A hammam is an ancient tradition in Morocco since water is considered sacred, and both water and cleanliness are essential elements of Islam. The hammam is deeply rooted in everyday life in Morocco and is where people go to not only get clean but to socialize, gossip and make connections.
I have to admit, I was absolutely terrified to experience my first hammam. I’m very much a “yes” person when I travel and am always down to try something new, but the thought of hanging out naked with a bunch of locals and my fellow travelers did not sound comfortable whatsoever. Thankfully my roomie convinced me that she thought we both should do it (thanks Emily), because “when in Rome”, or in this case, “when in Morocco”. So we signed ourselves up and prepared for the unknown.
Our guide (I was traveling on a G Adventures tour) led us down a dark alleyway to a barely marked building with a sign only written in Arabic. That’s where we entered into the hammam and immediately had about a dozen sets of eyes shoot directly at us. Obviously we stuck out like a sore thumb. This was a traditional and local hammam. Not one that also doubles as a spa. These women come here once a week to bathe and probably rarely see foreigners like us.
We awkwardly stood by the hooks and bench that lined the one wall hoping someone would give us instructions of what to do. Thankfully one of the ladies gestured for us to take all our clothes off except our undies (I wore bathing suit bottoms). There we stood in a small “change room” naked and feeling like lost puppies waiting for instructions on what to do next.
We handed our bags of clothes (don’t bring any valuables with you) over to the old lady sitting behind the main reception desk. We then were led through a door to a tiled and wet room and through another door to the steam room. Tiled in blue and white tiles, covered in water, with a tap/large sink on the one wall where people were retrieving warm water in buckets. The smell of oranges filled the air which I later realized was coming from the orange peels on the ground. Women were sitting on little stools scattered through the hammam where they were dumping buckets of water on themselves and lathering up in soap and shampoo. One lady was scrubbing down all of her kids. Everyone was naked in soaking wet underwear, which made me wonder why no one else wore bathing suit bottoms which would be way more comfortable when wet.
We all lined up against the one wall and one of the attendants (who was also naked) dumped a bucket of water on each of us and gave us some black soap which is made from what’s left of the olives after making olive oil. We took the gooey substance and rubbed it all over our bodies as two attendants pulled us one-by-one to sit on a small plastic mat as they scrubbed us with a rough mitt (which we purchased beforehand and brought with us). I patiently waited for my turn but I was second to last, so I sat sweating out every last toxin from my body.
Finally I was pulled to the mat where I sat facing the attendants breasts as she scrubbed my arms and my front. Then I laid flat on my stomach and she scrubbed everything including moving my bottoms to ensure she scrubbed my butt. I flipped over and was scrubbed on my frontside, including my boobs. The scrubbing mitt is meant to get all the dead skin off and you’ll see it falling off of you into the water as you’re scrubbed. To explain how it feels, it feels a lot like if the lady had sandpaper and was using that on your skin! However, surprisingly it wasn’t excruciating.
After I was scrubbed I lined up on another wall and we were again pulled one-by-one as the attendant washed our hair like your mother once did when you were a child.
At this point, our group was pretty comfortable with sitting naked with one another. It’s funny actually, how a country like Morocco that is so modest, is more comfortable sitting around naked then a group of North American girls.
Feeling super clean, and wrinkly from sitting in a steam room for about an hour and a half, we moved to a room that was a bit cooler where we sat along the bench and we giggled about how this would make a perfect Dove commercial as our hair was all cleaned with Dove shampoo. The attendant gave us a bit of regular Dove soap for us to give ourselves a final rinse before she dumped another bucket of water on each of us and we were done.
We walked back out to the main room/changing area where we retrieved our towels (bring your own) and changed back into our clothing. We were feeling squeaky clean, as well as dehydrated from being in the heat for that long without water. Personally, I didn’t find my skin had a noticeably softer feel. However, I do naturally have really soft skin so someone with rougher skin will likely feel differently.
As we piled out the front door of the hammam, squeaky clean and ready to head back to our hotel, we were greeted by another dozen sets of eyeballs, but this time men waiting for us to hurry up and leave so they could enter the hammam for their turn to get clean. Women and men traditionally have two different times in the hammam. At this hammam women were between 12pm-7pm and men were 8pm-12am.
Overall I was happy to experience this cultural tradition and got to experience it in such an authentic way that locals would. There are a ton of “hammams” everywhere in Morocco but many that you’ll find in hotels, etc. resemble more of a spa which is nothing like what the real experience is. Locals don’t visit hammams because they’re luxurious, they visit to get clean! So I highly recommend you talk with locals, your hotel reception, or guide to find out where you can go for a truly local experience. Make sure you “hire” an attendant to bring you through the process, bring your own towel and leave your valuables at home as you experience this truly local experience.
And if this experience sounds terrifying to you, I do recommend that you at least have a hammam in a local spa. It’ll be more private and a more luxurious experience but at least you’ll somewhat get to experience it before you leave! 🙂