Going to the hammam

Rabat, Morocco
January 11, 2007

Despite what all northern Europeans say, I’ve never really been a fan of saunas. I went to my first one when my parents took me to Finland at the age of six. While it sounds romantic, perched on the edge of a lakeside cabin somewhere in northern Finland, honestly, I just found the whole idea of soaking oneself in heavy steam and then jumping in a freezing cold lake to be just downright crazy. It wasn’t until I went to Estonia in 2005 that I experienced the sauna again, where I watched Veljo Haamer strip naked and pour cupful after cupful of water on the blazing rocks with perfect serenity, while I paced back and forth in my boxers — trying to understand how he was perfectly content to stay there for hours, when I could barely stand it for a few minutes. The only thing that seemed to make him happier than soaking in the sauna was running outside and taking a huge bellyflop into a mound of snow.

So, that said, I wasn’t sure that I would get all that into the idea of a hammam (Turkish bath). All I’d heard about the hammam was that you sit in a really hot steamy room and get massaged by some huge dude who would grunt with excitement as you tried to grunt in pain, which would naturally be misinterpreted through the hazy steam as cries of joy. Allusions to homoeroticism aside, I didn’t think that I would be all that into it. However, when in Rabat, you gotta do what the Rabatis do.

When Susan asked me if I wanted to go to the hammam, I was skeptical at best. Hammams are gender-segregated, so unless I wanted to go alone, I couldn’t go with her, which meant I’d go with her husband. Tounkara had been once before, and said that he didn’t really like it all that much, mostly because he said it was crowded. But because he’s a good guy and because he wanted me to have a good time, he was willing to give it a second go. So off we went on Friday morning, around 11 am.

The nearest hammam to Susan and Tounkara’s apartment in Rabat (Quartier Hassan) is across the street from what appeared to be one of the largest mosques in town, pretty close to the central train station — about 10 minutes away. From the outside, I would have never known that there was a hammam there. It simply looked like an old stone driveway going into something that looked like a few hundred-year-old clay or stone-walled compound. When we walked down the pathway, a policeman stopped us and asked us where we were headed (a non-Arab and a black African stick out pretty easily in Morocco) and when we told him that we were just going to the hammam around the corner from where he was sitting, he waved us on.

Tounkara led me into this dank stone building that save its age, was pretty much like any other locker room that I’ve ever been in, with stale and stanky air. Well, except for the fact that there weren’t any lockers to speak of, but an area with a wooden bench for us to change. We stripped down to our boxers and I followed him into the main sauna chamber. He took a bath mat, a hammam-specific washcloth (called a “kiis” in Arabic), a small tupperware container (for scooping water), and bar soap (we didn’t go for the traditional soap that they showed me in the market), while I carried four empty buckets, one large white one, and a smaller black one that could fit inside of it.

We didn’t see anyone else except the hammam staff (one guy who seemed to be the manager, who was somewhat well-dressed), and a smaller guy who was going to look after our bags. The room had a thin layer of water everywhere and the stone floor sloped slightly towards the middle, where there was a drain. It was pretty hot, but it wasn’t much compared to the smaller second room, where we filled our buckets. That room, much like the first, had a floor drain, but also had a large stone bath at the back, filled up with fairly warm but not scalding water. Then we filled out buckets at the spigots — one had scalding water, and one cold water. Tounkara explained that you could mix the two types of water (think a larger version of an old-style sink faucet) to create the ideal balance and temperature that you wanted. Once we had the big bucket filled with hot water, we filled the smaller one with the cold.

He asked if I wanted to stay and set up shop in the hotter room, and I said that I would leave that choice to him. He seemed to prefer the main larger room, and so I dutifully followed, dragging my buckets of water along with me. He slapped our bath mat (just like the ones at home, with a plasticky bottom) against the wet stone floor. We brought our buckets over, and he unpacked our soap and washcloth. We took turns laying prone on the floor, with our chests against the bath mat, while the other poured hot water all over the other’s back, then scrubbed with the kiis, then rinsed with the colder water.

When I was done washing him, it seemed like we were pretty much done — and if so, I was pretty dissappointed. I’d thought that there was a guy who was going to massage us, and possibly (as I’d heard about in Russian and Turkish bathhouses), beat us with wooden switches. We sat there for a few minutes, and then out of nowhere, a thin Moroccan man who didn’t seem to speak much French, wearing nothing but a bathing suit, appeared.

The masseur took our buckets to go refill them, and then came back. I went first, and then he basically repeated the same actions that we’d done. He tossed the hot water on me with the tupperware container, then scrubbed me down, rinsed, then massaged with his hands along my back, arms, and legs. He motioned for me to sit up and turn over, so he could do the same thing along my chest and the front of my legs. It didn’t seem to be very deep of a massage, and more just seemed like he was pressing down enough to slide the soap off of my skin. I’m not sure if that’s normal, or if you can ask for them to do it harder. I’m not that really into massages to begin with, so it seemed fine to me.

Once that was done, he rinsed me off and motioned for me to sit up. I did, with my knees bent upwards, wrapping my arms around my legs, in a semi-fetal position. I thought that he was going to wash my back or shoulders, perhaps, from a different angle, but before I had a chance to look, I saw the movement of the big black bucket coming towards me, and he proceeded to pour the remainder of the warm water over my head. Wave after wave it came, sliding down my back and over my head. I fumbled between words, smiles, and laughter. He repeated the process with the cold water, which suddenly, didn’t seem so cold anymore.

Then it was Tounkara’s turn, and the masseur repeated the process. As I watched, I thought about how bathing was such a basic process and that this tradition probably hadn’t changed much in hundreds of years, save the plastic used in the buckets, scooper, and bath mat. I guess I never really understood the whole concept of public baths until I went to this hammam — most people, probably until relatively recently (like the last century), didn’t have regular access to bathing facilities apart from the hammam. And like their northern European counterparts, many Moroccans swear by the ritual, with some going as often as every week, particularly before Friday prayers at the mosque across the street.

Once Tounkara was done, he paid him six dirhams as a tip (about $0.80), and we went back to the locker room to put our street clothes on. Tounkara raved about how much better he liked the experience this time, given that we were the only ones there (a 10 year-old kid showed up at one point, and washed himself in front of us from across the room, by himself.) The whole process, from the time we walked in, to the time we walked out, took about an hour.

As we left, I asked him how much the whole thing cost us, besides the tip: 10 dirhams ($1.25) apiece.

I’d go again, but I’m not sure that I’d go every week.