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Tales From Morocco: Rebirth via Hammam

An hour in hell sends my mind straight to heaven

It wasn't the heat that made me love this place so much, nor was it the flowing water, ancient architecture, or even the countless naked men; no, what sparked my adoration was the unabashed egalitarianism. There were no differences between the people in this Hammam, only soap and steaming hot water.

Everywhere else in Morocco, I felt like an outsider looking in. People were always kind but it was clear that I stood separate from them. I was a tourist looking for a nice scarf for my mother or a chessboard for a friend. I was teething for a cultural experience that wasn't handed to me on a silver platter, something real and undiluted.


This was about the time I met an insane Norwegian man, named Sven, who insisted we go to a public Hammam. I'd seen a few Turkish bathhouses around but each were prohibitively expensive for someone on my budget, to which he replied by explaining that the locals have Hammams that aren't advertised within the mosques. I was sold. 40 minutes, a couple miles of walking, 50 Durham bribing small children to guide us, and a hefty amount of broken French for haggling, and we were in. I thought celebrations was in order, until the ordeal began.

The next two hours could most accurately be described as unbearable. We were first taken into a steam room far hotter than anything I'd ever experience and left us there until both Sven and I nearly fainted. The staff then half guided, half dragged, us to a cool-off area that was a refreshing 95 degrees and proceeded to rub us down with what I can only describe as a particularly rough pumice stone. Then came the massages, the agonizing massages, of which I have little memory beyond my water induced blurred vision. A result of the sweat or my tears, I will never know. Finally, neither Sven, nor I, were brave enough not to cry out in shock as they doused us in ice cold water, slapped us on the ass, gave us some towels, and sent us on our way.


As we exited that Hammam, Sven and I could only stare at each other dumbfounded. It was when the cool spring air hit us that we realized how remarkably refreshed we felt, how energized and relieved we felt. This Hammam wasn't meant to be relaxing, it was meant to reinvigorate. This was not a spa, it was a gladiatorial ring, where if you came out still breathing, you had won the day.

Looking back now, I think the people were so welcoming because of a combination of pity and respect. They knew what we were in for, and made no apologies for it, but they also appreciated our active search for the uncomfortable reality over the cushy fiction. Morocco was only the second trip I'd ever gone on alone and it taught me to take the comfortable with a grain of salt. Journeys aren't meant to be easy and that Hammam taught me to love that.

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