Soaking it All in: Cultural Encounters at the Hammam

These past two weeks have been full of constant interaction with our Moroccan host culture — whether it has been in our homes with our host families, at school in our classes, or venturing to new places in Rabat or other parts of the country.

Since moving in with my host family two weeks ago, I’ve been warmly welcomed into our family’s daily routines. We eat beautiful meals off shared plates with our hands, watch local television shows, and occasionally drink mint tea with relatives until past midnight. My host father and siblings know some Modern Standard Arabic and can help me communicate, especially with my host mom who speaks only Darija, the Moroccan dialect. But despite any language barriers, I’ve definitely felt the warmth of Moroccan hospitality whenever I’m at home in our apartment in l’Ocean.

Sunset on the sea in l’Ocean

Sunset on the sea in l’Ocean

Last Wednesday, we took our first trip to the hammam with a large group of AMIDEAST students. The hammam — a public steam bath — is very popular in North Africa, and is a particularly important part of Moroccan culture and life. Traditionally, Moroccans visit the the hammam about once a week, often on Thursdays to cleanse and purify before Friday prayer.

Public hammams can be found in almost every town in Morocco, and in almost every neighborhood in Rabat. Most have separate bathing rooms and entrances for men and women, and some are single-gender.

In preparation for our trip to the hammam, we gathered in a classroom at AMIDEAST and mixed together “rhassoul” — lava clay used on the hair and skin — scented with rose water. Many of us also brought “sabon beldi,” a black olive oil soap commonly sold in jelly-like form in Moroccan souqs.

Rooftops in Essaouira

Rooftops in Essaouira

We also learned about the celebrated experience of going to the hammam. For Moroccan women in particular, the hammam can be a liberating and relaxing escape. Within the walls of the hammam, many societal divisions are shed along with their clothing, and women can socialize and relax with people they might not be able to talk to often. This results in lively conversations, lots of gossip, and occasionally drama.

The experience also made me think about what my home culture is comfortable and uncomfortable with. Western society has often been critical of Arab women covering their bodies with conservative clothing or by wearing the hijab, but on the other hand, Americans are generally not comfortable with the exposure that is commonplace in the hammam.

On entering the hammam, the first room is a large open changing room which doubles as a place for women to relax after their hot steam baths. Moroccans bring large buckets and ladles, and a glove to scrub with, which were also available to rent. We went first to the third room at the very back of the hammam, in which the temperature is kept hottest. We filled our buckets at the faucets lining the walls and staked out a corner. As we got hotter and cleaner, we migrated to the warm room, and then the cooler room, and finally left almost two hours later feeling completely rejuvenated. I ended up really loving the communal celebration of getting clean, socializing with friends away from the craziness of everyday life, and leaving feeling brand new and smelling like rose water. I can see why many Moroccans wouldn’t miss their weekly hammam.

Hanna, Meg and I in a rowboat on the river that runs between Rabat and Salé

Hanna, Meg and I in a rowboat on the river that runs between Rabat and Salé

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1 Comment

Filed under Katie Lamb, Morocco, Rabat

One response to “Soaking it All in: Cultural Encounters at the Hammam

  1. Great post! So interesting to hear about study abroad in a place a bit more off the grid than usual. I hope you have an amazing time!

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