Finding myself in a hammam in Marrakesh

In this extract from her memoir, Michelle Walshe lets Morocco get under her skin

Michelle Walshe in Agadir

Michelle Walshe in Agadir

 

The hammam is dark. I am lying almost naked on a square, rubber mat on a wet, tiled floor, between Anna and Amina. I have been in Marrakesh for exactly one week. Amina is from the city and this outing is her suggestion. In this place of steam and flowing water, it is a cultural baptism.

I am nervous; steaming hot rooms are not for people with blood pressure problems, but I do not want to explain this to my teaching colleagues whom I have only known a few days, so I say nothing and go along with the idea.

Michelle Walshe: my mother’s voice echoes from childhood in my head telling me to never go outside with wet hair
Michelle Walshe: my mother’s voice echoes from childhood in my head telling me to never go outside with wet hair

The days here are hot; my face is permanently slick and shiny with a sheen of sweat. The red dust of the city settles on my skin leaving a rusty hue on the cloth I use to clean my face. Even after washing, the dust lingers in the air and resettles as if it has never been disturbed. It reminds me of dusting furniture at home, watching the motes driven into the air by the duster, bombarding each other in their panic to find their way back to the table or chair from where they have been dislodged.

The hammam appeals to me because it feels like the only way to remove the layer of dust that is beginning to feel like a second skin. Anna, young, shy, and recently arrived from America, is not as keen. I am unused to communal bathing, but any inhibitions are lost in the swirling steam and twilight of the hammam rooms.

The baths are segregated, one entrance for women, another for men. A narrow horseshoe arch leads from the changing area into the first room which opens into a wide space full of women of all ages. This room is warm but there is no steam to shroud us. Anna and I attract glances at our white skin which stands out in the sea of dark-skinned bodies around us.

In the second room, cloudy with steam, women of all shapes and sizes, some pregnant, some with children, loll about in the soporific heat, comfortable in various stages of undress, in marked contrast to the modesty of the street, where hemlines graze ankles and sleeves fall to the wrists. The women wash each other – mothers and daughters, grandmothers and grandchildren scrub each other’s backs and wash each other’s hair.

We pick our way through the bodies, stepping around the mats and over discarded orange peels, and make our way through the diffuse mist to the hottest room at the end. The steam is a dense fog. It is hard to see clearly, and I feel it catch in my throat as I inhale. Our modesty forgotten, we find a place, set down our mats and lie back.

A Moroccan woman wearing a one-piece bathing suit leans over me and smears gloopy, black soap, savon beldi, all over me. She leaves it to soak into my skin for a few minutes. I close my eyes. I hear her filling buckets of various sizes with water at the taps at the end of the room.

The steam opens my pores, softens my skin, and absorbs the liquid soap. When she returns, she lifts my right arm and scrubs it front and back, deep into the armpit, up one side of my neck, down the other, then she moves on to the rest of my body, slowly, methodically, limb by limb, front and back and along the sides. She does not say much, speaking only to tell me when to turn over.

My skin turns red, unaccustomed to the kees, the ferocious scratchy mitt which takes it off in tiny grey-black bobbles like the ones that appear on clothes that have been worn too often. Just as I am feeling flayed and think I cannot take any more, she pulls me into a sitting position and swills hot water over me with colourful, plastic ladles like larger versions of the ones I use at home to scoop detergent into the washing machine. She sloughs off the old, dead skin, soothing the open pore tingling sensation. It washes away on the tiles in dirty, dark rolls, like remnants of eraser rubbings brushed from a primary school copy book.

My new skin glows pink and feels pillow soft. She motions to me to lie back down as she has figured out I do not understand Arabic. She slathers white soap, ghoussoul, all over me that quickly turns to a soft white foam. I feel like I am being wrapped in a fluffy bathrobe. My nose fills with the scent of jasmine. She rinses my body again, this time with tepid water, then washes my hair.

Her strong fingers massaging my scalp are as good as any hairdresser’s I have ever been to. My hair squeaks as she rinses it. Cool water runs in relaxing rivulets down my back. I feel my body temperature lowering. I am sure, despite the heat, my blood pressure is lowering too. My limbs feel smooth and supple, and I have never felt so clean.

I emerge feeling reborn into the changing area that reminds me of the local community centre pool at home. My clothes hang on a rack with aluminium hooks above a long, wooden slatted bench and the tips of my shoes peep out from a cubby hole underneath. I dry myself and dress quickly, pulling on pyjamas. The cold of the changing area is shocking even after spending time adjusting to the lower temperature in the coolest room before leaving.

Amina stands behind me as she ties a scarf around my wet hair, knotting it tightly at the corners to prevent water dripping down my neck, then hands me a djellaba. I disappear, headfirst, into the unfamiliar unisex robe, fumbling my way through the folds, searching for the hole for my head and the dual spaces to slide my arms simultaneously into the wide sleeves. As my head emerges, the heavy fabric falls, draping the full length of my body, I tip the hood forward to keep my head warm. As I do this, my mother’s voice echoes from childhood in my head telling me to never go outside with wet hair. I pull the hood tightly around my face as I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror. I could pass for a monk. We go to the coiffeur next door where a blow dry is fifty dirhams, the equivalent of five euro, and a manicure an extra two. The whole experience costs under ten euro. I am going to enjoy living here.

As we step into the cool night air, I see a white, illuminated sign across the road, with bold black letters printed down one side – Cabinet Chirugien Dentaire, Dental Surgery. I stop and stare at it while the girls chatter beside me. I hadn’t noticed it in daylight.

Amina asks if we want to go for a juice. There is a cafe nearby, she says. She asks me twice because I do not hear her the first time; I am lost in memory, thinking about Dad, and wondering if he would have liked Morocco.

Michelle Walshe is a writer from Dublin, recently awarded an Emerging Artist Grant from Dún Laoghaire County Council. Her published work can be found on her website thesparklyshell.com

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