A Turkish Bath Virgin No More – Getting My Scrub On In Morocco

Half way through my Turkish bath I was left wondering why anyone ever told me this was a ‘must do’ while visiting Africa. A bear of a Moroccan lorded over me, scrapping away my entire dermis with hands made of steel wool and broken glass, leaving me raw and wishing for an end. The blank tile room was a mix of obnoxious calm and clanking plastic buckets. How were the others so relaxed? The steam clogged my esophagus. And when would he deem me cleansed enough to be released into the streets of Essaouira, a refreshed and happy man, as those who suggested I take the bath had claimed to feel?

How I got here was innocent enough. I was ignorant and trusting, two things that can doom a traveler to the most abrupt of foreign experiences, as well as bring them unexpected joy and beauty. Beauty was not in the cards during my visit to this Turkish bath, or hammam, frequented mostly by local Moroccans. Perhaps you have seen a picture of a hammam?

That is not where I ended up. That is the hammam in the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. That’s a royal hammam. I, instead, visited an every-day hammam. Think of it as a YMCA type of gym as compared to the one professional football players enjoy for their workout. From my riad I was guided by a man who spoke no English (and my Arabic vocabulary is no better) to a side alley covered in dirt and broken cobblestones likely laid down about the time the Pilgrims were arriving in The New World. He dropped me off at the counter behind a battered wooden door and walked away.

I glanced around me and noted people getting undressed. Thankfully the clerk at our riad had mentioned I would keep my underwear on so I was slightly prepared. This was the only hint I had as to what would happen during my stay. I handed over 30 durhams to a blank stare behind the counter and was given a bucket in exchange. I then proceeded to undress in the small changing area which doubled as the foyer. Glancing side to side, there was a mix of ages and body types. Few people talked and most ignored me, which started warming me to the experience. When I was ready, the blank stare came out from behind his shelter and led me through three rooms, each one hotter and steamier than the one before.

White tiles covered each room’s surface, maybe 20′ on a side with low ceilings. Clanks of buckets, the splash of water and a total absence of human voice echoed through the space. I was lead past the bear who would give me my scrub-down as he was finishing with two men, both laying splayed out, arms at their sides, chests to tile floor and their heads turned to their left. He lifted his scruffy beard and swollen eyes long enough to acknowledge I was another body to be abused and went back to work, with no show of emotion. It was as if I was another wood cabinet, brought to a carpenter to have its thin varnish covering removed. Another day in the steamy, sweaty office.

Laying face down eight feet from the bear in my off-white organic cotton boxer briefs against the sweltering tiles, heated from beneath it seemed, I took advantage of my position and turned my head to see what was in store. What I saw were two bags of meat being roughed up my a man twice their size. Neither man complained and I saw no pain on their face when they turned toward me. The bear took them one by one around a corner to a spot I could not see. A splash ensued and then another. Eventually a man who used to be a bag of meat on the ground emerged, wiping his face, holding his bucket and shuffling to a corner of another room, out of my site. This amount of information was not enlightening.

After the second man from the ground emerged from around the corner, the bear set his good eye on me and tapped my shoulder, walking back to his main ‘office’ in the middle of the fluorescently lit room. He nodded his head and I laid down again on my belly, as I had been. With one paw, he rolled me over and put on a mitt. Starting with my arm, he placed a mitt on his other hand and began his day’s work. His day’s work evidently consisted of helping me get to a point where I felt like yelling, “Damn it! A bit lighter, please!? I want some skin left.” But I bit my tongue, not wanting to look the wimpy foreigner.

Scrub. Pull an appendage. Scrub. Twist an appendage.

No way out but to lay limp on the slick tile. The feeling of broken glass was taken over my entire body except for, well, there. God. I’m thankful those scrubbing paws left that one area alone. But they did exfoliate my buttocks and every inch of exposed flesh. With the mitts off, the bear attacked my scalp and it felt as if a demented weasel and a rabid bobcat were at war in my hair. Mixed in, somehow, was a fair amount of soap from a mysterious yellowed plastic bottle with the label long gone. Not that it mattered. I wouldn’t be requesting ‘volumizing’ shampoo at this establishment. It wasn’t one of the five words of Arabic I knew.

Two slaps on the back as my tormenter rose was the signal for my turn around the unknown corner. In this room were two troughs of clear water, about three feet high and eight feet long, coming out from the wall for another three feet. Would I be dunked in? Was it a ‘bath’ as I knew it? In went my bucket clasped by the bear’s talons. On went a smile to the bear’s face. His one and only emotion shown the entire time I knew him. He nodded his head down as a suggestion and I bent my head slightly before feeling the iced pins of cold water poured over my entire body. In a comical moment, I gasped out loud as if acting a line from a slapstick movie script. I’m sure my eyes bulged and the bucket went back in for another fill. Stifling the urge to bolt out of the room, I accepted another drenching and the bear’s smile began to fade. I’m glad I gave him one moment of joy in what is obviously a hard and thankless job.

Our time together done, the bear handed me my bucket and lifted his head to the first of the doors that would lead me away from the sweat and steam and ice and broken glass of my first experience at a Turkish bath.

8 Replies to “A Turkish Bath Virgin No More – Getting My Scrub On In Morocco”

  1. Jack Norell

    You do make the scrubbing sound a bit painful, very lively story. You didn’t actually say how you felt once done? I’ve heard (as I’ve not been to a hammam yet) it’s like being fresher than ever before.

  2. Gray

    Congratulations for being brave enough to endure this! I’ve read this before about how rough they can be while scrubbing your skin. I’m way too much of a wuss to go through that. 🙂

  3. cailin

    man! I thought from your stumbleupon comment that there was actually going to be a photo of you in your underwear! hahaha
    I read about Kate McCulley doing this recently, something I definitely want to do 🙂 (but hopefully in a slightly nicer place 😉 )


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