Walking around Chefchaouen, Morocco’s famous “blue city,” is an undeniably beautiful experience. Getting scrubbed at one of the hammams, however, is not.
Story and Photos by Erin Zelinka
In Chefchaouen, Morocco, a city best known for being almost entirely painted blue, I experienced two important aspects of Moroccan culture: one titillating and the other humiliating.
As I climbed the surrounding hills, I paused to look down on a place that looks more like a Van Gogh painting than reality. At that moment, a beautiful song began to echo out from the mosques and reverberate through the city, up into the hills where I stood, awed.
A man’s soulful voice, clear and imbued with reverent passion, sang the same pattern over and over again. As one somehow intuitively understands the meaning behind an Italian opera, without speaking Italian, I understood the meaning of this song in my soul before the words were explained to me. “God is great. Come to worship. God is great. Come to worship.”
Where I thought I had little in common with Morocco’s culture or its people, I felt connectedness now. The yearning in the singing man’s voice sounded like my own, as I laid in bed some nights, yearning for guidance, for love. Our differences were just distractions covering up that one universal desire.
Now feeling more Moroccan, I decided to go to an authentic Moroccan hammam. A hammam is a public bath house, a literal watering hole where women (or men, depending on the hour) gather to wash and gossip.
It took me a while to find the place, and I felt a sense of urgency as I wandered alone through the labyrinthine medina, the old city. Though I had felt connectedness, I had also felt my bum grabbed last week in Tangier, so I didn’t desire to be alone for any more time than necessary. I asked people for the hammam at every turn, and, finally, I arrived at an unimpressive, unmarked building with a 10-foot-high stack of wood out front.
I timidly pushed in the swinging door to find what looked like a 1970s YMCA locker room, with a check-in counter to my left and naked women drying themselves in front of me. I approached the middle-aged woman at the desk.
She shook her head no. I mimed washing myself, and she sold me a scrubber mitt and the scentless Berber soap, which looks like a blob of melty brown sugar, served in a twisted plastic bag.
I mimed massaging myself, since I’d been advised to purchase the massage package, and she pointed to another woman whom I would best describe as sturdy, walking around in only wet, white granny panties. I understood that this would be my masseuse. It’s incredible the “conversations” you can achieve through mime.
“The women seemed to have body blinders on, and though they came in all shapes and sizes, there appeared to be no distinction of ‘better’ or ‘worse.’ They just were”
The only non-Moroccan there, I kept to my corner and slowly undressed, stealing glances at the other women to assure I was undressing the right way and to the right degree. They all wore plain, cotton underwear, but I had on a swimsuit, which made me feel self-conscious. It looked too flashy. I took off the top to blend in a little better.
I slipped on the rubber sandals they provided and followed the other women through a door, past a warm, mid-sized room into a warmer, larger one beyond.
Here, in the large-tiled steam room, more than 30 women sat bathing themselves and one another. I stood up against a wall, thinking that if I looked as uncomfortable as I felt, one of the women would surely see that I’m foreign and show me how this all works. But no one approached.
Then a woman came buffaloing into the room and looked at me with a stern protruding forehead. She pointed to the ground and I obeyed, sitting like a compliant pet, and then she left.
Maybe it’s my American paranoia, but this “bath” did not feel sanitary. A woman to my left was dumping a bucket of water into her underwear, the results of which would come sloshing out and flowing in my direction.
The back wall boasted a tile throne of sorts, with steps up to three sinks where the women could fill their buckets. The women sitting on these steps appeared to be the Queen Bees. They leaned back against the steps as other women scrubbed them furiously and shared the week’s news.
Many of the women were in good form, which you wouldn’t know from the loose-fitting, floor-grazing djellabas that they wear in public. Seeing their curvy, fit bodies, it was hard not to imagine what they’d look like in Western garb, a pair of cut-off jean shorts and a crop top. They’d look smokin’ hot. But they didn’t care about looking smokin’ hot, and it put our Western priorities in bleak perspective.
I am ashamed to admit that a large portion of my mental energy throughout my life has been consumed by trying to look smokin’ hot. Endless diets, workouts, waxing, shopping, moisturizing, painting, dyeing, weighing, crying. And why do we do it? So we can attract the opposite sex and be the envy of the same sex.
There was none of that here. The women seemed to have body blinders on, and though they came in all shapes and sizes, there appeared to be no distinction of “better” or “worse.” They just were. Skinny was as good as curvy. Big-breasted as good as small. Wrinkled as good as taut. White as good as brown.
“She grabbed my scrubber, squatted beside me with thighs like a sumo wrestler, and began to scrub my body with such violent motion that I clung to the tiles by my fingernails”
They washed one another intimately, reaching every place, without any indication of sexuality considered. They washed one another’s breasts, armpits, backs, hair. The women would wash their own private parts, reaching into their underpants, without any shyness or shame.
After about 20 minutes sat on the floor watching this, I wondered where my masseuse was, and decided maybe there was a miscommunication and I should go find her. I found her in the locker room, where she frowned and flailed her arms like an air traffic controller, waving me back toward the steam room. I tucked my tail between my legs and sheepishly returned to my spot on the floor to wait another 30 minutes. By this time, I really had enough and snuck back to the locker room where I began to get dressed. The $10 I paid would have to be a wash, or, rather, a no-wash.
But she caught me. Her brow protruded even more intensely and her arms flailed even more wildly. I would have thought she’d want to pocket the money without the work, but she insisted, through mime, that I go back and sit the heck down (I imagine she was saying). This time she did enter behind me, and she signaled for me to lie on my stomach on the wet, warm tile floor. Now the genitalia juices were sloshing toward my face.
She grabbed my scrubber, squatted beside me with thighs like a sumo wrestler, and began to scrub my body with such violent motion that I clung to the tiles by my fingernails. I had imagined a relaxing day spa experience, and this felt more like a CIA torture scene.
She mimed for me to flip over and proceeded to torture my front half, her large breasts nearly hitting me in the face with every scrub upward. She accosted my armpits and held up the scrubber to show me the gray accumulation of dead skin as if to say, “You nasty, girl.”
After scrubbing almost every square centimeter of my body, she got up and I sat up, dazed and abused. I wondered about the “massage” portion but didn’t dare ask. As I started to regain consciousness, looking around the room and feeling like a survivor, she dumped a cold bucket of water over my head.
“Aghhh!” I sputtered from the shock of the cold in the warm room. She put her hands on her hips and looked at me as if to say, “Are we done here?” I nodded frantically, and my “masseuse” moved on to her next victim.
- This story has been updated.