my bucket. I smile and follow, although I’m not sure how many more times I can wash myself. So, I sit next to them, rinsing, unsure of how long I should stay and why they asked me to come.

Then, another woman comes in with her daughter, and sits facing me. As they all do, the new comer starts asking about me, to the family next to me. Then she looks at me, and asks: ‘’Hables español?’’. ‘’Un poquito’’ I answer, so we start talking. Although I’m far from fluent, I manage to answer her questions about where I’m from, what I’m doing in Morocco, how I am travelling, my age and, most importantly, if I’m married. I tell her that no, I am not married and, along with the other woman to whom she was translating my answers, I get a surprised reaction. ‘’Porqué? Tu es muy bonita.’’ ‘’No quiero’’ I reply, and try explaining that marriage is not as common in Canada, when the two women working at the hammam walk in. They loudly start talking together and I stare at them with a confused smile, until they start speaking to me, using 1 word of Spanish every 5 words. I shake my head, saying I don’t understand. Follows a few minutes of complete cacophony, their loud shouts amplified as they bounce back on the walls surrounding us. Finally, the voices calm down to only one, and I finally understand. They are all trying to marry me to their sons, telling me how beautiful, tall or rich they are, of course! I laugh, and repeat that I don’t want to get married, thinking they will stop, but somehow their voices increase again, and they start asking if I have friends in Canada in Morocco. I am quite confused, and answer yes, of course I have friends, unsure of their question… Then, I understand again, they are asking if I have friends to marry to their sons! I say no again, and they go off laughing.

I think ok, that’s my time to head out, and the woman in front of me seems to notice it, as she starts asking if I want to go out. I say yes, and start getting up, but the family gesticulates to me, and I am not sure if they are asking if I am done washing, or if they want me to wash their backs… I sit back down and look at the woman in front of me, confused, and she asks again if I want to go out, so I nod yes, and look at the family, wondering if I’m supposed to wait for them. One of the woman working at the hammam comes in, warning me that the boys have left the hammam, so I get back up to head out. I grab my towel, and ask what to do with the bucket when I start not feeling great. I’m about to leave, when I turn to the family to say goodbye. They start gesticulating again, and I don’t understand anything. Until they say the word ‘’culotte’’, and I put the pieces together. Contrary to what you might expect (and what I expected), most women (at this place and time) went fully naked. So, they were basically telling me I should remove my underwear.

At this point, I’m feeling an urge to get out, as the warmth is getting too much and I am beginning to feel weak, so trying to explain that I don’t feel comfortable doing so is just too much. The  heat and the hour of pushing my physical boundaries as I allow a stranger to rub my body down and constantly have at least 5 stares on my naked skin + comments I do my best to understand, all while keeping a smile on is starting to get to me, and I just can’t bend on this one. Desperate to get out, I starting blurting out words in French, when the young girl takes the cup from my hands, dipping it back in the water, and losing my soap at the same time. I bend back down to grab it, annoyed and a little claustrophobic from their over care and then

Black out.

I gain back consciousness and open my eyes to see 7 worried faces looking at me, and twice as many hands grabbing me. I try removing myself from their grip, to get out of this damned hot room! But they’re still holding me. Finally, they understand and let me stand up, one woman strongly holding me as I zigzag towards the waiting room. I stumbled across the room, and fell down in an empty chair. Slumped down, head leaning on my left side, eyes barely open and white as a ghost, I was still barely conscious and felt weaker than butter. Luckily, the women brought my bags next to me, and I had a flash of consciousness: my water bottle! I reach out and instantly feel better as the cold liquid reaches my throat.

A few moments later, I fully came awake and was able to sit up. I started being aware of my environment, and the 4 hands around me, trying to place my towel properly on my shoulders. I pushed them away, and they finally understood ‘’Safi?’’ ‘’Safi’’, I replied. They stepped back. The more I drank, the better I felt, until I was able to move and started dressing up, so I could get out. I pulled down my top over my head, when I felt the hands of my neighbor on my back, untangling my top and helping me get it down. The woman quietly kept helping me dress, whether I liked it or not, which I was still unsure of. The women in the hammam popped in and out, checking on me and I felt quite amazed at how caring these women were- for the best and for the worst. I waved goodbye to the room, ready to finally get out but they kept urging me to put my hood on and zip up my coat- although I just had fainted from the heat. I resigned to just turning back and walking out, even if I couldn’t explain, I wasn’t going to let myself faint a second time. ‘’Well, that was quite a first time,’’ I thought, as I was heading out into the cold air to recover.

Footnote: Of course, this is only my first, personal experience. Not all hammams are the same, actually, each is completely different.