Friday, March 6, 2009

The Hammam

For those of you who don’t know, a hammam is a public bath. Many houses don’t have their own baths, so the hammam is an important part of Moroccan life.

The hammam in Tounfite (my market town) is open in the mornings for men and afternoons for women. There are some hammams that are big enough that they are open all day for both sexes, but not ours. There is no public hammam in my village – some families have small private hammams.

The first room in the hammam is the changing room. There are benches, cubbies, and hooks to hang your clothes. Men strip down to their underwear, grab a few buckets, and enter the warmer rooms of the hammam. Most hammams have three washing rooms, of varying warmth. The innermost room is the warmest as it normally has the hot water taps and is closest to the fire.

I always go directly to the innermost room and fill up my buckets with hot water. An important ritual is splashing hot water on the space of the floor that you will sit on before you sit down to wash. After I have my water and have cleaned the floor, I take a seat and relax.

The hammam in Tounfite is, relative to other hammams, not very warm. It’s not anywhere near as warm as a sauna in the United States. Nonetheless, it’s very comfortable and relaxing. I normally just sit and relax for a while before I begin washing. I have fallen asleep in a hammam before.

The traditional way of washing is to apply a special soap and let it sit for 10 minutes. Then you take a very rough mitt and scrub your whole body. The idea is to scrub and scrape your body hard enough to remove all the dead skin. I’ve seen people scrape layers of skin off. It’s kind of disgusting. For the hard to reach areas, people often get someone else to scrub them. Skin is often red after the scrubbing. Then you lather up with some normal soap and rinse off. Men often shave in the hammam as well.

Another interesting aspect of the hammam is the communal stretching that takes place. Given the warm atmosphere, the hammam is a nice place to do stretching. I often stretch as well. But the communal stretching in the hammams takes it to a whole other level. Body parts intertwine to create enough leverage to really stretch. There is often loud grunting coming from the stretchee as his body is contorted into positions I never thought possible. It’s difficult to describe the positions attained by the people stretching each other, but imagine joints bent at angles previously unattained and the body parts of one man indistinguishable from those of his stretching partner. If stretching were an Olympic event, this is what it would look like.

Although I haven’t experienced this aspect of the hammam, for women the hammam is a very social place. Men exchange some greetings, but there isn’t a lot of talking (hard to hear one another over the grunting coming from your stretching neighbors). From what I hear, however, women spend a lot of their time in the hammam talking. In Moroccan society, there are fewer (or no) public spaces where women can socialize, so I imagine that the hammam is a good excuse for women to get out of the house and meet with other women for a few hours. The hammam actually charges women more (6 dirhams compared with 5 for men) because they spend longer there. I’ve heard of women who come to the hammam at 1 o’clock and don’t leave until 5.

All told, the hammam is an essential Moroccan experience. It’s warm and clean – what more could you ask for?


My 73 year old host dad has many illnesses, but one that troubles him the most is arthritis (at least I think it’s arthritis – he describes it by saying that his hands are closed). A traditional healer recently came to town and so my host dad went to see him. I’m pretty sure my host dad has never seen a certified doctor about his problems.

The treatment for my host dad’s illnesses (and many other illnesses) is a light burning. The healer took a hot piece of metal and burnt my host dad on three different places on his right arm. Back at the house, he had to stay inside for seven days to ensure the effectiveness of the treatment. During those seven days, he could only eat bread, tea, and eggs. Guests were not supposed to come over and generally my host dad was instructed to relax.

The seventh day was Friday the 27th. On Sunday the 1st, my host dad went to the mountain with our mule to collect branches. He was still feeling tired, but the animals needed food to eat. My host mom and I were hanging out at the house in the afternoon/evening, waiting for him to come back so we could eat dinner. He has to wait until late in the afternoon to return because the activity is illegal. But he was much later than normal in returning. It was dark outside. So my host mom and I went looking for him along the road. My host mom was really freaking out, worrying that he had died up in the mountains or there was some other catastrophe. I was a little worried as well. We ended up finding him 5 kilometers from home slowly leading the mule back. Apparently the mule had gotten away from him and he had a tough time tracking it down. He was exhausted. My host mom walked the mule the rest of the way home and I walked back with my host dad. The entire time he kept saying, “I’m tired, I’m tired.” We were walking really slowly. We got back to the house OK, but it was a worrying experience.

Other than that, all is well. The weather has gotten a little cold again, but nothing bad. My work is going well. The most exciting project is currently trying to do some HIV/AIDS education in a nearby city/town. I’ve also recently decided that I need to learn Arabic in order to improve my effectiveness. Tamazight is not the favored language once I leave my little mountain community and I’m often constrained by not speaking Arabic. Plus, I am illiterate in the operative language of the country. Fortunately, I already know a good deal of Arabic from studying in school and the overlap between Tamazight and Arabic, but I hope to get a tutor and get serious about learning the language.


Colton Bangs said...

haha, the korean public bath is more expensive for men. apparently, the women used to steal the towels and soap so they stopped providing it and charge them less. i look forward to the moroccan bath

maryellen said...

i miss the hammam...

Reuben said...

your hammam sounds hella homo-erotic.

Poor host dad.

Anonymous said...

Black American wear black suit and this is perfect for their skin tone.