Visiting a Moroccan hammam was on my list of things that I definitely wanted to try in Marrakesh but I will confess to being a bit intimidated about the whole thing. The things I read online were contradictory so I finally decided to just go for it. Even though I knew of a local hammam, I had planned to visit the Hilton Hamman in Targa. It is heavily advertised downtown, a short walk from our house, and I was told that it is very nice. A visit to its front desk answered some of my questions: How much? $250 Dirham ($25 USD)- which matched advertised costs in the Medina; What to bring? Just a towel; What is included? Entrance, scrubbing, 20 minute massage, soap. Okay, sounds good.
Last minute research thought about tipping your hammam attendant left me questioning my decision. Someone’s post mentioned that they were spending 95 dirham and they were roundly scolded about spending too much! So living in the moment, I decided to go to the local hammam. No pretty advertising, just a hole in the wall with two doors and a woman and man’s face above each one.
I entered the woman’s side and asked how much in my broken French. The cashier smiled apologetically and called to an old man hanging around outside to come help me. He asked if I spoke French. “Un peu!” I replied. He launched into a stream of French, explaining what I would need and where to go. I managed maybe every 10th word. What I did figure out was that the entrance charge was 12 dirham (about $1.20 USD) and someone inside would help me. Following several other women, I paid it and went in.
The air was steamy and clogged my sinuses a bit but there was no scent of mildew or mold, everything seemed very clean. Several women sat behind a wall watching personal items. I went up and asked for help. Between them, they had about as much French as I did, but they smiled kindly and went out of their way to help. They found buckets for me to use and scrubbing cloths and showed me to where I could undress. There was a mix of nudity. Some women were fully naked, and all of the children were, and some still had underwear. I decided to leave mine on and wrapped myself in a towel.
After undressing, I brought my stuff back to the attendants who motioned that I should give up my towel as well and then lead me through another door into the steam room. We picked our way across the room, looking for an empty surface as there were women everywhere talking and scrubbing themselves and children played happily. We found a place where a rubber mat was layed down for me to sit on.
My attendant filled my two buckets with hot water and dumped one of them over me and handed me the famous savon noir. It is a black goopy soap that doesn’t produce much in the way of suds but feels smooth and slick as you rub it across you. Then the scrubbing began. When I tried to help, I was motioned to stop. She spoke only Arabic and went about my cleansing with the same attention I would give to a pot that I had burned rice into. After a few minutes, she showed me the dead skin that had been scrubbed off my body. I consider myself a fairly clean person so this was a bit surprising.
She then said something in Arabic that I didn’t get and said it louder when I didn’t react appropriately. Apparently she meant for me to turn over and so I did. She scrubbed my back and then both sides before dumping another bucket of hot water over me. One of my big worries before the hammam was that my right leg is still touch sensitive after my cancer surgery last July. Erich had written down the French translation for, “Please do not touch my leg as I am recovering from cancer,” but the language barrier made that useless. I showed her my scar and tried to explain that it hurt, to which she nodded and scrubbed nearly as hard. I squirmed but tolerated it.
Then she started in on my hair with the same relish. I have a new appreciation of water boarding as a form of torture as bucket after bucket was dumped over my head with no warning. She scrubbed the shampoo into my hair and rinsed. She asked if I wanted my face scrubbed and I agreed. Then she did a final fill of my buckets with slightly cooler water that she brought to me for a final rinse.
The entire process took nearly 30 minutes from start to finish. Between rinses, the other women were friendly and chatted with me in our common broken French. When finished, my skin was glowing. I stepped out of the steam into the cooler dressing area, put on dry underwear and outside clothing and gathered my stuff. I handed my attendant a 10 dirham tip on my way out and thanked her with a smile.
Outside in the warm sunshine, my skin felt new and raw and fresh. I felt like the daily stress and grime had been scrubbed off me and it felt incredibly good. Surprisingly, much of the numbness and nerve pain that I had been dealing with in my leg was gone and a week later has only partially returned.
I am looking forward to doing this again but next time I will bring my own soap, scrubbing glove, and shampoo so I don’t have to rely on the kindness of strangers. If you are in Morocco, I highly recommend the hammam experience and I hope that you too will enjoy the local’s version and not just the tourist oriented one.