Published: January 24th 2012January 23rd 2012
I went to the hammam with one of the thousands of Fatima's who live in Morocco. We stepped through an ordinary-looking door into a world where hard edges became blurred. A soft, warm world of steam and whispers. An intimate, secretive women's world.
The noise and glare of the street were replaced by the quiet of the cavernous changing room, bedecked with tiles, but otherwise spartan. A young girl wearing a large padded black coat lay on her side on the tiled bench that ran around the perimeter of the room. Eyes half-closed, head resting on her hands, she ignored us and the lady in the corner dispensing henna powder and olive oil soap. Fatima gestured that I should undress - down to my knickers. There is no modesty in the hammam. Outside women are veiled and covered, here they are free and open. A lady appeared from the shadowy depths. Placing her hands on Fatima's shoulders, she kissed her on both cheeks, making an almost unconscious move towards me in the next heartbeat; seeing I was a stranger, she faltered - but only slightly - shrugging her shoulders, she embraced me, kissed me and gave me a resounding clap
on the back. The ladies exclaimed in Arabic and giggled.
Fatima beckoned, and I followed into the first chamber of steam. She ladeled warm water over me, almost without warning, turning me with the slightest touch of her hands. Words were not necessary. Mixing the henna to a thin paste, she dipped her fingertips into the ochre-red liquid and began to smear it over me. 'Good for the skin' she murmered. She worked until every inch of my body was covered, running her hands over my breasts, rubbing the sides of her fingers in-between my toes, and her palms over my thighs. I was gently sluiced a second time and then covered with soap - a rich, dark brown, slightly sticky, glutinous mass of olive-oil soap. It was like being covered with treacle. More rinsing, more warmth. The world began to slow down. I understood nothing was required of me and I let go, cushioned by a feeling of well-being, and cosseted in warm vapours. I lay on a tiny mat on the tiled floor and Fatima set to with the exfoliation mitt, labouring over me with long, sweeping strokes. My underwear was pulled up and down, my arms lifted, my hands placed between her breasts and in creases of her flesh, while she worked amongst the folds of my own. It was at once ruthless and slightly sensual.
As I sat upright, woozieness envelopped me. I leaned against Fatima as she shampooed my hair, resting my head against her chest, I closed my eyes and travelled far. Sounds reached me in this far-away place, women's voices rising and falling - an ebb and flow of happiness and contentment. The slap of flip-flops against the tiles. Running water, taps filling buckets, the 'woosh' of water being thrown. Women sat on low plastic stools or square mats, their heads hanging, faces hidden by a curtain of hair, as they combed henna through it. Some massaged friends backs, others applied creams and lotions. Many lost in private worlds, but all united in this communal bathing experience.
Fatima nudged me. Time to go into the hottest chamber for a final hose down. Pink, squeaky clean, and naked as a new born babe, Fatima wrapped me in my giant towel and sent me back to the changing room. The attendant stood by, arms folded while I dressed, then zipping my bag she opened the door and exposed me to light and reality. My hammam dream was over. My trip to the hammam was arranged by 'Naturally Morocco'. http://www.naturallymorocco.co.uk