Sunday, December 16, 2007

Bathing and the Hammam

Ok, so let me tell you what happens when you get lazy. You’ve cooked yourself a meal and it took a while to make so after you have enjoyed every last morsel you sprawl out on your couch, loosen your pants, and maybe even let out a satisfied burp. What you are by no means in the mood to do, however, is to clean up after yourself. What awaits you the next day (or if you are like me and don’t have running water so washing dishes means lugging water back to your house) or a couple of days later is pots that are no longer able to be cleaned with a mere sponge. What do you do? Well, you probably fill whatever it is with water and let it soak and then maybe even attack it with some steel wool.

If what I’ve just described isn’t a situation you ever find yourself in then congratulations, you either don’t cook for yourself and you really need to learn, or you don’t ever get lazy. If you’re never in a lethargic mood, then… well… I have nothing to say to you. You’re super-human. Sit there and wait a while, someone is coming with your medal.

I don’t want to tell you about cooking right now, although I did just make myself a spectacular chicken tajine stuffed with almonds and dates. I want you to now turn your mind to personal hygiene and specifically bathing. I live in the bled (countryside), have no running water, and so don’t really get to bathe myself very often and much like the pot I described above when I do get around to bathing myself, there is a lot of… well… collected nastiness that needs an extra effort.

During the summer it wasn’t a major issue because I could bathe on my roof in the sunshine and the sun would dry me before I was even done bathing. Now it is so cold that during the “heat of the day” I’m bundled up in three or four layers and a blanket and I’m still shivering. I end up getting up much later because it takes me a full hour to get up enough courage to brave the cold outside my blankets (all four of them). Yes I know, I’m cold in Africa, go figure. Before I could take a trip into town and visit one of my Peace Corps Volunteer friends who had a hot shower (that would be the Small Business Development and the Youth Development people otherwise known as Posh Corps) and I would be all set. Sadly, however, all of them just COSed (Close of Service… there two years were up) and the new crowd is still with their host families. What is a poor Peace Corps Volunteer to do? Good thing that in Morocco we have public baths that are the personal hygiene equivalent of a long soak and steel wool.

When I lived in Budapest there was a Hammam (public bath) that I went to every other weekend and in Budapest what that meant was heated pools, steam rooms and a massage all for like four dollars. It was spectacular. Granted everyone in there was naked so some of my friends couldn’t really handle that which meant that a lot of times I went solo. The point is, the Hammam in Budapest was a relaxing experience. I would call it luxurious but it was so inexpensive. That is not at all what the Hammam is here. There are a few similarities… there is steam, and there is water, and a bunch of men although they aren’t fully naked. That’s where the similarities end. People come to these places to actually get clean. Who’d a thought?

So let me describe this process with you and I’ll start by letting you in on the tools you bring with you. You of course have your soap and shampoo. What would bathing be without those? Most people, including myself, also bring their razors from some spectacularly close shaving. I have a nice straight edge razor that someone special gave me that I like to use. It’s shwiya dangerous, but it makes me feel cool that I’m using a straight edge which of course makes up for the danger. You also have to bring your “aghlaf” (I’m not sure of the Arabic word for this thing) which is a large container for water about twice the size of a coffee mug. This is what you use to get the water out of the buckets they provide for you and onto your person to rinse away the week long build up of mud, sweat, and, you know… it’s a week without showering, you get the picture. The final piece is what makes this Hammam experience so cleansing; it is the “Kis”. In dishwashing terms, this is the steel wool. Picture a wash cloth that fits on your hand like a mitten but is only a fraction softer than actual steel wool. Sound horrifyingly painful? I thought so too until I charged recklessly into the unknown.

So you pay your fee, usually about seven Dirhams which used to be like 80 something cents, but now is closer to a dollar thanks to the dollar being extremely weak right now.

(To follow a quick rabbit trail, I had the shock of my life while my granddad and uncle were here travelling. I went to go change some money and the teller at the bank told me that I should have brought Canadian Dollars. I’ve lived abroad for half my life, and have never heard anyone say anything remotely similar to that. I almost had a heart attack laughing.)

Then you go into this room where everyone is changing. Now like I said, in Hungary people just walked around naked and no one cared. Here, that is not the case. There is a sense of modesty so as your are putting on your underwear to go into the Hammam area you cover yourself with a towel. You then leave all of your things in a little cubby hole, grab two buckets and head in with only yourself, your underwear, and your “cleaning supplies”.

Now you have two options, you can bathe yourself or you can have someone do it for you. Most of the time I bathe myself, but on the rare occasion that I’m in the mood, whatever that means, I get someone to do it for me. This is an extremely intense experience and I guarantee you that after this guy is done you will be the cleanest you have ever been in your life.

I usually just do it myself so I’ll describe that process. You walk in through three rooms of increasing heat to where the water is dispensed. There’s HOT water and COLD water. Those are capitalized for a reason. You make a mix of the two you deem appropriate and tolerable and then pick out a spot on the floor next to some other guys also dealing with a week’s worth of build-up, wash down that spot on the floor (this part is necessary) and then plop down. I usually just sit there for a bit and pour hot water all over myself while the heat starts to take effect. I then follow that by stretching for a good long while just relaxing and breathing in the steam and letting my pores open.

After I feel sufficiently stretched out, I plop back down and then shave by feel which is extremely satisfying because you are bearing witness to just how close the shave is as you are going. When you have a mirror in front of you, you can be tempted to rely on the visual which can be misleading. You’ll make it to work later and then there’s a whole spot near your Adam’s apple, just below your nose, and under your jawbone that you missed. After the skin on my face is as smooth as I could possibly make it I move on to washing my hair. I don’t think that needs any explanation.

And now we come to my new, favorite part… the steel wool. I put this thing on my hand and then basically scrub my entire body… ENTIRE body… until about three layers of dead skin (and probably some life skin too… I usually come out looking red all over) are scraped away. Is this painful? Not really. It works a lot like a washcloth should, but when you use a washcloth with soap you are basically lubricating the cloth so that it doesn’t work well as a scrubbing agent. The “Kis’s” sole purpose is to scrub and it does a very efficient job at it.

After you are all rubbed down you then rinse off and then pick up your soap. This part, like the shampoo, needs no explanation. Now when I am finished and have rinsed off, I usually do something that most Moroccans do not. Actually, come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve seen any Moroccans do this so I guess it’s a little American twist to the whole thing. I fill up a bucket with the COLD water and dump it all over me. I think it’s a nice cool down from the entire experience. I guess you could say it brings closure to the relationship you just had with the Hammam.

You then exit to where your clothes are, dry off, change and be on your merry way with your skin all over feeling the smoothest it could possibly be because it was basically just sanded down and then varnished. If I ever find myself making the kind of money that would allow me to design my own house, I am definitely building myself a personal Hammam. However if my past is any indicator as to the type of salaried jobs I’m likely to see in the future, I’m probably going to having that dream for a great deal longer before it gets fulfilled.

Now if you had someone else wash you the experience goes about the same except it adds a bit to the price, and the whole time (except the shaving) you have someone else scrubbing you down, rinsing you, stretching you, washing you, and then rinsing you again. All of that is spectacular except for the stretching. I’m pretty sure some of the stuff the guy did to me today is going to permanently damage something inside me.

Let me use this opportunity to comment to all of you who cringe at the thought of another male, especially one who, like you, is only clad in underwear, wash you down. If that makes you uncomfortable, no problem… just do it yourself. In America if we see girls walking down the street with their arms linked we think nothing of it. Here it is the same with men. Men who are walking down the street together will hold hands, link arms, etc. They don’t even have to like each other. Two guys in my town who loathe each other had to attend a meeting and were talking on the way there and held hands. I don’t want to offer a public explanation for this cultural difference although I have had many discussions about it, some serious but others comical. I’ll leave the why up to you.

So there you have it. I’m sitting here writing this, listening to Jerry Garcia, Tony Rice, and David Grisman jam out and feeling extremely clean but disappointingly cold. Next time I might write about what happens when I let the dirty clothes build up for a long time… well, that’s a different story. The only communal solution to that is the weekly party the women have down by the river where they wash the clothes and I am most definitely not invited to that party. They have offered to wash my clothes, but I don’t feel comfortable asking someone else to do that for me. I will say this… vinegar in your rinsing water acts as a fabric softener. You learn all sorts of cool stuff like that living here.

I hope this finds you all warm and content in the direction your lives are taking. If times are rough, know that joy comes in the morning. And for those of you who pray, please remember the victims of the attacks in Algeria this past week.



SimplyMoroccan said...
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Yasmeen said...

I liked many things in Morocco, but hammam I'll remember forever! Along with the communal bakery, fountain, madrasa (school) and mosque, the hammam is one of five traditional elements found in every Moroccan neighborhood. In the hammams that are a little more luxurious new touristic place, hotels and modern Morocco property, they do cater for international visitors. While the locals scrub, brush and talk their way through a cleansing session, visitors will get their own hammam magician. Ladies will obviously be escorted by a woman, as the men and woman do bathe separately. Women will keep their bikini bottoms on while in the bathhouse.