This is a small story about visiting a hammam in Fes. Hammam is a sauna / public bath-house and along with the communal bakery, fountain, madrasa (school) and a mosque, it's one of the five traditional elements found in every Moroccan neighborhood. Traditionally private homes in Morocco didn’t have bathrooms, nowadays it's already changing of course. At the same time, majority of unrenovated houses in medina still have no washing facilities, so visiting hammam is nowadays both a habit and still a necessity. Hammam was also a place for social gatherings, specially for women otherwise burdened at home with household work and children. I imagine that the social function of hammam is still very much alive. The rumor is that hammam is also a prime spot for mothers for shopping future daughter-in-laws. Hammams are strictly gender separate – more fancier establishments specialize on men or women, smaller hammams have divided schedules, usually mornings for women and evenings for men.
This little story happened few years ago when me and Ylle visited Fes the first time. Coming from a country with a strong sauna culture, visiting hammam didn’t seem like anything specially exotic. So we thought we’d push it up a notch and go to a very very local place, somewhere deep in the medina. We didn’t want to have a tourist experience, we wanted to see how it is for the local women. We asked our riad’s guide Muahsin to take us to one of the nearby hammams.
The hammam Muahsin took us to was run by this big and strong Berber lady, she handled the money, people and everything else. First obstacle was of course the language barrier though truth be told, what’s there to discuss? It’s a sauna, we’re dirty and we came to wash. OK, when we got that part settled, it was time to undress. No problem, we’re all women here, just some whiter than others. We didn’t get any special attention until we started undressing. Our lacy colorful strings were very amusing for Moroccan women, some of them looked at us with this face mixed with surprise and pity: white tourists and can’t even afford themselves a proper ass-covering underwear? :). When we were about to drop our panties the Berber lady nearly jumped out of her skin to stop us. Turned out that in hammam you keep your privates very private.
When we had undressed ourselves to the appropriate degree, the Berber lady took us by the hand like children and lead us towards the washing area. I usually wear pretty strong glasses and when she saw that i’m blind as a chicken without them, she handled me very carefully. Our small walk through the dungeon like corridors and rooms to the washing area was actually pretty interesting. Ever heard the Tarzan howl? Well, Berber howling is a bit like that, they sort of ululate with all their might while moving their tongue very quickly from one side of the mouth to the other. The result is very loud and sudden sound and let me tell you, when you’re in your appropriate undies toddling over the wet tiles without knowing or even properly seeing where you’re being taken to, a thought of decapitation or scalping comes to mind while listening to that Berber war cry!
After walking through different rooms we reached to a big low washing room. This hammam was an old and tired building. From the inside it looked like an old Soviet sauna - lot’s of broken tiles, somewhat dirty and dark. The washing room was full of women crouching on the floor, sitting on small benches or on pieces of plastic. There were some children running around and the mood was very social elevated. Even the blind me could see how everybody turned to look when we walked in. Even if you couldn’t make out a lighter skin in the low-lit room, you could definitely see two blond heads.
It seemed that everybody brings their own bench or a plastic bag to sit on, but turned out we didn’t have to worry about that. Two little benches were immediately organized and our washing could begin. Hammam’s ticket is very cheap and that’s why the locals use it so actively, even the poorer people. Ticket is around 5-15DH and for that money you have to do all the work yourself. If you pay extra, you get your water buckets brought to you, you’re helped with washing and you will also get a massage. I guess we had somehow paid for an extra service, because the Berber lady quickly lugged huge buckets of cold and hot water in front of us. We started to wash ourselves and about 10 minutes later we were all done and ready to leave. A quick look around told us that we’re way ahead of the schedule, some women were watching us rather weirdly. OK, no problem, we thought, we can wash ourselves once more, just to fit in. This turned into about 6 cycles of washing and we still finished way before others did. Those women were really scrubbing themselves, i mean hard, my skin started to feel soar after the 3rd cycle already. The Berber lady, at first observing us in silence, decided to put a stop to it, step in and teach us how to wash ourselves properly. First victim – Ylle. They have these special scrubbing brushes for washing hair. First time i saw one, i thought this is something i’d use for washing pots and pans at home. So, the Berber lady grabbed one of those, stuck it into Ylle’s hair and pulled. I think people on the streets could also hear her scream. I watched and felt suddenly very protective about my hair. At first i laughed because regardless of Ylle’s personal injuries it was still very funny, but when the Berber lady turned her attention to me, i could feel how my hair follicles were shrinking deeper into my scalp. Anticipating loads of pain, i covered my head with my hands, while shaking it frantically and backing away against the wall. Luckily the Berber lady understood my subtle body language and let me off the hook. Next step in hammam’s washing process is scrubbing your skin to exfoliate. The Berber lady was rifling through our bags to see where are our special black scratchy gloves that Moroccan women use for exfoliating. Of course we didn’t have any. So she took one of Ylle’s washing gloves instead. This glove, you see, is very nice if you also soap it first, not so much anymore when somebody’s trying to rub your skin off dry.
When the Berber lady was done massaging, she proceeded to stretching. I don’t remember the exact procedure, but it ended up with my face shoved tight against her ample bosom. It might sound nasty, but at that moment i remember getting flashbacks into my childhood when me and my grandmother went to sauna together and she was washing me in her lap. The whole situation was so absurd that it made me giggle violently. I must’ve seemed like a lunatic to the Berber lady.
The Berber lady had a habit of suddenly showing up and pouring a bucket of water over me or Ylle. Usually it was cold water and i’m not sure until now what purpose did it serve. Maybe she just liked the high pitched shrieks we produced when unexpectedly confronted with a 40 liters of cold water. Luckily she favored Ylle much more than me, so i escaped the biggest chunk of her gracious attention.
When we were finally finished with our washing, we headed back to the dressing room. The Berber lady and a handful of other women came with us and sat down right next to us to openly stare at our every move while commenting in Arabic to each other. We started getting our stuff together and soon discovered, under the watchful eye of our audience, a crucial mistake in our hammam plan. Since we assumed that Moroccan hammam is like Estonian sauna, meaning fully naked, we didn’t really have extra clothes with us. That meant no dry pair of underwear either :). But we couldn't also just dress on top of the wet underwear .. All that was very funny to our audience, they definitely got their money's worth that day.
Finally when we were ready to leave and headed for the door, the Berber lady with all her 160 kg got up and blocked it for us. She was explaining something which we didn't understand at all. We figured that we couldn't be in trouble because her face was kind and friendly. Finally it somehow dawned on us that Muahsin, who brought us to the hammam, must've told her to keep us there until he came and picked us up. I guess he thought we would get lost in medina trying to find our way back to the riad. We of course disagreed and as soon as the Berber lady's attention faded for a second, we quickly slipped passed her and ran up the stairs, giggling like insane school-girls on crack. And of course we found our way back to the riad, it was only 10 minutes away. Ye have a little faith, Muahsin! About 15 minutes after we arrived in the riad, Muahsin also ran in, breathless and afraid. I guess he went to "collect" us and got scared when we weren't there.
All in all it was a pretty surreal experience though we totally had a blast. Most of the time we were joking and laughing, snickering and giggling, the local women must have thought we were somewhat unstable. If you are touchy about hygiene and chickenhearted about strange situations, then maybe visiting a local hammam isn't for you. But you can always opt for an upscale spa house where floors are covered with rose petals and a fragrant scent of jasmine is flowing about. But i think i will speak for both Ylle and me when i say that visiting that particular hammam was definitely a fun experience, a quirky look into a local not-so-very-public culture.
Me and Ylle