Virgins in the Hammam

When I arrived in Morocco for the first time, I had only a vague inclination of what to expect. Beautiful tiles, desert oases, and hijabs were about it.

I’d been to predominantly Muslim countries before and thought I was prepared for just about anything, including the temperature.

I had been fascinated with this country for years and was living in Barcelona at the time, making travel much more convenient and affordable. This was one of my last trips before returning to the U.S. a few months later and I was determined to make it one of the best.

The slow drive into the old city did not let down – rolling hills, dusty, hot air, and the smell of cooked meat. The ratio increase of donkeys to people and narrow clay-walled streets told us we were inching closer and closer to our accommodations.

When we finally arrived at our riad in Fes, the staff had strategically posted a list of activities to do in the city, making it easier for travelers to schedule their stay in Morocco’s second largest city.

Perusing the posted list of activities, we noticed a local spa. Advertised for a fraction of the cost in Western countries, the experience sounded like too good of a deal to pass up. Being the champagne taste, beer budget kind of women we are, my friend and I decided to begin the trip with a ‘treat yo’self’ attitude. We’re spa-loving women and spending a few hours in luxury always sounds appealing.

I had only heard of the bathhouses in Budapest and Istanbul, but never had the time to visit one nor research their Moroccan relatives before our arrival. A charismatic riad staff member made it sound very alluring – an intense exfoliation treatment, moisturizing bath oils, a steam room, the works – all for only 100 MAD (10 USD).

We quickly booked a time slot for that same evening, excited to begin our girl-cation with an indulgent, relaxing experience. Not knowing what to expect, exactly, we imagined our previous spa encounters – white robes, relaxing music, herbal tea…

If you’ve ever been to a local, community hammam, you know what we were in for. Nothing could have surprised me more, not even the Houdini-esque steam box I unknowingly booked in India a few years back…(but that’s another story).

And so, the time came to head to our appointment and we arrived at an old building in the Medina, about 10 minutes from our riad. After our male driver let out a loud yell and returned to his car, we females were invited to walk down a long hallway into the hammam where a woman named Fatima was waiting for us.

We were told to undress and sit for a minute while she quickly robed, prayed, and disrobed again.

Everyone around us was naked.

All ages, all sizes, all marital statuses. Some wore panties as they packed and unpacked their belongings while others were completely nude. Local women, who otherwise modestly covered 90% of their bodies, were now wobbling and jiggling around as if they did not know they were naked. And here we were, two young Americans crossing our arms and legs because God forbid a room full of equally exposed strangers see our nipples and pubic hair – the horror.

With absolutely no English capabilities, Fatima spoke to us in French. With absolutely no experience au français, we did our best to follow directions and soon realized she was to be our masseuse. She gestured to take a seat at the corner of a large stone room in front of four large buckets. We walked covering ourselves as much as we could and sat on the warm floor watching the soapy puddles pool around the room’s only central drain, serving five separate wash stations, each with 1-3 patrons.

Sitting knees to chest, the bath began with a bit of a shock as Fatima brusquely dumped a five-gallon bucket of warm water over my head, immediately following with my companion. She gestured to me first and held my arm out. Forced to unfold from our protective positions, we were now as exposed as everyone else in the room. The other women giggled at our bashfulness and one young woman even said, “she’s not going to hurt you.” Fatima put on a plastic glove with the texture of a steel wool sponge and began vigorously scrubbing my skin. Caught between the infantilizing feeling of having a matronly figure bath you and the hilarity of being nude with women who took every measure to cover themselves outside these walls…I turned to my friend and started laughing hard, mouth open, cheeks hurting as I tasted another bucket of water was dumped on me.

When she was done scrubbing one body part, another hot water dump ensued, and so forth with the next arm. Then, she used shampoo and conditioner and began exfoliating my scalp using a hard, plastic brush and fragrant oils. From there she instructed the two of us to lay face-down. Not wanting to be rude or disobey, we acquiesced but did everything in our power not to think about the used, communal bath water that would be running past my face on its way down to the drain.

Once lying down, she bent over and proceeded to exfoliate and massage my back and dump further buckets of hot water all over me. At one point, it felt like four hands were gliding up and down my back, but I quickly remembered that Fatima – dear, middle-aged Fatima – was also topless during this entire experience and what I had thought might be a second set of hands was indeed a pair of mature, oblong breasts. I turned my head to my friend and tried my best to hold in another laughing fit as Fatima kept on muttering to us au français.

After our massages were complete, and our hysterical, red-skinned faces recovered, we got dressed and waited for our ride back to the riad. While in the waiting room that doubled as a locker room, we watched the other women don their colorful hijabs and burkas and ready themselves to enter the outside world again.

The change was striking. These women, who hours before seemed so foreign, private and even suppressed to me, now seemed so confident being in their own skin, completely unashamed of their nude bodies, while putting on layer after layer of their dress. In that moment, I felt an extreme sadness for myself as I did not feel that same level of confidence and pride in my natural state. I had previously viewed these women as somehow invisibly shackled to archaic, male-driven female beauty standards. But the sad truth was, I was the one who was embarrassed, anxious, and even ashamed of the way my body looked.

I was the one who was suppressed. I was shackled.

We got in a cab, headed back to the riad, and finished the evening with mint tea on the rooftop. From then on, I decided to devote more time to learning to love my body for what it is and to not be ashamed of it.

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