I lay on my back, sopping wet and stripped down to my panties. I blinked the water from my eyes and stared up at the cement ceiling. There was a single hole where the daylight shot through like a laser or a spindly finger of God. It was the only light in the room and it silhouetted the naked woman who squatted over me, scrubbing my tits with what felt like a Brillo pad.
In case there’s any confusion, “hamam” is not Arabic for “day spa.” It’s not a Moroccan sweat lodge, sauna or massage studio; there’s no piped-in music, scented candles or soft-voiced receptionist.
Which is okay; I hadn’t come for any of that. I’d come for… it was almost too cheesy to admit to myself. I was after all a tough sola backpacker. Somewhere along the line I’d decided I was supposed to be able to handle, well, everything. I was supposed to be able to travel through a male-dominated, Muslim country alone for weeks; supposed to endure the constant barrage of touts and hustlers and whistles; supposed to go those weeks without speaking to another women, save for other travelers in passing — I was supposed to bear all that without feeling like I was gonna break. Without seeing tour groups and wanting to sidle on to their bus. Without seeing young Western couples and wanting to attach myself to them. Without passing veiled women on the sidewalk — catching glimpses of them through crumbled doorways of raggedy alleys — and wanting to curl up beside them, bury myself in the layers of fabric that flowed around them in the suffocating heat.
It took a man grabbing my tits and howling in red-faced laughter in the middle of the Marrakesh medina to finally break me. I went back to my mildewy hotel room and sat on the saggy mattress and cried. I felt alone and lost, in a country where I was in fact alone and lost.
And it happened then—a strange craving rose in me like a sob. It was a yearning for sisterhood, to feel some kind of female connection. Or at least to feel safe and unguarded somewhere. Which is when I remembered the hamams.
My guidebook had told me that hamams were the social centers of Moroccan neighborhoods. In these traditional sex-segregated bathhouses, women shed the restrictions of gender roles, along with their clothes, and spent hours sweating and gossiping, combing each other’s hair and scrubbing each other’s backs. Hamams, it said, were perhaps the casual visitor’s best glimpse into the “secret world of Moroccan women.”
The fact that that suddenly sounded appealing to me was a cringe-worthy admission. Had Morocco reduced to me one of those Lifetime Network, O! Magazine women?
Luckily by this point I was also severely filthy. Three weeks of feeble shower heads, sweating beneath long sleeves, trying to hand-wash blue jeans in bathroom sinks had left me in a woeful state. It also supplied me with a less image-defeating reason for visiting a hamam.
So I set out to find one the next morning. I only got lost three times traversing the winding old alleys whose names changed every few feet. I stepped through a doorway marked by nothing more than a worn stencil of a woman’s profile. A plastic tarp served as the wafting partition between the outside world and the shadowed realm of the hamam.
Women’s voices echoed in a low hum. My pupils swelled in the dim light.
At the end of a long bare hall, a group of women sat on weathered rugs and folding chairs. They wore t-shirts and sweatpants. Their arms were bare and their black hair hung down to their waists. The sight struck me — how long had it been since I’d seen hair and skin so openly? The exposure flooded me with relief.
I walked down the hall. They looked up and observed me flatly. They wore the bored expression of long hours of numb work, and seemed neither amused nor offended by my outsiderness — just utterly uninterested as they picked at a bowl of dried dates.
A busty matron with frown lines burst into a terse French explanation of services and prices. I followed her thick-fingered pointing and feigned comprehension. I made a sweeping gesture for “all of it,” the whole package — about $10 — what my guidebook had told me would include hair washing, black-soap scrubbing and a massage.
The matron nodded and motioned for me to undress. I obeyed, peeling off layers quickly and shoving them into a plastic bag.
I stood before them in my underpants. It was a real-life fulfillment of those naked-in-a-room-full-of-strangers dreams. I folded my arms across my chest, hunched over.
The matron reached out her hand in an impatient hand-it-over-missy gesture. I handed her my plastic bag of clothing. Then she pointed at my feet. I held up the flip-flops I’d brought with me, beat-up things I bought at a drug store six years earlier. She took them from me, furrowed her brow as she disdainfully examined the soles.
She tssked, shook her head, smacked her hands together in a motion that indicated slipping. She tossed me a pair of pink plastic slippers three sizes too small for me; I shoved my feet as far in as they’d go.
The matron pointed at a scrawny woman wearing what looked like men’s boxer shorts. The woman didn’t look up at me. Instead she just pulled a date pit out her mouth and slowly gathered supplies — soap, a comb, scrubbing mitts — in a plastic bucket. Then she unceremoniously stripped down to her underpants.
I eyed her with a sidelong peek. Her skin stretched over her chicken arms; her knees knobbed and belly sloped. I could tell she’d been skinny for a long time.
She motioned and I hobbled behind her, heels dragging along the wet floor.
We passed through a domed room of unkempt opulence. Mold bloomed alongside the peeling frescoes on the walls. Gray caulk crosshatched the floor, revealing the pattern of tiles long since removed. Bulges of dim light sagged across the space and I imagined wealthy Marrakeshians, perhaps a century before — miles of black hair and plump naked bodies, like a Roman painting. I imagined soft laughter and the smell of argan oil.
We entered a cave of a room. The chemical smell of cheap shampoo hung heavy. Small holes in the ceiling created a hopscotch of light. In the corner, an elderly woman hummed as she rinsed her folds of flesh with water from a neon plastic bucket. Steam billowed and damp voices echoed from the next room: high young voices and raspy old ones, a female chatter.
My attendant motioned for me to sit. I lowered onto a plastic mat surrounded by buckets of varying sizes. I kept my knees to my chest.
I glanced at her but she didn’t meet my eyes. She began the treatment abruptly: she tossed pails of water over my head, yanked a comb through my hair, scrubbed my flesh with a scratchy black soap until it turned bright pink.
She spoke in a language of gestures, her hands signaling when to roll over, which arm to lift, when to expect the warmest of the water. She kept her eyes focused on her supplies and my body. There was no ceremony or false tenderness to her movements. Her hands slid down my flesh with practiced efficiency. This was her job. And the soggy wrinkles of her hands told me she’d been doing it for a long time.
She laid me down on the mat, so that all I saw was that one beam of light, and I gasped under the flush of hot water. I felt raw, weeks of dried skin and cumin-stained sweat rinsing off; weeks of lowered eyes and silent eff-yous, my own defenses and expectations of myself. It all slipped down the floor drain in a gurgle.
Under the briskness of hands that have served and served, I felt something in me soften.
I wanted it then. I wanted a sisterhood so bad it hurt. I wanted some kind of gesture, some acknowledgment from this attendant who refused to look me in the eyes, whose language I didn’t speak. This skinny woman who’d just spent thirty minutes scrubbing me clean with weathered old hands — I wanted it to mean more than that. I wanted to be someone’s sister, someone’s daughter; I wanted to feel something with this attendant — that we’d exchanged something that wasn’t superficial, fleeting, transactional. That we were both women, that we’d just been women, together — in a world where it’s not so damn easy to be that.
Instead, I choked on the water and pretended my tears were just from the sting of the cheap shampoo. The attendant poked me in the shoulder, signaling that I was done. She helped me up and held onto my arm as I crossed the room. I shuffled in the tiny slippers.
We went back through the moldy hall. As we approached the foyer, she looked up at me. Our eyes meet and she gave a little smile, almost shyly.
I smiled back, feeling in that moment like exactly what I was — a scrubbed-pink Westerner in my underpants and too-small plastic slippers.
It wasn’t the earth-shattering, heaven-singing moment of gender connectedness I’d craved. But I was too tough for that anyway, right? I’d paid and I’d gotten what there was to get — a smile like a spindle of light cutting through a crumbled room.