Getting Naked with Strangers: The Hammam Experience

“Going to the hammam is an essential experience while you’re in Morocco,” our wonderful study abroad director told us as we walked through the streets of Meknes.  And we were going to get that experience, as we we were headed to the women’s hammam (otherwise known as a Turkish bath).

The hammam is most heard of in Turkey, but it is also an essential part of Moroccan culture and in many other Islamic countries.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, seeing as I’d heard mixed reactions from both my host family and others who had already gone.  For my host family, it’s a weekly ordeal, and a normal part of their life and culture.

Women's Hammam Sign

But for the other Americans, well, they explained that it would be a little strange for us, but coming out of it, we will feel cleaner than we ever have in our entire life.  The most important thing to bring? An open mind.

After coming out of the hammam a couple hours later, I couldn’t agree more with all of this.

On Facebook, I wrote that it was an interesting experience, and that I did in fact feel the cleanest in my life, but that was the bare minimum of my thoughts.  Let’s be real here: there was a whole lot more to the experience than just that.  And you’re about to get all the details, so prepare yourself.

First of all, you do have to get naked.  Not completely naked, mind you, more like 75% if you know what I mean. As in lose the tops, but keep the bottoms.  Although you will see some women walking around free as a bird, and not a care in the world about it.  As you can imagine, this was something us American girls were not completely comfortable with, especially when the Moroccan women running the place are hooting and clapping in amusement at our embarrassment.  

There are three sections to the hammam: the entrance, which separates the outside world from this women-only domain; the changing area, where people store their things and change, aka get naked; and then there is the actual hammam, or sauna-like chambers full of steam where the bathing is done.  The deeper you go in, the hotter and steamier it will get.  A red and a blue pipe surround the outside of the walls, where one can get both hot and cold water from, respectively.

The first order of business is washing yourself, all the while slowly relaxing in the sauna-like conditions.  At the door, they typically give you Moroccan black soap, which basically just looks like dark brown goop, along with some henna.  After mixing the two together, you apply it to your skin, and although it may look gross, believe me when I say it will make your skin so incredibly soft and smooth.  Perfect for shaving!

traditional moroccan black soapIt’s easy to not feel insecure about the whole naked thing if you look around and realize that nobody is judging.  Everybody is comfortable in their own skin, young and old, no matter how fat or hairy they may be, and they are all relaxing in the community-like atmosphere of the bath.

After you are finished washing yourself, relaxing, and doing whatever, the next step that comes is probably the worst.  Or the best, depending on how you look at it.  People will then proceed to scrub themselves down, and when I say scrub, I mean really SCRUB.  With a washcloth to the likes of sandpaper.  It’s for the purpose of removing all of the dead layers of skin that have accumulated over the years and exposing the new ones underneath.

You can either choose to scrub yourself……or have an expert do it for you.  So of course our local Moroccan study abroad director had us get the full experience and be scrubbed down.  And who did the scrubbing?  An old, half-naked woman with the strength of a wrestler who only spoke Arabic, of course.  Why would it be anyone else?

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so uncomfortable in my life.   Did I mention that the washcloth was like sandpaper?  And this old woman, who had clearly developed some serious arm strength from her years in a hammam, was scrubbing away as if my skin were wood.  No mercy whatsoever, as I laid there awkwardly.

“Shwaya, shwaya,”  I would say again and again, telling her to slow down in Arabic.  But many times she either didn’t hear me, ignored me, or saw nothing wrong with her technique, so I was reduced to squirming when necessary.

Turkish bath in MoroccoI came out of that scrubbing session both pink and ridiculously smooth, with little balls of dead skin that had accumulated everywhere which I had to then wash off.  I was both relieved that the awkward scrubbing was over, and amazed at the results.  I don’t think my skin had ever been as soft as it was then, except for maybe when I was a baby.  I felt so clean and new, especially when realizing that there really had been so many layers of dead skin just sitting there.

It was also at this point that the effects of sitting in the heat and steam for a long period of time were starting to bother me.  I felt very dehydrated, and almost like I could pass out, so I had to rush the final steps of the hammam before grabbing all of my things and running back out into the cooler, refreshing air.

Final thoughts?  It was a good experience.  Definitely a cultural must in Morocco or Turkey or wherever, both because of the results and because it is something so different than what we are used to.  Just bring an open mind, a LOT of water to keep yourself hydrated, and watch out for the strong, old scrubbing women.  Although doing the whole experience (including the awkward scrub-down) should be done at least once just so you can experience that amazing sense of cleanliness.

Would I do it again? Probably not, to be honest.  It was good to experience it that one time, but if I were to again then I would save all the cleaning for myself.  The only other time I would consent to getting the whole experience would be before my wedding day if I ever end up getting married.

Things to Bring for a Hammam Experience:

  • Lots of water
  • Shampoo, shaving cream, razor, other washes, etc.
  • A washcloth (Sandpaper ones are provided)
  • Changes of clothes
  • Multiple towels for your hair/body
  • A bag to carry wet clothes/towels in after
  • Flip-flops or plastic shoes/sandals to walk around in
  • A small bucket to fill up with water and wash yourself with
  • Comfortableness in your own skin
  • An open mind
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2 thoughts on “Getting Naked with Strangers: The Hammam Experience

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