Morocco #1: The Hammam Experience

This post covers the practicalities of visiting a hammam in Morocco, and what to expect when you go–skip to the end for the summary. But first, some preamble.

At some point in my Middle East Studies academic experience, I read part of a travelogue by a 19th-century Egyptian government guy who’d gone to France on a diplomatic mission. “The people there are quite strange,” he mused (I’m paraphrasing). “They eat in public and bathe in private.”

Maybe this is why I like the Middle East–I love me a public bath. I’ve been to hammams in Turkey and Syria, but never before in Morocco. In Istanbul, the hammams are pretty much a tourist thing. In Damascus and Aleppo, they’re half-and-half–some are glitzier than others. Tragically, in Cairo at least, there are no remaining non-sleazy hammams (although I read one was being restored?).

In Morocco, however, they’re still really used for regular old bathing, because so many people don’t have good facilities in their oh, you know, six-hundred-year-old houses.

First step was locating a hammam. They’re so common in medinas that often they don’t have signs (or they’re marked only in Arabic)–you just have to know that there’s usually one near the mosque. I was in Marrakech, so I went hunting for the Bab Doukkala hammam, which is through an unmarked red-and-white-painted entrance off the northwest corner of the Bab Doukkala mosque.

After I’d scoped out the location and asked the door guy what I needed to bring, I went out to collect all my accoutrements: gooey traditional Moroccan soap, a scrubby glove, a towel, underwear. I had to buy underwear because I’m the kind of mercenary traveler who packs only thongs because they take up less room. Mine are also totally shot and barely stay on, so I figured it would be better to have a pair that would guarantee some decency. Buying this underwear, incidentally, was my first introduction to the Marrakech custom of quoting prices in rials, which are a fictitious unit that’s 20 to the dirham. First I was indignant at the underwear seller asking me to pay about $20 for a crappy pair of granny panties, then humbled when he kindly picked the right amount (4 dirhams) out of the coins in my open hand.

granny panties
The $20 granny panties in question

My guidebook had exhorted me to bring a plastic mat or a stool to sit on, but I couldn’t find any mats, even at the shops that seemed to specialize in hammam gear, and investing in a plastic stool seemed like a waste. So I figured I’d subject my butt to the hammam floor, and hope I didn’t shock anyone with my poor hygiene–these fabled mats weren’t ever used in the Turkish or Syrian places I’d gone.

Finally, I gathered my traveling companion, and we set off. Meg had never been to a public bath situation, but said she was up for it. I knew roughly what to expect, but when I’d peeked my head into this and a couple other hammams in the neighborhood, they looked pretty bare-bones. The ones I’d been to in Syria and Turkey all had lavish lounges for sitting and drinking tea after, and loads of towels available and that kind of thing. Here, I’d seen no such comforts.

We paid our entrance fee to the man at the door, and then he carefully made change for me so that I’d have exact money to pay the attendants inside for our scrubbing (gommage) and stashing our bags. We got the stink-eye from the main attendant for not getting massages, but I figured a regular rubdown was intense enough.

In the big, very vaguely defined changing area, we stripped down to our undies, put on our flip-flops, clutched our little towels and gingerly removed our glasses. We were at the mercy of the hammam ladies now.

We needn’t have worried: As soon as we were inside the big central domed steam room, a woman bustled over with two plastic mats (hooray!) and sat us down by a pillar. She hung our towels up for us, then grabbed our tub of soap and exhorted us to rub it all over. Some other women sitting nearby made sure we lathered up our faces too.

We sat and softened up for a bit in the steam, while our attendant filled a giant bucket of water and dragged it over to us. When we were suitably tender, the attendant pulled on one a glove and set to work on Meg. She scrubbed and scrubbed, occasionally pausing to see whether Meg’s skin had flushed. She didn’t move on to a fresh limb until the first one was properly lobster-red. Then she sloshed on warm water from the bucket, and proceeded to the next quadrant.

Notably, the hammam attendant didn’t stop to show off the little rolls of dead skin that were building up on her mitt. This is a standard part of hammam-for-tourists theater. Here in Marrakech, scrubbing off those little wormy bits of skin was just so completely normal that I don’t think it occurred to our woman to highlight it.

While Meg was down, I got to look around the hammam, with my fuzzy vision. It’s so rare in the US to get to see naked people, and there’s something so heartwarming about seeing so many different sorts of flesh. Here was everything from an astoundingly lithe and firm young woman to a mountainous older matron, all happily scrubbing themselves and each other. Maybe it was the steam talking, but it did feel like world peace was attainable, if we all just took our clothes off.

Then it was my turn to get the gommage. I slipped around on my plastic mat like a fish on a boat deck. I grew gradually warmer as each inch of my true skin was brought to light. Being in such authoritative hands was more relaxing than any massage I’ve ever had.

When she was done, I sat there panting a little as the attendant went off to get some shampoo. She also brought one of those little plastic brushes that fit in the palm of your hand, and proceeded to mercilessly detangle both of us. A few days later, I invested in one of those for the long haul.

Our attendant stood us up and sloshed us both with the last water from the bucket. We’d been scrubbed clean like newborn babies inside half an hour. We could’ve lingered and chatted, like all the other women in the steam room, who were working at a much more leisurely pace, but I wanted to get outside and marvel at my brand-new skin.

Though it did seem a shame to encase my perfect cleanness in my nasty old traveling clothes–and to subject my steam-dazed brain to the rigors of regular Marrakech street life. I could’ve used a little buffer zone between freshly bathed me and the real world, a little more time to sit and marvel about how odd and unfortunate it is to bathe in private.

Practicalities: Hammam Bab Doukkala, Marrakech

Cost: 10 dirhams entry, 10 dirhams to stow a bag, 50 dirhams for gommage (scrubbing). These are the general rates at all neighborhood hammams. Massages are also available (I think for another 50 dirhams or so). Women’s hours are from noon till about 7pm; men’s are early morning and later in the evening. (Some hammams have separate men’s and women’s sides, so you can go anytime, but it’s more typical to see this split schedule.)

All the gear you need is available from shops near hammams, or in the spice-seller areas of medinas. You’ll usually spot them first by their displays of the scrubby mitts–most sellers hang a bunch of them on strings, like garlands.

  • sabon baldi the gooey black soap made from olive oil, sold in bulk. I got a small tub, good for about five washings, for 10 dirhams. Of course you could bring regular soap, but it’s not as good! If you decide to bring some home, ask to get it wrapped up in a plastic bag with tape, so it doesn’t ooze in your bag.
  • a keesa a scrubby rectangular mitt made of crepe de chine. Some women are old-school and use a terracotta thing that looks like a pot-scrubber, covered in a crochet cozy. This seems harder to maneuver.
  • shampoo
  • ghassoul Totally optional, but for the full hammam treatment, use this clay-like stuff to treat your hair. (Don’t be tempted to put sabon baldi on your hair! It’ll never wash out.) It’s sold in small brownish chips, again in bulk. A standard-size bag of it is about 10 dirhams and will last for many washings. You make a paste with the ghassoul and warm water, then work it through your hair and let it sit for about 10 minutes. Then you rinse it out and shampoo.
  • a comb or brush with big teeth for using on wet hair. Those little palm-held brushes are good and cheap.
  • a towel Don’t tell them I said so, but one from your hotel is probably fine–it won’t get nasty.
  • plastic flip-flops to wear inside the hammam, more for your own good than anything. The place I went, not a lot of people were wearing them.
  • a plastic mat If you’re in Morocco a while and think you might go to a hammam more than once, get your own, so you have you a smooth, clean spot to sit on (the floors are often just rough concrete). If you don’t bring your own, they’ll probably have an extra for you to use, but again it’s more for comfort than for strict hygiene etiquette–I think you could go without one and not shock anyone. The typical mat is about twice as large as a placemat, and they’re usually rolled up and stashed off to the side at shops selling hammam gear; once I knew where to look, I saw ones that were smooth plastic, and others that were sort of ridgy foam things.
  • a caftan or some similar loungewear (or a couple more big towels), if you want to sit around a bit in the changing area to relax
  • an extra pair of underwear You’ll wear yours into the hammam, so you want a dry pair for later.

Here’s what the soap and glove look like:

Nasty, right? No! Best spa tools in the world.

And here’s the hairbrush. Note the random application of the alligator logo.

"Croco Brush" brand!

10 comments

  1. zora says:

    Andi, you might want to plan a return trip to Morocco just for hammam and spa stuff! I went to the bargain basement hammam, but there are some lovely upscale one too. They’re _really_ into it.

    Ken, I wish I was there too. I’ve decided that the inside of a hammam is pretty much my ideal environment.

  2. Paul Kretkowski says:

    I think I may have been to that hammam, or one near it in Marrakesh, back in 1999. Had roughly the same experience as you describe, with the addition that my friend and I were manhandled, literally–much pulling back of shoulders behind one’s torso and cracking of backs as part of the deal. It was the first time outside a field-sports setting that I was ever seriously afraid of injury–but I felt tons better afterward.

  3. Thanks for this really informational post, Zora! I’m going to Morocco for the week before Easter this year and wanted to visit a hammam in each city I go to but the Lonely Planet guide was pretty sparse on the nitty-gritty how-to stuff for visiting a hammam. So thank you! This sounds like a fascinating (and cleansing hehe) experience!

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