Up Close and Personal at a Moroccan Hammam
The boom of the makeshift plastic buckets drums echoed in the high ceilings of the concrete room. I was soaking, and I couldn’t tell if it was water from the hammam or sweat from the intense heat inside. I was starting to feel dizzy but kept clapping and chanting with the other women and girls around me. As I looked up, I was put at ease by their smiles and laughs.
Naked, lightheaded, and amazed, I was in a Moroccan hammam, or bathhouse, somewhere in the maze of an estimated 9,000 streets that make up the medina in Fes.
Traveling, and especially without speaking the native language, one gets used to the sense of confusion.
When I was taken to the local hammam from my hostel Riad Verus, I was expecting to be cleaned and leave feeling fresh and rejuvenated. What I didn’t expect was to be part of a Moroccan wedding ceremony and leave feeling appreciated and accepted.
Walking through the long corridor from the entrance to the changing area, a woman used hand motions to signify that I take off my clothes, and sit and wait. From the bench where I sat, I saw many women coming and going from the bath area. They socialized with each other and said hello to me. I was even offered tea and cookies.
Coming from the United States, I can’t recall having ever been in a social situation where women sit together topless and drink tea and eat cookies. Traveling, and especially without speaking the native language, one gets used to the sense of confusion. Do I sit here? Do I wait over there? Where do I put my clothes?
I had a lot of questions but decided to be patient. For about 10 minutes I just sat and observed, and then I was approached by a couple girls aged seven and ten. Somehow, with Spanish and rudimentary French and Arabic, we were able to have a conversation. Every once in a while, another teenager or adult would come and join the conversation, putting a comforting hand on my shoulder. Did I have kids? Did I live in Fes? The chatter involved a lot of giggling and smiling.
One of the girls who spoke Spanish looked at me and pointed to another one of the young women. “Se va a casar,” she said. She’s getting married. “Wow!” I thought, not realizing the importance of that statement.
Suddenly, I heard a shrill call from the bath area. The wailing singing continued for several minutes, signifying us to begin the ceremony. One of the little girls grabbed my hand and led me into the empty room. All of the buckets that are normally used for pouring different temperatures of water were put upside down and used as stools or drums.
The girl who was getting married sat in the middle of the room on a bucket, and the rest of the women and girls, including me, made a semi-circle around her. I realized that all of the women knew each other. All of the women who had given me cookies, said hello, or joined in the conversation were all present. I was the only outsider.
Later, I was able to figure out that I had been part of a pre-wedding ritual at the hammam. In this ceremony, the bride takes a purifying bath accompanied by her closest family members. In this case, the bride was accompanied by a confused foreigner.
The rhythmic clapping and chanting was followed by throwing our hands in the air and towards the bride. I followed the lead of the girls next to me and knew what to do from a reassuring look from the teenagers across the room. From time to time, one of the little girls would tap my thigh and make sure I was okay.
The older women passed the drums around and the girls wanted to teach me how to set the beat for different songs. There was even a part of the ceremony where all the unwed girls took turns sitting in the bride-to-be’s seat and had water poured on them and a special chant from one of the elderly women. At least 1 different girls helped to figure out if I was married or not, because they wanted to make sure I could participate if I wanted to. I was completely embraced by friendship and solidarity.
Amidst the commotion and women around me, I couldn’t believe that I was so welcomed into the most intimate ceremony for her wedding. Besides an overwhelming feeling of connectedness with these women, what struck me as the most powerful was the act of being surrounded by all different body types.
In the United States, we are bombarded with images of the “ideal body” and unrealistic expectations. In the hammam, I saw the naked bodies of a variety of ages and body types. There is no one body and none that is “better.” This was body acceptance. No matter the size, shape or volume, no one was ashamed to bare it all.
I looked down at the young girls guiding me through the ceremony. If I was seven years old, and had grown up seeing my grandmothers’, sisters’, aunts’, and cousins’ bodies, would I have struggled so much with body acceptance? Would it have taken me so long to finally come to terms with my physical appearance?
If I was seven years old, and had grown up seeing my grandmothers’, sisters’, aunts’, and cousins’ bodies, would I have struggled so much with body acceptance?
It’s common that while traveling, we see the most visible differences and only skim the surface of a culture. Real people often feel distant. Especially when it comes to the Muslim world, the west has certain false notions about the status of women in those countries. From the outside, the traveler sees Moroccan women covered and removed.
From the inside of a hammam, I saw the true women, unabashed, laughing, singing, and inviting me to be part of one of the most important milestones of one’s life. This experience reminded me to be careful of how I perceive a society, especially from the traveler’s perspective.