I smell strongly of cloves. My body, naked but for my panties, is covered in a dark olive-coloured paste. My skin is tingling; the paste is obviously a salve to heal me from the rough epidermal scrub-down I have just endured. Steam fills the room and I breathe in the heavy air through my nose, my eyes closed in relaxation as I lean back against the cool tile wall.
This is my first Moroccan hammam, and after some initial trepidation, I am thoroughly enjoying it.
The Muslim world is known for these ancient, elaborate rituals – known to many in the West as a Turkish bath – that involve steaming and sloughing layers of dead skin from your body, usually in public baths where everyone gets the treatment together. I managed to live four years in Cairo, Egypt, before trying it.
Too much of a prudish Canadian to first go to the baths in the old city, where I imagine a steamy room full of naked women of all shapes and sizes being scrubbed down by no-nonsense female staff with strong arms and controlling personalities, I decide to initiate myself with a private hammam at a day spa.
Moments after I settle into my personal 2×1-meter steam room, there is a light knock on the door and a questioning, “OK?” I am joined by Suzanne, a squat Moroccan woman wearing a black one-piece bathing suit and a sweet smile.
I try to act nonchalant. But honestly, it isn’t every day that I meet a new person when I am wearing nothing but a pair of beige nylon panties, which I realize now are soaked through from the condensed steam and the wet mat I am resting on.
Of course Suzanne doesn’t care. She fills a low, tiled sink with lukewarm water, dips in a plastic pitcher, and motions to me to turn around so my back is to her. I tilt my head back and the water pours over me; I am struck by how much I welcome the sensation of streams of cool water rinsing away the hot beads of sweat that had collected. Immediately I feel pampered – the last time anyone rinsed my hair and body with a pitcher I was probably a child in a tub. I feel my body start to relax, my awareness of my nakedness retreating to the back of my mind.
Without a word – we were stymied by language issues, and what would I say in this situation anyway? – Suzanne works a creamy conditioner into my hair, massages my scalp – oh, I didn’t know how much I liked that feeling! – and clips up my hair. Then, another signal to turn around, and her hands are rubbing a silky lotion into my skin. All over my body.
Now, until this hour, I fit the stereotype of the puritanical North American who wasn’t all that comfortable with public nudity. Girls in my high school locker room changed clothes modestly with their backs to the other girls, not wanting to be the obvious prude who retreated to a curtained stall but also not wanting to bare her breasts nonchalantly to the others. My two visits to nude beaches in California consisted mostly of me keeping my eyes on my book and convincing myself that if I wasn’t looking at the nudes around me, surely they also were not looking at me. And yes, I’d had a massage or two, but my then body was mostly under a towel and I kept my eyes closed.
And now I am naked, nothing to hide under, and a woman is rubbing lotion onto my back, my breasts, my butt, all over my body – and the sensation is wonderful! My skin soaks up the lotion and my last nagging inhibitions drift away.
Suzanne leaves me in the steam room for about 30 minutes, to soften my skin. When she returns, she has added a dark blue exfoliating mitten to her uniform. Starting on my back, she sweeps the coarse mitten downwards in long, pressurized strokes that are necessarily rough – the thought crosses my mind that she may scrub away the butterfly tattoo on my lower back – but not painful. My body leans into the pressure, appreciating it like an itch being scratched. It feels at once like a massage and a cleaning.
She scrubs my back, my neck, the backs of my legs, the top of my buttocks, the bottom of my feet. She rolls me over and begins on my shoulders, my breasts, my stomach, my legs. Every few minutes she fills the plastic pitcher and rinses me off.
Somehow I enjoy the feeling on my arms the best. Until I open my eyes and see what is peeling off – filthy little balls of what I realize is my own skin! Surely I was not that dirty? I glance at Suzanne, embarrassed at the dirty particles sloughing off me.
“Ana akhud douche kulleyoum,” I insist. I shower every day!
She holds my arm against her large stomach as she scrubs it. Her short hair is curling in the steam and her deep-set black eyes smile at me from behind thick eyelashes.
“No problem. Good,” she says in English.
But I feel like a dirty foreigner.
“Kulle hadd zayy kida?” I ask awkwardly. Is everyone like this?
Suzanne nods and waves her arm in the air. “Igaww.” Oh, the weather. She is apparently telling me that Cairo’s pollution had settled on my skin, very deeply from what I was witnessing. Eww. I wrinkle my nose as I watch the bits of dirty skin peeling off my arms, my chest, my legs.
Suzanne slaps the mitten against her other hand to clear it of my skin, then finishes my exfoliating with a gentle scrub of my face. She gives me a final complete body rinse, and my dead skin disappears down the drain.
Next, she slathers my raw, newly cleaned epidermis with the clove paste, and I breathe it in deeply. By the time my pink skin is hidden in the dark substance, my pores are tingling, and Suzanne leaves me to relax.
As my fingertips wrinkle in the steam, I fleetingly wonder about Suzanne. Who wants a job where you spend 8 hours in a bathing suit rubbing down naked strangers? But the thought dissipates like the droplets of condensation on the wall I’m leaning against. Who cares about anything? I feel clean, I feel fresh, I feel wonderful.
The feeling stays with me after the paste is rinsed off, after my hair is washed, after I relax in the lounge with a magazine and a small glass of super-sweet Moroccan tea while wrapped snugly in a white terry cloth robe. Strangely, the feeling even stays with me as I re-emerge onto the Cairo streets – I am somehow certain my Moroccan hammam has protected my skin from whatever is settling on me.
But just in case, I make a mental note to reschedule another session two weeks from today. After all, I have now seen what rests on my skin!