It used to be when I thought of Morocco, I thought of an exotic country with desert, sultan tents, camels, incense, mint tea, busy market squares, tajines, and couscous.
Not that it isn’t all of that, well maybe not so much the sultan tents (but, they did exist on the rooftop of my Riad), there is so much more to this country.
I was continuing my journey coming from Cairo to Casablanca. The only thing I knew about Casablanca was Rick’s Café. I know, I know, Rick’s Café is entirely fictional and was nothing more than a Hollywood set for the movie “Casablanca”. So what, it’s been recreated in the city and how could I be in Casablanca and not visit Rick’s…?? My first evening I had a lovely meal and of course a gin Martini, “of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world…”. Truly a night to remember…I know, I know…different movie.
My only other goal in Casablanca was a visit to the Hassan II Mosque. It is the second-largest functioning mosque in Africa and the 7th largest in the world. With an estimated 4 million mosques in the world (2019), number 7 is a big deal. Inside, the mosque can accommodate 25,000 people, and the outside another 80,000 worshippers. I was blown away by this mosque. Its location directly on the North Atlantic Ocean isn’t too shabby either.
Casablanca is a large busy city and 2 days there was plenty. From Casablanca, I took the train to Marrakech where I had booked a Riad (guesthouse) in the heart of the Medina (historic old city). Unfortunately, due to covid, tourism is almost non-existent. Although visiting sites like Saadian Tombs and the Bahia Palace were quite enjoyable being mostly tourist-free, the great square Jemaa el-Fnaa was empty.
Normally filled with thousands of people watching magicians and snake charmers, eating, shopping, listening to storytellers and bands, or getting henna tattoos, it was virtually empty. I did see one guy with a monkey. Although this was a bit disappointing especially after reading my friend Cheryl’s experience in her book, “Morocco: A Journey Through the Sands of Time”, I found Marrakech every bit as exotic and entrancing as I imagined.
After that long introduction, on to the naked truth….
Although it had slipped my mind, my first introduction to a Moroccan Hammam was in Cheryl’s book. Hers seemed a bit harsher than my experience. Most recently my friend Tertia told me of her trip to Marrakech and said whatever you do, visit a Hammam and then plan to do nothing the rest of the day as you won’t have the energy. So what is a Hammam?
In Arabic, the word hammam means, “spreader of warmth”. A hammam is a place of public bathing associated with the Islamic world. There are public and private hammams. One of the “Five Pillars of Islam” is prayer. It is customary before praying to perform ablutions. The two Islamic forms of ablution are ghusl, a full-body cleansing, and wudu, a cleansing of the face, hands, and feet. You will almost always find hammams in the vicinity of mosques as public cleansing is part of the weekly ritual/lifestyle of the Islamic culture. While many Islamic women are covered head to toe in public, they are naked in the hammam. It is a place of gathering, bathing, and maybe even a little gossip. People of Islamic faith often visit the hammam on Thursdays before Friday prayers.
Okay, so there are public and private hammams. I’m at the point in my life, after living in China and squatting over a hole with numerous other women to do my business, getting naked in a public bathhouse is no big deal. BUT (with one t, haha), since I had been warned I would feel like a jellyfish after, I decided to take advantage of the hammam treatment offered by my Riad. Not only that, but it has been hellish hot here (108°) so the thought of traipsing back to my Riad in the heat, dust, and chaos of the Medina after a bath didn’t seem appealing. Having been on the road for 11 weeks (secret meaning; I haven’t shaved in 11 weeks) I decided to also get waxed. I mean if someone is going to wash me head to toe, I may as well get smooth before getting exfoliated. She explained that since the scrub is also a skin treatment (because of the black soap and rhassoul), I should have the waxing done prior. Yes, waxing at times can feel like putting duct tape on your skin and ripping it off…not that I’ve ever tried “waxing” with duct tape, but it’s what I imagine. And yes, it does hurt a tiny bit in the more sensitive areas. Waxing is over it’s time to get scrubbed….
The young lady gave me a pair of disposable bikini briefs to put on. Honestly, they reminded me of an old fashion maxi pad without the padding but enough visuals. She then gave me my robe and led me to a marble “bath” room. Inside the room were several sizes of brass bowls and buckets along with smaller bowls, one filled with black goo or “beldi” and one with a reddish-grey claylike substance, “rhassoul” which eventually turned to a soft paste.
Moroccan black soap or beldi soap is a high-alkaline Castile soap made from olive oil and macerated olives with a gel-like consistency. This gives the soap its characteristic dark greenish-black color. Rhassoul is a cosmetic made of natural mineral clay mined from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. It is combined with water to clean the body and has been used by North African women for centuries to care for their skin and hair. Rhassoul contains silica, iron, magnesium, potassium, sodium, lithium, and trace elements. There was also the kessa exfoliating glove. It is traditionally used with black soap to help promote soft, clean, and beautiful skin. At one time they were made from goat hair. In a large marble sink, she had water running so the air was steamy. There was a long marble bench with a pad and after she took my robe, she instructed me to sit on the bench.
She then says sit for 5 minutes…. okay, the temperature is perfect, the sound of the running water relaxing (water should be flowing as standing water is seen as unclean), and I am alone with my thoughts and breathing in the steamy air. After 5 minutes, she returns. She has changed into leggings and a t-shirt and pulled her hair up. I guess it’s time to scrub me down. She gets the small bowl of beldi. She has me touch it and smell it. I must be honest here, although it is made from macerated olives, I thought it had a bit of a barnyard smell. Not that it’s all bad because I rather like a leathery barnyard smell. I did a bit of research later and found that sometimes amber musk is mixed into the black soap so I may have been picking up that musky undertone. Back to my bath…I am sitting on the marble bench; she fills one of the medium brass bowls from the marble sink with the flowing water and gently pours many bowls of perfectly warm water over my body. That was heavenly. After I was sufficiently wet, she takes the black soap and rubs it all over my body. She then told me to lay on the bench for 9 minutes. I have no idea if there is a significance to the 9 minutes or just part of the calculation in the length of the bath. Anyway, just as I was thinking she was never returning, and the soap was beginning to congeal on my skin the door opened, and she began pouring warm water on me. It didn’t wash the black soap off but just remoistened it. She then had me sit up and she took the kessa glove and began scrubbing my body. She had me lay down again and scrubbed me back and front before taking pumice and caring for my feet. Again she had me sit up and took bowls of warm water to rinse the residue from my freshly exfoliated skin. It’s an invigorating sensation and I still think it smelled mildly barnyardy. Next, she had me smell the clay-like substance which was very floral. She then proceeded to rub this all over my body and was instructed to lie down for another 9 minutes. The warmth, the sound of the flowing water, and my slightly tingling skin…. heaven on earth. When she returned, she had me sit up to be rinsed and then asked if it was okay if she washed my hair. Are you kidding me? In my opinion, one of the most relaxing things is having someone wash my hair. She washed my hair and then came the buckets full of warm water poured directly over my head. When my hair was sufficiently rinsed, she had me stand and braided my hair down my back. Again I was asked to sit, and she took lavender-scented soap and again washed my entire body, rinsed me with warm water, and then cooler water. She said the lavender was for me to relax before my massage.
She then handed me my robe and led me to a candle-lit room with soft music playing and an infuser filling the room with a lovely scent. I then got on the table, she dried my body and proceeded to give me a 90-minute massage with perfectly applied pressure using argan oil. After my massage, she told me to relax for 5 minutes, and then I was given some mint tea. After which, I stumbled in a daze back to my room.
That time I let a stranger bath me ranks up there with one of the top experiences of my life and I’m no rookie when it comes to spa treatments.
All joking aside, the bathing ritual is an important part of the Islamic culture, and I learned a lot from this experience and would not hesitate to use a public hammam. I only hope that my stories help bring to life the cultures, traditions, foods, and experiences that are so foreign to what we are used to. I may use a bit of humor when I write, but I have the utmost respect for the people I meet, the places I visit, and the experiences I have. Peace Out!