It takes years for me to process some of our travel experiences. I try to write about them, sitting for hours at my computer, composing pages and pages of material that no one will ever see. These stories have no beginning or no end or I get stuck on the details, the story itself obscured by my close-up view of it or convoluted social dynamics that would be more appropriate for a book than for a blog. I have an ongoing backlog of experiences that are incubating like that; experiences that were so amazing that I still have no words, or perhaps too many words for them.
But I think it’s time to talk about The Hammam. It’s been three years now, after all. I keep seeing Turkish baths everywhere and it’s just time to own the tale. A part of me revolts at the idea of admitting that I was ever that dirty…or rather, that “clean” (by another culture’s standards).
A hammam is a public bath, otherwise known as a Turkish bath. There are many variations in the way that these public bath experiences are laid out. Some are spa-like, with clean, white towels, steam, and lots of nice smells and fluffy robes. An American hammam would be like this, but overseas hammams are often something completely different. A woman I met in Turkey went to a hammam in Istanbul where a man scrubbed her most private parts in a communal pool of water. She swallowed a few drops of the infectious stuff accidentally when her male bath attendant rinsed her hair. Within twenty-four hours, her whole digestive system revolted against it. She went home feeling decidedly “unclean” afterward.
When Americans visit a hammam or a “spa”, they expect to be pampered, but hammams in Arabic society are social venues as well as places to perform a sort of ritual self-cleaning ablution. And the definition of “clean” is not as straightforward as you’d think. In much of the Arab world, squatters are the norm in public restrooms where toilet paper is unavailable. These toilet-less potties are equipped with a frightening little pitcher that’s used in conjunction with the left hand to…well, you know. Clean things up. The left hand is considered “unclean” as a result and cleanliness means eating with your right hand and not your left. Handwashing has nothing to do with “clean”.
While Americans will jump in the shower or a bathtub for fifteen to twenty minutes or so every single day for a “quick” wash, hammam-goers will spend several hours doing a weekly wash to an ultra-clean state over several hours time.
Men and women visit the baths separately. And so it was, that John and I decided that the time had come for us to go to a hammam when we were in Morocco in 2012. Lydian and I had been invited to go to the hammam with some Sri Lankan women (a mother, Anoosha, and her daughter, Moneeka) who were staying in a traditional Dar with us in the medina in Fez. Lydian’s friend, Matthew would be able to go with John during the Men’s Only Hours so he wouldn’t be completely alone. All of us felt like we had the back-up team we needed to get through the experience. We didn’t want to miss the opportunity to do this iconic Arabic “thing”.
Anoosha and Moneeka spoke English fluently and I felt comfortable going with them mostly
because Anoosha was hesitant about doing it. I could imagine her putting the brakes on if a man walked up to her with a toothbrush. She said she wouldn’t go unless Lydi and I went. Moneeka was younger though. She was in her twenties with a broad young mind that was less prone than Anoosha’s and mine to ruminating over all that could go wrong. But I appreciated her boldness in finding the hammam nonetheless. And I liked her optimism about it. With four of us there, I figured we could keep our boundaries intact. No problem.
Our first challenge was finding the hammam which was located on the outskirts of the medina, a labyrinth of narrow streets in the old city of Fez. Our Dar was in the middle of the medina and it was no easy task to find our way to any pre-determined location. Getting lost was a part of every outing. So we meandered to the hammam taking several wrong turns until finally, we saw a line of women in front of an open door with steam rolling out of it.
We’d worn our bikinis under our clothes. Lydian, at the age of 12, had been digging her heels in and putting up resistance to the hammam ever since she’d been presented with the idea earlier in the day. She told me that she would not be seen naked under any circumstances especially by a strange man. She was reluctant to see other women’s naked bodies and she did not want to be “cleaned”. I made no promises except that I would stay with her no matter what and that we’d decide together when we got there what was okay and what wasn’t. She gave me a lot of dirty looks that day, but she didn’t want to not go either. I offered to let her stay with Dad and Matthew but she demurred. And so I dragged her there, at her own bidding, and we took our places in line.
When we travel, I often feel dread. I dread long flights. I dread feeling hungry and tired. Sometimes I feel anxiety. Will we make our connecting flight? How will we get from City A to City B in an allotted period of time? But Raw Fear is much rarer.
As we stood in line waiting to get into the hammam, I felt it:
A Fiery Fear that was Raw and Gaping.
As we filed in, I reminded Lydian to keep her lips pinched shut so she didn’t swallow any water. Inside, all of us went up and stashed our things in a locker-room area. We discussed how we were going to keep our bathing suits on, though everyone else was mostly naked. We had a game plan.
Downstairs, an aging topless woman with long, pendulous breasts stopped us and gave us each something that looked like a placemat. Each of our placemats was different. One was a green and white checkerboard. Another had flowers on it. They were of different shapes and sizes, all rather worn, as though they’d been collected over many years from bargain bins at thrift stores. I wasn’t excited about touching mine, which featured a red and white striped pattern, scuff marks, and some Arabic words that I couldn’t read.
We all had our placemats, but the topless woman wasn’t done with us. She tried to untie Anoosha’s bikini top and then she shimmied those long exaggerated flaps of womanliness back and forth to indicate that the four of us weren’t naked enough. We all looked at each other nervously and shook our heads. Our team didn’t know the rules of the game, but there was Power in Numbers. We were just spectators. Spectators! And we held onto our bra straps as the woman persisted. She grabbed for my ties and Lydian’s. But all of us were too quick and too bashful. We thanked her and walked a wide path around her, continuing deeper into the steam.
The Maghrebi women at the hammam were remarkably comfortable with all communal-ness and the nudity. The vibe was nothing like an American locker room. It was intimate, but not sexual, per se. We stumbled through a large door into another room where there were buckets and buckets full of water lined up in the middle of the room. There was a smiling baby sitting and splashing in one of the buckets, a safety hazard, yes, but not the only one there. I cringed at the careless kids on the hard and wet tile floors as they slid around. I wondered how often kids broke bones at the bath. And the water was communal. We all reluctantly took a seat in a corner to watch and soak in the water as it flowed by.
In the corner opposite ours, a woman was washing one of her daughters…thoroughly. The girl was about the same age as Lydian (12 years) and as we carefully arranged our dingy little placemats on the floor, I told Lydi to be grateful for her lot in life. “You could be that girl.” I said and smiled. And Lydi gave me a “no kidding” eye roll. The scene was pretty weird. The girl sat there, spread-eagle staring off into the distance with a carefree look on her face and her mom all up in her stuff. In public, no less.
“She doesn’t seem to mind.” I observed flatly. Lydi looked back at me, with a furrow between her brows, nodding with a look of cynicism that I recognized. “No…” Lydi said, “No she doesn’t.”
“Yep.” I said.
“Yep.” She said. And we both nodded together. Neither of us had anything unbiased to say and so, we just earmarked the girl and the strangeness as a fun topic we could discuss later in greater detail. Women seated along the wall across from us were cleaning and preening unabashedly. I tried not to stare at the spectacle of it. I tried to act “cool”. Like I’d seen it all before and the hammam business was old-hat. And then I’d see women “cleaning” their kids the way an American woman might clean behind the stove and catch myself staring again. In a room adjacent to ours, unattractive female bath attendants were filling buckets of water buck-naked and bringing them into our room. In an effort to fit in, all of us claimed buckets for ourselves. Mine had something floating in it.
Little bits of trash gathered in a corner against the wall near Moneeka: a band-aid, a candy wrapper, pieces of hair. I thought longingly about the little bottle of hand sanitizer that I carried with me everywhere. It was in my purse upstairs. So close, yet so far away. Daily, I would use it as a reflex after I shook hands with a stranger or after I used a pen at the bank. I wondered if there was enough hand sanitizer in the world to ever make me feel clean again after this experience.
And then, some beefy, topless older women sat down next to Moneeka and Anoosha with some green slime in their hands and promptly started ordering the Sri Lankans around. The bossy women were bath attendants and they told Moneeka and Anoosha to remove their tops and lay down on the floor. I clean! One of them said. I clean! And then she motioned for the two to remove their tops. Anoosha grimaced at me, and I shrugged my shoulders. Moneeka willingly did what her attendant told her to do. She put her flip flops under her head (“clever”, I thought) and took off her bikini top to lay belly down on the floor. The women looked over at Lydi and I and told us to remove our tops.
“Okay,” I said to Lydian, “Okay…Ya know what? Who cares? Just take ‘em off. Every other woman in here is topless.” And I took off my top. “See?” I said. “No big deal.”
Lydian sat on the floor with her top on for a long time after that scowling darkly and thinking about whether or not she wanted to commit fully to the hammam experience or stick to her principles.
I leaned over at one point and said, “You’re the weird one now.” And she rolled her eyes at me. And then I added “I love you,” with a light chuckle as a kid across the room peed on the floor into the common pool of water we were all sitting in.
“And c’mon…we’re sitting on the floor in all this…water…and you’re worried about your bikini top? Pshaw.” I said. And Lydian laughed. She couldn’t help it. The whole situation was ludicrous. We were at the bath getting “clean” by Moroccan standards, but dirty by our own.
“Fine.” She said finally taking it off, “Fine!” And she took off her top. “Are you happy now?” But she wasn’t angry anymore. She smirked as she spoke and then laughed at herself. When it was our turn to get scrubbed down by the hairy old ladies with the slimy green crap Lydi carefully arranged her placement underneath her belly and her flip flops under her head, as though such gestures really mattered anymore. The bathing attendants leaned into us and over us closely. Intimately. And I closed my eyes and pinched my lips together as I tried to imagine a traditional American massage on a clean sheet overlaying a clean fleecy blanket in a room filled with aromatherapy fragrances and pre-warmed, sterile lotions applied by fully clothed massage therapists.
The old bathing attendants didn’t shave…anything. I learned from someone that the green stuff was seaweed and as my pores were absorbing it, my head raised just millimeters over the flip flops that were providing a psychological barrier between me and the ick, I made peace with all of it. In a way. In my American way. There I was, immersed in a sea of humanity and there was no going backward. I was marinating in it. And like the other women there, I’d survive, albeit somewhat grossed out and moderately shocked.
After being covered head to toe in the seaweed, I was salted and then rinsed. Lydian and I went through the process together and we kept our lips pursed tightly as the women rinsed our hair. I reassured her that we’d be okay. Yes, it was a little unsanitary but we’d survive. “Turn off your OCD.” I said. “You can switch it back on when we get back to the Dar.”
I couldn’t wait to take a shower.
But still, I was there, and we had seen it. We’d done it. And it was jaw-dropping. I couldn’t wait to get home and think about it after I was clean again. Ninety-nine percent of my brain was pre-occupied with the post-public-bath sterilization shower that I was planning to take. When we left, Lydian was giddy. She’d survived and she hadn’t gotten any water in her mouth.
As it was, by trying to stay clean, we may have been the dirtiest chicks at the bath by hammam standards.
The next day, Lydian would step out in front of a donkey in a dramatic near-miss. She survived both the donkey incident and the hammam in Fez. John would fall seriously ill within 24 hours after his visit to the hammam, not because of the bath but rather because he’d partially rewarm a harmless-looking pastry in the middle of the night for a snack contracting cyclosporiasis in the process.