Zigzagging our way through the narrow streets of El Jadida, Morocco, my partner Dan and I arrived at the hammam. Luckily, Dan had been shown the location earlier by the Port Captain. Never in a month of Sundays would you find this place unless you were taken there. No words, not even a picture to indicate its presence, it was a case of being ‘in the know’. For 10 Dirham (about €1) I stepped into a secret world.
Half a dozen local Muslim women in various states of undress stared at me.
“This is my first time in a Hammam!” I whispered in French.
The tiles on the floor were cracked and worn, with many missing. Some rudimentary shelves and pigeon holes served as storage with a simple wooden bench to sit and undress. A couple of mirrors on the wall (with barely any silvering remaining) were being used by young women to adjust and readjust their headscarves.
“My grandmother will guide you.” Soukaina replied.
There was much shuffling and giggling from the ladies and I knew immediately I was the focus of their amusement. I sat down to remove my shoes. Within nano-seconds, Soukaina’s grandmother Aicha had undressed then began tugging at my clothes and stripped me to my undies. Aicha was old, in fact beyond old. Her face was furrowed with deep wrinkles, speckled with age spots and leathery. Her National Geographic breasts swung pendulously at her waist and the skin around her buttocks hung peculiarly beneath the giant grey tattered pants. She moved closer, I felt her breasts skim my thighs as she undid my bra. She bundled my belongings into a basket, and asked “Where is your towel, your plastic shoes, shampoo?”
All I had was a small travel towel.
Wearing only my knickers and some borrowed white plastic high heeled shoes, I followed awkwardly through a black plastic curtain into the first room. A heavily pregnant woman washed another whilst their children sat inside giant buckets washing themselves.
From a large cistern, in the next room (hotter than the first) Aicha filled two buckets of water, one roasting hot, the other ice cold. The women ululated. My face turned beetroot with embarrassment as the sounds of “lalalalalalala” continued. I was taken to a space in the hottest room where Aicha, chucked some water on the floor, indicated I should sit and began ladling copious amounts of hot water over my head and body. It felt heavenly, like I was five years old again – sitting in a bath, Mum pouring jugs of water over my head.
The women gossiped and moaned about men and in-laws. One offered me a scrub, massage, shampoo, a razor and ‘gloop’ as if she couldn’t bear for me to be only half washed. Accepting, I lay on the hot floor for the hardest, most intimate scrub I’d ever experienced. Checking to see if I’d had the ‘Hollywood’ treatment she gave me a nod of approval and put the razor away.