At 16 years of age, I walked up to my mom and simply said, “I want to bathe naked with other ladies.” Unfortunately, this isn’t a coming out story. I was in the midst of poring over tour books in a Moroccan riad, determined to make the most out of my trip to Fes. We had already shopped at every souk, photographed every madrasa, and inhaled every tagine in Fes, but I still felt like I was just skimming the chapters of the novel that is Moroccan culture. My parents were dismissive: “Don’t be crazy, Samar, you don’t speak Arabic and we don’t want to go with you. Why do you want to experience public nudity so badly?” Of course, they had a point. I could barely handle my school’s locker room, and now I was pursuing a group bath with a bunch of women that I didn’t know. When in Fes, right?
Hammams are about rejuvenation, cleansing, and community. Women and men shed their worries and their clothes as they gather in steam rooms and discuss daily events. As far as I know, we Americans don’t have anything like a hammam. Gym steam rooms only get you so far in life. So I pushed my doubts aside and walked out of my riad, armed with a map, my phone, and very limited Arabic vocabulary.
I arrived at Hammam Mernissi, an authentic hammam inside of Fes’ medina, recommended to me by my driver. I gasped – every inch of the interior was covered in Islamic tile. It was spotless, and so far, there was no nudity to be found. Imagine a museum combined with a European Wax Center – that’s where I had found myself. The receptionist impatiently gestured towards me with an open palm and swept her hand up and down, wordlessly instructing me to remove my clothes. She could tell I was not a local Moroccan despite my brown skin and confident attitude. I had read that some people kept their underwear on during their hammam stays, and the receptionist allowed me to do the same. So there I stood, shivering under the dim lighting while my completely exposed skin accumulated a thin layer of dust from the Moroccan air.
My illiteracy in Arabic presented a slight challenge immediately to me and my hammam helper, Yasmine. I grabbed the black, olive oil-based soap when I was supposed to be turning on the shower. She just laughed and rinsed me off. Pretty standard stuff.
Next, I brought my towel into the steam room, thereby eliminating its usefulness. The ladies in there started chortling when I realized my error, but by then it was too late. I could tell why the receptionist knew that I was not a local patron – I was the smallest person in the hammam. I’m no twig, but the difference was stark enough that my new Dionysus-like friends who spoke a little bit of English implored me to eat more. A little more time around those tagines, I assured them, and I’d double in size.
Women and men shed their worries and their clothes as they gather in steam rooms and discuss daily events.
Then came the scrubbing. The black soap went from soothing to scorching within seconds as Yasmine started to scrape my body with a sponge that was as soft as a pinecone. Who knew that human beings had so much dead skin on their bodies? The skin, along with my appetite, disappeared with a little elbow grease. Moroccan hammams are unique for the scrub treatment, and it was so worth it. With my skin raw and more Gerber baby-like than usual, I was relieved to see a hot tub in which I could submerge my blistering body. As my toes touched the water, they recoiled instantly. The water was like a Sea Isle City Polar Bear Plunge. If you’re not familiar with Jersey Shore jargon, the water was FRICKIN’ COLD. Still, I braved the bubbles and sank in up to my shoulders, finding myself at eye level with a completely nude Moroccan nine-year old. We had a stare-off: she won. At that point, I was desperate to get back to my parents and relate the day’s events. I started walking around the hammam, but couldn’t find Yasmine. I moved past a curtain and finally found her, but she looked rather alarmed. It was at that point that I realized that I was the only naked person in the room. I had forgotten my robe and accidentally walked into the lobby.
The receptionist looked amused as I paid her the 100 dirhams plus tip and exited the hammam, still glowing from the scrub and also from the pride I felt for not heeding my parents’ apprehension. Surrounded by those gregarious women, I felt like a part of their daily lives and community. And that’s what real travel is all about, right? Seeing a new culture from a local’s perspective is worth every dirham, awkward nude entrance, and scolding from my mother. I recommend going to a Moroccan hammam, either alone or with a friend, because you will feel rejuvenated and proud for trying something new. And tell them that Samar sent you!
Would you ever go to a hammam? Let us know in the comments below!