|Copyright Janet Cameron|
"Hammam" means, literally, a steam room or Turkish bath and is a big part of North African culture. In the Medina in Marrakech, three foreign women, an Indian, Reeti, an Arab, Norma and an Englishwoman (me) discovered this little gem within a maze of tiny alleyways in the heart of the market. We had only met the day before when we all arrived at the airport, and both the other women live in UK, Norma in Kent, and Reeti in London.
At the spa, we were served sweet green tea while a price was negotiated. Or, rather, my new friend, Norma, who is Arabic to the core but whose mother loved England, haggled on all our behalves. We left for a couple of hours to allow the staff to get ready for us. We were to experience the "tourist" version of Hammam, and it was only later that we were shown the enormous, splendid chamber where the locals scrubbed and groomed themselves and one another.
It wasn't what I expected.
The Morrocans Take No Prisoners!
We were given bikini pants and a basket each for our clothes, and two young girls arrived, also dressed in their underwear and led us into the steam baths. Piping hot water fell steaming into large buckets. Giggling (these young women clearly enjoyed their job!) the two of them sloshed buckets of hot water over our heads before slathering us liberally with black soap and then set about us with abrasive mitts.
Reeti and Norma were done first, each with a young girl meting out the treatment, so when I came to me, I had both of them attacking me at once. One mitt was pressed to my skin and vigorously swept up one leg and then, almost instantly, the other young woman started working on the other leg. I yelled, "Oh my God, get off!" Apparently I yelled at them more than once - at least, that's what Reeti and Norma claimed later, although I don't remember making quite so much fuss. All I can recall is that I thought they had taken off my entire epidermis.
I told them I never realised they would be so cruel, but the girls just laughed and ignored my protests, and so I was thoroughly soaped and scrubbed back and front.
But, once I got used to it, it really wasn't that bad.
A Beautiful Massage to Calm our Nerves
Having been splashed alternately with hot and then cold water, my hair washed and conditioned (I couldn't do a thing with it for the rest of my holiday) I started to feel human again. We were wrapped in big soft white towels and led out to the next chamber with reclining beds so we could recover from the torture chamber - I mean - steam bath.
We drank tea with the Moroccan girls, and then rested until more young women came to give us a massage. They spent half an hour on each of us and this was bliss. I qualified as a masseuse myself some years ago and I know when what I'm getting is professional. This was professional. The pressure points on the soles of my feet were skilfully manipulated and I recognised all the massage strokes, for example, the long, lovely, fluid strokes of effleurage, then the kneading and thumbrolling, the hands moving expertly up to the neck, face and head.
We were glowing by the time we left, but beforehand, we were taken to see the women in the main steam chamber. It was an enormous chamber, high-ceilinged and decorated with colourful tiles and entered via tall arched doorways.Some of the women were crouching and attending to themselves, others working in pairs. Clearly this was a social occasion as well as a routine for cleanliness and purification.
We were allowed to take away our personal mitt and the bikinis we were given and when Reeti remarked her skin had never felt so soft and smooth, Norma and I could only agree. However, we were informed that usually legs and arms were pulled and flexed but they had spared us. Norma asked, "Because we are too fat?" "Oh no," said the young man on reception. "It's because you are too old." We managed to laugh as though we were enjoying the joke. But, I think we actually were, because by this time we were all too worldly-wise to be offended, just glad our poor old bones were still intact!