Lying on the massage table this morning – redeeming a birthday gift certificate for this pricey spa – sent me into a reverie of remembrance of all massages past. My massage history is probably a little unique. From a rather painful, but somehow wonderful three weeks of traditional massages on a Thai island, on to steamy and cleansing bath house massages in Morocco and also including an overpriced Ayurvedic doctor in Rishikesh, India, where I was kneaded and beaten with soaking hot tea bags full of medicinal herbs, I have come back to America to be massaged all too infrequently and expensively. That got me thinking about how accessible personal care and the art of relaxation is a bit lacking for my taste in the USA.
I grew up in a world where only money can buy a person the time and the place to nurture the mindbodyspirit with some spa activities, family vacation or even a few days off from the daily routine. I think I always thought that was normal – downtime is expensive. And then, at 21 years old, I set foot in Morocco, and everything changed. I should preface this by underlining just how ignorant I was about Morocco or any place, really, outside of the US. I think I had internalized, after a life time of public school the idea that America is an oasis of opportunity, liberty and dream-realization. I don’t want to say that all of that is wrong. These ideas can be true. They did not spring from nowhere. But they are not equally true for everyone who lives here and, more importantly to me, it is not only in the USA that people can feel free and realize their dreams.
But what I really want to talk about here is the Moroccan hammam. The public steam baths of Morocco have revolutionized the way I think about caring for myself and people should know about them.
A hammam is a bath house where Moroccans traditionally go to bathe, relax and purify. Although most Moroccan homes these days have some kind of bath tub or shower, some of them may not have hot running water and the hammam is commonly regarded as the only place one can go to get really clean. The first hammam I ever went to was in Marrakech, deep inside the souq around the corner from the shop where I met my first Moroccan friends – the first of those boys in the street I have spoken of before. From the outside, like many other buildings in the medina (the traditional, walled-city quarters of Morocco), it looked plain, maybe even a little scary – a concrete, windowless building with mysterious doors leading to nowhere that could be perceived from the street. I walked past it for weeks or maybe months, listening to the grand legends of the luxurious Moroccan bath houses all the while, wondering, and daring myself to get up the courage and go inside.
A men's hammam in Marrakech. Many of the traditional ones in the medinas look like this - plain, simple, and if you can't read the sign - mysterious.
I finally did go inside, accompanied by the American woman with whom I had traveled to Morocco. We were awkward. We stumbled, naked except for our underwear, through the three dark, stone-walled rooms – the level of intensity of the heat and steam increased as we passed to each room – trying not to slip. Hammams are either equipped with separate chambers for men and women or designate different operating hours for the genders. So we tip-toed among the women and children, also naked and sprawled out on those hard, sloped floors. They were surrounded by a littering of buckets of water, sponges, scrubby mitts, cakes of soap, bottles of shampoo and 1.5 liter bottles of fresh squeezed orange juice.. The floors were designed to let the water run down into drains. Women washed their hair with henna – dyeing their white stands to a shameless bright orange and as they rinsed it away, the watery brown past ran in rivulets to the drains. We learned the hard way that day that you shouldn’t sit on the down slope in front of anyone else or you will be swimming in their dirty, soapy water as it makes its way out.
This particular hammam, being a hammam populaire, that is, a cheap (about 1 dollar for entry with no time limit) no frills hammam made to serve the function of providing a place to bathe for the common people of Morocco, was a very particular kind of anthropological experience. Back in 2000, when this first hammam visit took place, there was not a word of English being spoken and even French, so widely used in the street, seemed to have no place in here. Since we were suddenly enveloped, by default, in the mysterious women’s world at a time when I had yet to discover myself as a woman who could relate to Moroccan women, the whole experience is sort of dim and cloudy and awkward. Though, I suppose that could be due to the fact that I was in a dark steamy hot sauna bathing with a gaggle of strangers.
Seeing myself as something of a cultural purist – not wanting to be perceived as a European descendant of the colonial citizens who came to Morocco with French, Spanish and some Portuguese ruling, I spent the next several years going only to this type of hammam. I eventually became quite adroit at navigating the dressing room, tipping the women who guarded my bag of dry clothes and learning how to communicate to the keysala that I wanted a scrubbing. (It is possible, and common to have a woman, a keysala, who works in the hammam scrub you from head to toe like a little child. She will scrub you until the dead skin starts rolling off your body in little black rolls. No wonder Moroccans feel truly clean only in the hammam!) I knew there was a more luxurious option but I avoided it in what I saw as an effort to preserve my integrity among the lower to middle class Moroccans I had befriended. In retrospect, I am not entirely sure that my insistence on doing everything “the difficult” or the most foreign way was always entirely necessary. But taking the road less traveled is a continuing theme of my life.
Traditionally, Moroccans visit their local hammam once every week or two. Although I did not always keep up a frequent schedule of hammam bathing, I was able to benefit from them as often as I wanted to for very little cost. As time went on and I eventually moved to Casablanca, I began to discover more varieties of hammam. Later, when I met my husband, I experimented with the hammam his mother preferred because it had private rooms you could rent. Still a steam room with a faucet, buckets and a bench, this room allowed me to close the door and take my time. No matter how many years I might spend in Morocco, there will never be a way to deflect the constant stares a western woman receives in the traditional public hammam, so sometimes this private room option is nice.
Finally, I was pulled out of my stubborn public traditionalism by a good friend who didn’t have the same weird chip on her shoulder as I did about forcing myself to be absorbed by old school Morocco.
She took me to a more expensive, luxury hammam. Topkapi hammam in Casablanca is modern, beautiful and decked out with a large circular central room where bathers can sit on benches at individual sinks and also disappear into a sauna room for heightened purification. This hammam uses olive tree wood to stoke their fires. The smell of that wood in the sauna is divine. Back in the round room, there are massage tables in a circle around a central pillar and this is where one can stretch out for a good scrubbing and a massage. The price of all of this amounts to less than 12 USD. And that is somewhat expensive.
This hammam is actually in Marrakech, but Topkapi looks a bit like this on the inside.
The lesson learned here, folks, is that there is a lovely quality of life in Morocco – a place that may be called a “third world” country in some contexts. At least in some ways. What I witnessed in the country that has become my second home is that Moroccans know how to relax. They know how to party, how to spend good time with their friends and family. They know how to take time for spiritual nurturing and how to rest and purify their bodies. Why can’t we figure that out here in the US? Even with the relatively new-to-the-mainstream trends in yoga, natural healing, and whole foods eating, it all still feels a bit inaccessible. All of those things are expensive to procure in the USA and people who do not earn enough money or who live outside of a city or some other progressive community may not come into contact with organic farmer’s markets or a reflexology practitioner.
I tried not to mourn this as I was having my 90 dollar massage on a table in a quiet room in Cambridge, MA. I tried very hard to enjoy the skillful touch of my excellent massage therapist. But I could not help but wonder how American life would change if there was a hammam in every neighborhood. How much would be a fair price to go for a nice soak two or three times a month?