In a hammam the Moroccans not only say goodbye to dirt and dry skin, but the inhibitions of everyday life outside. Sounds like an oasis of peace, soap bubbles and relaxation? Not quite – you literally need to have a thick skin there!

Hammam in Marrakech (1)

“Watch out, watch out”, a man with a turquoise hood tries to find his way through the narrow streets. He’s sitting on a donkey that carries a trailer full of the juiciest oranges. Cunning market traders extol their miracle cures and herbs. Snake charmers let their fingers dance on flutes and a moped whizzes past, a hair’s breadth away from me. The streets bustle with activity in the Medina, the old town of Marrakesh. Veiled women approach me offering to decorate the backs of my hands with a Henna tattoo, but this time I won’t be persuaded – today I’m heading to a hot steam bath called hammam, away from the chaos of this magic city. “Don’t you prefer to visit a hammam for tourists?” the concierge asked me before I left the hostel. “If I’m going to do it, then I want to do it right: the traditional way,” I told him – imagining golden water taps, oriental background music and massage oils smelling of roses. I had no idea that something totally different would be waiting for me…

Only panties allowed

Far away from the mass of people I reach the steeped-in-legend steam bath. My concierge showed me the way to a hammam called Lakssour. There are two entries and I duck into the one marked for women. The light is dim, it barely lights up the changing room. Like a snake that sheds its skin, a lady next to me removes her headscarf and clothes layer by layer, until she stands there in nothing more than her panties. Apparently that is the only cover allowed in the bath. I do the same, and walk slowly into to the next room.

How to Survive an Authentic Hammam |

Every woman shows her body with no shame

Steam hits me in the face. Everywhere women are kneeling or lying on the naked tiled floor, washing each other. Whether young or wrinkly, thick or skinny, in a hammam every woman shows her naked body with no shame. Like the ubiquitous facial camouflage, they also leave their inhibitions outside. Everyone has a chat, gossips and shares loud laughs. It is like its own micro system, far away from the busy streets. Women feel secure, open and relaxed. Feeling a little bit lost I wander around until I find an empty space in the back of the last room. I peep at the others, hoping to copy what they do. A little woman with colossal breasts instructs me to wait for her.

Hammam in Marrakech (3)

Nothing like my vision of 1,001 nights

A visit in a hammam starts with a couple of minutes of sweating, so the clogged pores can open. The little woman bustled by again andplaces two big buckets of water in front of me. With a pink plastic bowl I scoop out water and pour it over me, as I have watched the others do. The lady introduces herself as Toria and rubs “savon noir”, black soap, into my skin. This oily paste, she tells me in French, is made out of black olives and prepares the skin for a peeling. In Morocco the hammam is an important part of culture and life. You find steam baths in every city, even in small towns. Women visit the hammam weekly while men go there once a month to cleanse themselves. Lakssour’s building is separated in two parts: one for women and the other for men. Many smaller hammams have gender-specific schedules – sometimes only men or women are allowed.

If you prefer to visit the hammam together with your parnter, you should look out for a more touristy one, for example „Les bains de Marrakech“.

How to Survive an Authentic Hammam |

Not a centimetre of the body is left unscrubbed

But as I took the decision to get an authentic experience, I take a deep breath and the real procedure begins: with a special glove the woman rubs off scales of dead skin so that black crumbs are formed. It feels so rough, I blink to check if she is using sandpaper – but she just uses a lot of pressure. This woman may look small but she has the strength of ten camels. I get peeled, scrubbed and brushed until there’s no skin left – or that’s how it feels at least. No part of my body is missed. “Again one of these Europeans with old skin layers. When did you wash yourself last time?”, Toria teases. To scrub my back, she grabs my upper body and pushes my face right into her chest. Next position: I have to lie flat on my back on the tiled floor as she works on my calves. I hear someone sniffing loudly and realise in horror that an old lady behind me is blowing her nose not into a tissue, but directly onto the tiles of the steam room floor. Suddenly, someone gets the glorious idea to empty a big bucket filled with water right into my face. A gush of black skin crumbs covers my face. Despite the momentary feeling of disgust I snort with laughter. You wanted a traditional experience? Here you go!

Skin soft as a peach

After every millimetre of my body is scrubbed, Toria tells me to lie on my belly. I sigh of relief – is the promised massage coming now? A little relaxation after this torture? Maybe even some rose scented oil? But Toria only sharply pulls up my arms and pushes my soles on the back of the knees – looks like I hoped too soon. After a rough stroke on both of my soles I’m released.
Despite the unexpected and somewhat unsettling experience, I leave the hammam with a smile on my face. I stroke my arm – my skin has never felt so smooth. After I rub my skin with argan oil, it remains as soft as a peach. No wonder the stuff is called Moroccan gold, produced from the kernels of an argan tree. The Moroccans swear by its exceptional moisturizing powers.
Tourists who still dare to visit an authentic hammam, I would recommend bringing the following: an exfoliating glove, a jar of black soap and shampoo. You can buy everything cheap – if you’re a good haggler – at the market.

How to Survive an Authentic Hammam |

There are heaps of hammams in Marrakesh, so just ask locals or your hotel owner which one they recommend. But the most important thing? Leave the attitude of a reserved Westerner at home and bring a good sense of humour!


guest post by Sara Bagladi from Liechtenstein

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