Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Trip to the Hammam

On a quiet Wednesday afternoon two weeks ago, I finally set off to the hammam. As I walked down the street, bucket in one hand and stool in the other, I felt both normal and out of place. Going to the hammam is a routine for my Moroccan family and I knew that, in going to the hammam, I would gain insight on this ritual and its importance in Moroccan culture. However, lugging my hammam supplies down the street, I also had no idea of what awaited me within.

After meeting up with my fellow hammam goers and consulting a kind local woman for directions, I arrived at the hammam. In Arabic, hammam means "spreador of warmth." Before these steam baths were introduced to Arab societies, men and women used only cold water for bathing. After seeing Roman baths in Syria, the prophet Mohammed recommended "sweat baths" to his followers. As Islam grew, so did the hammam, evolving into the sauna like chambers I have come to know and love. Entering the hammam was intimidating--there are no signs explaining what to do, only unspoken traditions. After paying the entrance fee of treize Dirhams (13 dirhams = $1.60), we followed the movements of the other hammam goers. We handed over our clothes--the hammam is not a place for those unprepared for near public nudity--  in exchange for buckets and gesture towards a closed door.

Once inside, three rooms stretched out before us, each one progressively hotter, and we chose to set up our supplies in the hottest one. My hammam supplies include:
A stool  (for sitting on while bathing)
Kessa (a mitten with a sand paper like texture for scrubbing shown below)
Bucket (typically the hamman provides one bucket/bather)
Flip Flops 
Ladle (for rinsing)
Savon Noire (a black soap pictured below) 

After arranging our various scrubs and tools in front of us, we filled our buckets from the two faucets on the side of the white tiled room. As I walked across the floor (which was surprisingly clean), I could feel the heat from the fire of the hammam beneath my feet. Immediately, sweat began gathering all over my body and the bathing rituals began. I don't have any pictures, but the tiled room of the hamman I visited looks like this, but without the benches on the side and with a flat ceiling.

Savon noire is applied to soften the skin and swell dead skin cells so they are easily removed. The removal of the dead skins cells is made possible by kessa. Hammam goers have two options for scrubbing--doing it themselves or hiring one of the hammam workers to scrub for them. Either way, the goal seems to be to have no skin left, accomplished by vigorous and repeated scrubbing. I chose to scrub myself, but I watched the hamman workers scrub many other women with unmatched ferocity. After the scrubbing myself, I washed my hair repeatedly, using the ladle my host mom had lent me to rinse myself.

As we refilled our buckets with water of various temperatures, ranging from scorching hot to a refreshing cold, the hammam began to swell with women of all ages. Going to the hammam isn't just about lathering and ladling. It's a social event. Women often come with friends or children to enjoy a couple hours of relaxation and conversation. For this reason, the bathing can stretch on for several hours. I finally began to feel sufficiently clean after an hour of hammmam-ing. I don't think any shower will make me feel as clean as I did when I stepped outside the hammam onto a busy street in Rabat. I've already returned to the hammam and I've designated Wednesday afternoons as the time for my weekly trip. I hope to try out as many hammams as possible! 

Until next time! 


  1. Thanks for the description! I have long wondered what went on in there!

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