Naked and Afraid

I sat in the cafeteria, peeling back the buttery layers of my croissant and laughing with my friends about the previous night’s antics when Douaa, our campus coordinator and a kind of big sister, sat down with us. She asked if we’d made any plans for the weekend. We hadn’t, but we’d been toying with the idea of taking a walk to the Medina. She told us that she was going to the hammam. Being new to Morocco, I’d never heard of a hammam. She explained it was a traditional Moroccan spa and told us how she had brought some students before who really enjoyed it. Hammams used to be traditional bathhouses, when few people had indoor plumbing. Over time, and as Tangier industrialized, hammams morphed from bathhouses into spas. As I sat there pushing my eggs from one side of my plate to another, Douaa gave us a rundown of a typical day at the hammam. She said the people will shower us, rub oil into our skin to moisturize it, and then scrub us down to get rid of dead skin and soak us in softening mud. Then once we’ve been cleaned and moisturized, they’ll massage us. All this for only 400 dirhams or around forty bucks.

I thought back to the summer after my senior year, my only experience at a spa. Someone had given me a spa gift certificate as a graduation gift, and I had gotten a facial. It was relaxing, but it wasn’t nearly as extravagant as the hammam sounded, and it most definitely was not that cheap. I sipped my mint tea and decided I’d go for it.  In the two weeks I’d spent in Morocco my cultural experiences consisted of trying to order a crepe at a local cafe, taking a tour of Tangier’s Medina, and sipping some mint tea in a cafe with my English professor. While I enjoyed all these experiences, they were well within my comfort zone. I didn’t feel like I was expanding my horizons. If I wanted to immerse myself in the culture and experience things unique to Morocco, the hammam seemed like a great place to start.

The next day I woke up around ten. My eyes were heavy, but I couldn’t stop pacing from excitement. We planned on leaving at twelve, so I still had two hours to prepare. I made a mental list of everything I needed: a change of clothes, a hair elastic, and money. Once I had made sure I had everything I needed, I headed to the cafeteria to eat a quick lunch. To my delight, Karima, who runs the kitchen on campus, had made chicken sandwiches, one of my favorites. As I bit into the crispy chicken breast, I sat down and chatted with a few other girls who also planned on going to the hammam. Eventually, Douaa came down and told us it was time to go.

We were in a group of twelve, much too big for one taxi. We stood on a corner as Douaa hailed taxis, and three by three we were on our way. As the taxi glided through the streets of Tangier, effortlessly swerving around potholes, pedestrians, and stray cats, I said a silent prayer that we were going to the right place. Having just arrived in Tangier, I didn’t know my way around. Eventually, the taxi stopped. We paid the driver and exited the taxi, hoping that Douaa and the others would show up soon. I stood on the sidewalk letting the wind rustle my hair. Doubts danced around in my head until to my relief another cab appeared, and then another and then another until, finally, the cab with Douaa screeched to a halt. We crossed a busy street and headed down the road a bit until we reached the hammam.

Entering the hammam was like going into a palace. A grand chandelier made from a mosaic of crystals hung from the ceiling, and the wallpaper had flecks of gold on a green floral pattern. We sat on ornate sofas as Douaa spoke to the woman in charge and set up all of our services. She rented out the entire place because our group was so big. We split into two groups of six, half of us upstairs and half downstairs. Douaa told everyone to relax and have fun and said we’d meet back on the couches once everyone was finished. Women dressed in black ushered Paige, Ashleigh, Karli, Emma, Rebecca and me upstairs to a dressing room where we were each given a white bathrobe with a pink glove. I touched the soft terry cloth of the bathrobe and I instantly felt tired. After everyone had stripped down and donned a bathrobe, the women in the black shirts guided us out of the room. They only spoke the local dialect of Arabic. The language barrier was something I’d never experienced before and it made me feel uneasy. Were they talking to me? Were they talking about me?

Changing room in a traditional Moroccan hammam

The women guided us through a purple hallway until we reached what I assumed was the sauna. I could feel the heat escaping from under the door, steam grazing my body. We shed our robes and stepped into the sauna, encompassed by the heat. It was very different from any other sauna I’d been in. The room was a square with a bench composed of light green tiles spread around the perimeter. The whole room was a mosaic, all tiny blue, green, and white tiles except for the metal drain on the floor and the marble birdbath in the center. We sat around the room, and I couldn’t help but think of how strange this was. I could feel the heated tile against my bare skin. I felt a sense of vulnerability that I’ve never felt before, sitting in an unfamiliar room almost naked with five girls I’d known for about week. They say that people who study abroad end up forming great friendships, but this wasn’t the kind of bonding I had expected.

I thought back to the pre-departure meeting we’d attended in December. The directors of the study abroad program told us to make sure we only brought extremely modest clothing: no tank tops, no shorts, always cover your body as much as possible. They explained how Morocco is a very traditional Muslim country, so in order to be respectful and fit in as best we can, we must be modest and conservative at all times. It was hard to feel modest when the only thing separating me from total nudity was my underwear. I’ve never given much thought to underwear; I’d always put them on without thinking twice. But I sure was thinking about them now. My mind wandered to Naked and Afraid, a show on the Discovery Channel.  Two people who have never met are stripped down and sent to a remote location where they must survive twenty-one days living off the land.  I felt like one of the characters.

My ruminations were interrupted when the women with the black shirts reentered. One by one they pulled us into the corner of the room where we were spritzed with warm water by a silver hose. As they sprayed, they gently rubbed our bodies, making sure our skin was completely rinsed. After I had been thoroughly doused, one of the women in black went to the marble bird bath and pulled out a little bowl. She reached into it and began rubbing my skin. Although the room was hot, the oil was cool. It smelled just like the olive oil my mother uses to fry eggs. She was anything but bashful, slathering it on every single part of my body. If I felt like the rubbing was a little invasive, what was to come next would be much worse.

Before I knew it, the women in black left. My friends and I made small talk, and I just tried to relax and enjoy the experience. Soon enough three different women, also in black shirts, came into the sauna. They took Karli, Ashleigh, and Paige by the hands, leading them into new territory. I was glad that I wasn’t pulled out first because I was beginning to really enjoy sitting in the warmth. It was hot, steamy, and I wanted nothing more than an ice-cold glass of water.

Another woman in black entered to lead Emma out by the hand. Becca and I continued chatting, but I was really beginning to feel overheated. I had been sitting in this sauna for about an hour. I was hot and on the road to dehydration, but I had no idea who I would tell or how. I asked Becca how she was feeling, and we both agreed we were beginning to get overcooked. Sitting there for another twenty minutes, a woman finally entered and pointed to me. I felt bad leaving Becca, but I was far too happy to be getting out to offer to trade places.

The woman brought me to a room full of pale gray tiles. There was a shower in the corner where another woman was washing Emma. We smiled at one another, not sure what to say. The woman let go of my hand and pointed to the large marble table in the center of the room. I walked over to it, and she just stared at me like she was waiting for me to do something. I looked at her and she pointed at the table again. I decided maybe I should sit on it, so I hopped on, once again feeling the cold tile against my bare legs. The woman patted the table and I finally realized she wanted me to lie down. I lay on the wet table and felt the cold marble press against my olive oil-covered skin. I tried my best to stifle the fear of slipping off the table and focused on enjoying the experience.

The woman appeared with one of the pink gloves that had been in the pocket of my long-lost bathrobe and began scrubbing my legs. I was surprised by how hard she scrubbed. I knew that it was supposed to get rid of my dead skin, but the way she scrubbed I feared she would peel me down to the bone.

“No pain no gain,” I told myself.

She continued, scrubbing my stomach and my chest. It was very strange to be this vulnerable and insecure. I have always been a very trusting person, and it hasn’t always worked out for the best. So being in a new country, I was trying very hard to be cautious and keep out of uncontrollable situations. Yet here I was completely at the mercy of this woman and her pink glove.

She stopped scrubbing and pointed at the table again. I had no idea what she wanted, but she continued to point. She began drawing something with her finger but I was at a loss. After what felt like fifteen minutes of her pointing, she suddenly grabbed my side and began pulling me. This was when I realized that she wanted me to roll over. I did just that, and she took her pink glove to my back, scrubbing and scrubbing. After doing my legs, back, and arms she sat me up and scrubbed my face, neck, and ears. It felt like someone took a Brillo pad and scrapped it across my face: she was not gentle and it was not soft. After she had finished, I stood up and began staggering to the shower. I looked back at the marble table I had been laying on and noticed brown clumps all over. I realized that those were clumps of my dead skin, and I wasn’t sure whether to be proud or disgusted. She took a hose and sprayed the table, washing the brown clumps down the drain.

We went to the shower, and the water washed away any remaining dead skin. She left the room and returned with a little green tin. She reached into the tin and pulled out a clump of grayish brown paste. She began to rub it on my legs. It was thick and cool to the touch. I realized that this must have been the mud that Douaa was talking about. Before I knew it, there was mud on body parts I didn’t know I had. Without warning, the mud made its way to my face, right in my eye. It stung, and I wanted to wash it out but my hands were equally covered in mud. I didn’t know how to tell her she had gotten it in my eye. I know five words in Arabic, and they were not “There’s mud in my eye.” With no other options, I shut my eye really tightly, hoping that eventually the stinging would subside.

Next, she grabbed my hair and pulled me as if I was on a leash. Part of me was glad for the guidance, since with my muddy eyes I couldn’t see a thing. But another part of me was nervous, I couldn’t see and wasn’t really sure where I was going. I felt the warm water touch my skin and I realized I had been brought to the shower. The water trickled down my skin, rinsing away the mud. Once the mud was gone, she began massaging my head as she shampooed my hair. It’s a little strange to have a stranger do a basic task I do almost every day, but it was very relaxing. Her fingers caressed my scalp, it felt as if she was rubbing away my stress.

After she had fully washed my hair, she gave me a bathrobe. This must have been a different bathrobe than the one I had earlier because it no longer had pockets. I didn’t think much of it, and I followed her into a purple room. The walls were a pale lavender. Three black leather lounge chairs sat on each side, and on one wall there was a rock formation with water trickling down and a small fountain. Tea lights lined the bottom of the beautiful fountain. Emma was sitting in one of the lounge chairs. I sat next to her, and a woman brought us both some water. The hour in the hammam left me parched, and I practically finished the bottle in one gulp. We talked about how we were enjoying it so far, how we both relished spending time in the relaxing atmosphere. Rebecca then came in and sat with us, sharing stories about her experience.

After a few minutes of recovery, a petite woman with — what else? — a black shirt and a long braid came into the room and pointed to me. I followed her out of the purple room and into the orange room. The orange room had a leather massage table in the center and some Arabic calligraphy painted on the wall. I could hear some light music; it was in Arabic so I couldn’t understand it, but it was still very calming. Naturally, I couldn’t understand the woman’s Arabic, but my inability to communicate no longer bothered me. I could understand her body language, and it made me feel at ease.

She instructed me, as best she could, to take off my bathrobe and lay on the table. As I lay on the table she began to unbutton her shirt. This made me incredibly nervous. Douaa had mentioned that I would be almost nude, but she didn’t say anything about the masseuse. In a country where I barely see native women’s hair, I did not expect to see her without her shirt, but I tried my hardest to be respectful and go with the flow. To my relief, she left all other clothing on. She massaged my back which felt fabulous. She worked her way up my legs, starting at the ankle. She continued up my calf, which was much needed because my legs were sore from all the walking we had been doing. She got to my thighs and continued working her way up until her hands had supremely surpassed my comfort zone. I find it bizarre how modest and restricted the woman appear in the streets but at the hammam all barriers are broken. I would have thought it inappropriate for her to remove her shirt or for me to be topless for my massage, but inside the walls of the hammam, this is the norm.

Midway through the massage, she asked me a question and I wasn’t sure what she was saying. She said she didn’t speak English, so I told her I can speak Spanish as well. She told me she spoke very little Spanish, but she asked me what my name was. I told her “me llamo Meredith. Y tú?” She told me her name. Throughout the rest of the massage she would ask me “bien ó no?” to which I would reply, “bien.” Oddly, I knew I was absolutely safe. Between her kindness, the calming music, and the massage I felt relaxed, at ease, and in good hands. My apprehension about the language barrier, culture shock, the nudity and not knowing what’s to come next faded away.

To my disappointment, though, the massage eventually ended.

There was a shower in the back of the massage room where I rinsed off, letting the hot water flow over my skin. I put on my bathrobe for a final time, relishing the way the terry cloth felt against my fresh skin. The woman sat me down on a little stool and brushed my hair. She was gentle, and it reminded me of when I was a little girl and my mom used to brush my hair. It soothed me, and I didn’t want her to stop. After she had brushed it, she braided it and then walked me back into the very first room, the one with the lockers. I thanked her profusely and began to change into my street clothes. After the bill had been handled, we headed out onto the bustling streets of Tangier, ending our day at the hammam.

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