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  • Claire Kalikman

The Hammam

The Yale Globalist

June 2, 2018

When asking people for recommendations about what to do in Morocco, most people suggested trying “hammam.” I had a little idea of what it was: some sort of shared bath and a scrub. I heard that it was really painful, and voted against it, for the sake of my sensitive skin. But then I asked my Turkish boyfriend (Turkey being the other country famous for its hammam), if I should try it. He said it was an “experience”, and, never one to turn down an experience, I decided to try it.

I recruited a friend, and together we made the pilgrimage. Things started off normal: an attendant in uniform greeted us with a cup of tea. We chatted for a bit, and chose the service we wanted. We waited around for a while. A long while. Then a voice beckoned us in to a room. Suddenly, our once-clothed attendant was in just a towel and a little blue head wrap. She gave us a basket and said, “put everything in there.” Entrusting this towel-adorned attendant with all my possessions, I threw my bag in the basket. “No, everything,” she said, and motioned towards my clothes. Suddenly I understood. So I stood vulnerable, without my worldly armor, awaiting instructions.

We were led into a sauna. As the room filled with steam, my friend and I began a deep conversation about our insecurities. Barely knowing each other at the start of our Globalist journey, by the end of our hammam experience we were bonded for life. After all, you can’t have such an intimate experience and not be close by the end of it.

After sweating in the sauna for a while, our hammam guide took us out one by one. It was a very maternal experience: she washed us with the black soap that is sold in market stalls in the medina. She undid the bun I had tied my hair into, sat me on a stool, and gently washed it with lilac shampoo. Then she laid me down on a warm marble slab and put on an unassuming glove. I felt a mild scrubbing sensation, but nothing that hurt, contrary to what I had read. Our guide sat me up, and pointed to my arm. “That’s skin”, she said. I cannot adequately describe my shock. Little rolls of my skin had built up all over my body. It seemed as if an entire layer of my epidermis had been removed. I laughed, and the attendant smiled at my shock: I was clearly not the first to be amazed by the powers of the glove.

After dumping a few more buckets of water over my head, our guide sent us into the massage room. Another woman rubbed me down for a few minutes with jasmine oil. Then we just lay there. It could’ve been five minutes or three hours. I entered a state somewhere between consciousness and dreams: is this nirvana?

After a few more cups of strengthening mint tea, the ladies of the hammam sent us back out into the world. Skin scrubbed fresh like a baby’s. We both walked in a stupor for the first few steps, still not fully out of our fugue and back in the reality of the bustling medina. The jasmine on our skin and sense of peace stayed with us the rest of the day.

The hammam was ultimately emblematic of the trip itself. It combined the profound kindness of strangers with the deep friendships I formed with my fellow trip members. It erased cultural assumptions. The “just say yes” attitude let to an amazing experience. It emphasized the “magic” of Morocco: behind every door is a story. And who knew I would come to the medina to feel so clean.

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