2 weeks of travelling around Morocco and I have emerged at the other end, a changed woman. Here’s why.
Amidst trekking through the Atlas mountains, swimming in waterfalls, dancing to arabic music in monsoon rains, camel riding through the Sahara and acclimatising to the everyday harassment that is the souks of Marrakesh, it was on the last day of my trip that I experienced something relatively ordinary, yet far more life-changing than any of the above. So much so that it merited a blog post of its own.
One word- Hammam. If you’ve been fortunate enough to go on any fancy holidays in your life, the word Hammam may conjure up a luxurious spa experience, complete with aromatic massages, velvety bathrobes and luke warm pools to relax in. Hammams have been adapted by the Western world to become luxury spas but, in fact, the word in arabic, literally means a communal bathhouse in which to wash.
So it was my last day in Morocco. Nursing a hangover, I wandered idly down the busy streets of Fez with some girls I had met at the hostel, with high hopes of an afternoon of sumptuous indulgence and hangover healing. A small woman ushered us in through a narrow, brown corridor and into the main area of the Hammam. The sight before me was, quite frankly, a shock to the system, for there was upwards of 60 naked women in one small, damp room. Far from the oasis I had anticipated, it became clear that this was an authentic hammam, literally the place where moroccan women came to wash themselves on a weekly basis.
The first thing that was immediately apparent, was the fact that we were wearing swim suits. A brusque woman approached us and told us, through a series of gestures, to remove them, as that was the way it was. No questions asked. Having known the girls from the hostel for around 3 hours, it was somewhat amusing that we were suddenly top-half naked with each other, traipsing timidly into a room of almost complete nudity. However, I soon forgot all shyness and settled down to my buckets. You got a bucket of freezing cold water and another boiling hot, placed in front of you, and you sat on the floor using a little bowl to chuck the water over your head, hot, then cold, then hot, then cold again. Rough, salt-like black soap was there to scrub over your body as you sweated it out in the sub-saharan heat. Women of all shapes and sizes filled the crowded, clammy room. Huge ladies with babies hanging on their arms – wrinkly, skinny, all the way from pre-pubescence to the elderly… It was like a kind of sisterhood. Everyone was comfortable washing each others hair, scrubbing at dead skin and all the while laughing and joking animatedly with each other.
For me, this was feminism at it’s best. The disparity between women on the street and in the Hammam was so striking and so important. Covered nearly from head to toe outside, they entered the women-only Hammam and were more at ease in their own bodies than I could say about women in any western culture. This time, without men, was visibly a time they cherished together, to embrace in the freedom it gave them to be women. I would never claim to speak for all moroccan women, but from an outsider’s perspective, the atmosphere was full of joy, liberty and respect – all inhibitions were left outside.
As well as being a fantastic hangover cure, I would go as far as to say that the Hammam experience made an indelible impression on me. My western eye – used to women being insecure and ashamed of their bodies, always seeking an unattainable, aesthetic perfection – was overjoyed to see a group of women, totally comfortable in themselves. A place where size really didn’t matter. Where women could be naked yet entirely uneroticized and thus, empowered in their own skin. It was beautiful.