It was school vacation two weeks ago and most classes and activities were cancelled at the youth center and youth vocational center in town. Everyone was taking a well-deserved break after studying hard for exams. I realized I had never posted about the Moroccan hammam (public bath) so I took advantage of the free time to explain it.
I remember I was surprised when I arrived to Morocco over two years ago that there wasn’t hot water in houses. It is considered a luxury. After I moved into my own apartment, I spent a year heating water over the stove to take a bucket bath. When I had saved up enough money, I excitedly bought a water heater. There are two types of water heaters: butane tank and electric. I ended up buying a butane tank heater so I wouldn’t have to pay for the high electricity costs. I never appreciated until then how wonderful hot showers are, especially in the wintertime. I had taken it for granted in the US and Spain and never will again! Also, central heating and washing machines! One of Peace Corps Core Expectations is to live at the level of the community members.
Most people in my community don’t have water heaters in their homes, and they don’t bother to heat up water like I did. Instead they go to the hammam (public bath) to bathe every week. Sometimes Peace Corps volunteers do the same, but I confess I do not. As I have mentioned, as the only foreigner in town, I have a celebrity like status. I rather not get this attention while naked, and blind (without my glasses) trying to scrub myself clean. Hahaha. There are two hammams in my town- one which people call “the old one” and another called “the new one.” They are both far from my house so I actually have never been though I’m always invited to join my friends and neighbors.
The Moroccan hammam is obviously divided in sections of male and female. This is how it works:
- You bring:
- a plastic bucket
- a plastic scoop
- plastic stool or plastic mat
- flip flops
- sabon bildi
- other toiletries like shampoo and conditioner
- bag with a change of clothes from home
Sometimes you can rent or buy these items there.
- You pay an entrance fee of about 10 dirhams (equivalent to 1 dollar) before entering into the changing room. There you strip into your underwear, and you can pay an attendant to watch your belongings while you are in the hammam.
- The Moroccan hammam is typically two to three steamed rooms (like the American sauna): the first is cool, the second is warm, and the last is hot. The hammam is heated underground by wood fire. Sometimes hammams share the heating facilities with communal ovens.
- In one room there are two faucets: one with steaming water and another with freezing water. You fill your bucket to the temperature of water you want and find a free place on the floor in the room you want and then rotate to other rooms based on your tolerance to heat.
- You sit on your plastic stool or mat and rub sabon bildi onto your wet and warm skin. Sabon bildi is a traditional soap made out of olive oil. You can buy a big wad of it at the hanut (corner store) for 1 dirham. You scrub it with the kees (a rough hand mitt) that exfoliates and removes dead skin. People always say you “become new” going the hammam because of this. When my friends and neighbors invited me to go to the hammam with them, they joked they would scrub my back for me. Some people also use ghasoul, a traditional shampoo and soap made out of clay.
- After the exfoliation, you shave, shampoo, condition your hair and any other cleansing or beautifying techniques.
People can spend one to four hours in the hammam. If it is four hours, it is probably because they are socializing. The hammam is a space for women to take a break from their busy housework and childrearing, though many bring their children with them to the hammam. Once at the hammam in Fez I ended up giving a mini English lesson to the children there. Women also scope out potential brides for their sons. It is also customary for men and women to go to the hammam with family and friends before the wedding ceremony. It is a kind of cleansing ritual.
You can always tell when people have been to the hammam because besides carrying buckets, plastic stools, and mats, they are bundled up in order to not catch a cold. When someone has just gone to the hammam you say, Bisaha (to your health). They reply, Allah adik saha (May God grant you health). Although most people bathe in the public hammam, some people have hammams on the roof terraces of their houses. They usually fire it up every Saturday or Sunday.