Took me 2 weeks to gather up the courage to go a hammam in Morocco (read here if you’re not sure what a hammam is) in Morocco. Being naked in public has never been on my “Things I’m Dying to Do in Morocco (or anywhere really)” list. It was more like on my “Things I Still Might Not Do Even I Ever Got Bored Enough” list.
I’m a little bit of a prude when it comes to being naked in public. I don’t care if others let theirs sway and hang for all to see, just don’t expect me to join. Well, on our last day in Marrakesh, I was feeling a little burned out from the souks and the medina. The snake charmer just tried to get me to pay 100 Dirham ($12) after trying to put a snake on me and I was like, “That’s it. I’m done!”
Having lost interest in spending anymore time around the souks, I decided that I was finally ready for a hammam experience.
First thing first, finding a hammam
There are many hammams in Marrakech that are targeted to tourists. They’d have a website boasting beautifully decorated baths with rose petals, masseuse in sparkling white uniforms, and fluffy sandals. Not unlike spas back home.
I was looking more for a traditional Moroccan hammam experience – not so much because I don’t like rose petals and fluffy sandals, but because traditional hammams cost about 10x less. Hammams are still a big part of everyday life here in Morocco where a lot of folks still don’t have access to hot water in their centuries-old houses.
Hammam Bab Doukkala
But since most local hammams in Morocco do not advertise themselves (or only have signs in Arabic), they can be hard to find. I ended up making my way past stores selling home fixtures and bike tires towards Hammam Bab Doukkala. According to Lonely Planet it’s one of the oldest hammams in Marrakech and has been operating since the 17th century.
After asking for directions, I was directed towards a non-descript door on one side of Mosque Bab Doukkala. The stern-faced hammam lady who greeted me shooed me out of the door upon seeing that I only brought a towel with me. Apparently I needed to bring my own soap too.
I walked around until I found a store that looks like it might carry beauty products. After repeatedly saying ‘hammam’ to the owner, he sent me away with a tub of black goo (20 Dirham) and a mitten (5 Dirham).
Presenting my newly purchased hammam kit as if it was a gift, the stern-faced lady deemed I was finally worthy to enter. She led me through dark and unlit passageways to a large and naturally lit room.
As soon as I stepped inside the hammam, I knew for a fact that I would not find any rose petals and fluffy sandals anywhere in this place.
The room I entered was dark and cavernous, it has beautifully carved wooden ceilings. Other than some benches and a set of wire cubes to put your stuff in, the room was practically bare.
I looked around for anything that would give me a hint on what to do next. Unfortunately I was the only one in the hammam at that time so I couldn’t employ my ‘watch-and-copy’ method that I usually do whenever I find myself in strange situations.
The stern-faced lady re-appeared all of a sudden, naked except for a pair of white knickers. She indicated that I needed to get as, or preferably, more naked than she was. She indicated this by trying to unbutton my jeans for me, her large and droopy breasts swaying dangerously close to my face. I had never been so close to a pair of another woman’s breast after I stopped breast-feeding. I found it extremely disconcerting.
I could smell her body odor. I started having second thought. Then she took off my glasses and I knew then that I’m stuck. Rendered practically blind, I don’t think I could find my way out even if I wanted to.
I undressed to my knickers and entered the sauna only to find myself surrounded by buckets and plastic stools – I felt someone grab my hand and gently led me out of the storage room I had apparently wandered into in my blind state and into a large and steamy-hot dark room.
The hammam lady sat me down on a plastic mat in an empty hallway that separates the big hot room from a smaller but hotter room. She filled a tub with hot water that she unceremoniously dumped all over me. I screamed in surprise. She laughed.
After indicating that I should cover myself with that dark gooey stuff I just bought – she left. I’m not sure what that stuff is – but it seems to be oil-based as it was very… well, oily. Not unpleasant and it surprisingly washes off pretty easily with water.
Then I waited. And waited. Knees on my chest and feeling more vulnerable than ever. Just to kill time, I kept putting on more and more of the oily stuff. A thought cross my mind that I could, inadvertently, slide along the hammam’s floor given how oily I was at that time.
I heard other hammam attendees arriving and sound of running water echoing in the big rooms. But all I could see was a fuzzy version of things: fuzzy tiled-covered floor, fuzzy benches, fuzzy grey walls and fuzzy outlines of other women. I started to wonder if I were supposed to go grab my hammam lady. Or maybe I had been forgotten.
After transferring most of the content of the oily goo onto my body, I finally decided – ‘I should go get her’. I stood up and immediately found myself sprawled on the hallway having slipped on some of the oily goo on the floor. Cursing loudly I groped around for my mat, found it, and sat back down deciding that maybe waiting was not such a bad idea after all.
Fortunately she did not forget me. She came back carrying a plastic stool and proceeded to push and re-arranged my naked limbs into positions using my oily bum as a pivot while scrubbing me from head to toe.
I was scrubbed so hard I thought I must’ve bled in some places. Tummy side up, now turn over, sit up and face the wall, swivel the other way, leg out, no – the other leg. Every now and then with a victorious ‘Madame!’ she’d show me pieces of dead skin cells that she managed to scrubb off shouting.
My hair was shampooed and braided, and using the same gooey stuff I was massaged. Meanwhile, every now and then bucketfulls of water were poured on me. Without warning.
I could already see the headline: ‘Tourist drown in a local hammam. Didn’t know the word “Stop” in French or Arabic.’
I quickly learned to take quick deep breaths whenever I could and kept my eyes and mouth shut. You never know when and from where the next bucket of water would come from.
Amazingly, I found myself letting go of trying to guess what’s coming next and started to enjoy the whole thing. There was something about being naked in public (albeit a dark and warm public place) and being bossed around that I found relaxing. (It comes out sounding a little strange, doesn’t it?).
Just as I was getting relaxed (which was something I never, ever, thought I’d be able to do in such situation) – she signaled that it was over and led me back to the changing room – which was awfully cold by comparison. At a more upscale hammam this is when they’d serve you tea and cookies. No signs of cookies or any other kind of refreshment was spotted here.
After I put my glasses back on, I felt like I just woke up from a dream. A very blurry dream that involves a lot of water. I can’t believe that a burly and half-naked Moroccan lady just touched me – no, grabbed, pinched, and pummeled me – in places I’d consider inappropriate in a different situation. I can’t believe that I’d see a half-naked, burly Moroccan woman.
I felt so clean I could hear the squeaking of my butt cheeks rubbing against each other. And I felt so much lighter now that a pound of my skin (or so it seemed) has been sloughed off. I wished I could linger to savor the feeling a little bit longer but I felt uncomfortable hanging around clothed (while everybody else is naked) or unclothed (the whole naked in public thing). So I left.
Unfortunately the feeling of ‘I’d never been so clean in my life’ didn’t last for long. By the time I got back to my riad, dodging motorcycles and horse carriages, I felt like I could use another hammam lady to scrub me down.
Yes, despite the near drowning and the mishandling, I think I might actually go hammam-ing again.
Thinking of going to a traditional Moroccan hammam?
And you don’t speak a word of French or Arabic? Yes, it can be done. Have faith in the hammam ladies to take care of you. They will boss you around, touch you in places that normally don’t see sunlight, and send you home cleaner than ever.
Not comfortable with the idea of being naked in public? Neither was I. It took me sometime to relax, but now that I know what to expect, I think I will enjoy my next visit so much more.
Would you consider going to a hammam?
Moroccan Hammam Experience
Practical tips about going to a Moroccan hammam
– Your hammam kit should consist of a towel, hammam soap (they call it ‘sabon noir’ – or black soap), and a mitten.
– Optional: shampoo, a comb, a plastic mat and slippers. I didn’t bring these so they provided me with one.
– Entrance fee to Hammam Bab Doukkala: 10 Dirham. Another 10 for a lady to guard the stuff, and 100 Dirhams for a massage and a scrub.
[…] mâncărurile ciudate și gătite insalubru din Piața Jeema el Fna, să merg la un hammam public (o poveste haioasă aici), să mă plimb prin toate parcurile și grădinile din oraș, să am timp să lenevesc câteva […]
Hi, I’m in Marrakech right now and found this page today when I was googling “Hammam Bab Doukkala” and I felt inspired to go! I went and 2 girls (who were also going in) rescued me from this man out the front who was stopping me from entering and they dragged me in with them and they ended up cleaning and scrubbing me. It was a great experience and I’m so grateful to those girls (tbh I’m sick of being treated as a walking ATM, barely had anyone treat me politely). Thanks for your post! Photo of the door and your tips were very helpful!
[…] Hmmm… this story ended up being less awkward than I was expecting, and now I’m curious about this hammam business. The Time I Was Naked and Blind in Morocco […]
Ho! I came across this blog by chance. I can't help sharing that in 2005 as a tourist in Marrakech and in the spirit of adventure and cultural enrichment I went to the very same hammam. It was one of the most bizarre experiences ever. Some of the things happened just like in your story, but others had added flavor. First, when I went there, it was packed with local women. They all knew each other and the entire time the super old woman bathed me, every single woman around was staring at me! Also, I was the only woman who had any hair at all in certain private parts of my body. Apparently in that tradition every hair on the body should be removed. Also, basically every woman there seemed overweight and i am relatively skinny so that also made me feel like a white crow. Another perk of my experience was that long before the bath was done, even before that, I not only didn't feel clean but was craving to go back to my hotel for a proper bath. The reason was that the old woman made me sit on the floor and while she was scrubbing and washing me and pouring buckets of water over me, the waste water mixed with soap from the bathing of all the other women was everywhere around me on the floor and I was basically sitting in it, feeling pretty disgusted… Nevertheless, I do not regret the experience. It has given me a quite colorful story to share with friends and an insight into a side of Arabic life I couldn't have witnessed otherwise.
This is a great post. And you're braver than I. 🙂
I'm not sure I'd EVER be comfortable with another MAN cleaning ME but for some reason I'd be more comfortable if a woman did it (don't get me wrong, being naked in public would make me uneasy too).
Great Story! My one and only hammam experience was in Damascus – it sounds a little bit similar, except that it was a man in grungy undies, and the location sounded much nicer too. Its something that I've wanted to do again – the clean feeling you get afterwards is just amazing!
Ha ha! Great post, I can SO identify with your experience, though I have only visited a Turkish Hammam. My post was titled "Confessions of A Hammam Virgin", and details my own anxiety about public nakedness! Good on you for trying a local place, you are a braver woman than I! I absolutely LOVED Marrakesh, and can't wait to return.
Marrakesh was a fun experience. Visiting the hammam was definitely the highlight though…
Awesome! I love hammams and seeing all my dead skin scraped off of me. After Morocco hammams, I had to try the Korean jjimjilbangs to see if it was similar. None of the scraping fun as Morocco but different in its own wonderful way. Still have my Moroccan mit!
Ooooh, the Korean version sounds interesting. Seeing all of that dead skin was what made me think that the humiliation was worth it… I kept my mit and the leftover soap too!
Best blog title I've seen for ages 🙂
your writing conveys the whole experience brilliantly, it took me right back to my first hamman (also in morocco), it is that awkward but it is so worth it!
Haha, that sounds delightfully awkward but one of those things you always look back and are glad you did! Morocco is on our travel list- thanks for the pointers!
"I felt like I just woke up from a dream…"
Indeed, my sentiments exactly when I too ventured solo into a local hammam in Fez. Dimly lit, steamy and full of local women, I too didn't have clue what to do. Talk about feeling "vulnerable"! Ah but my "lady" took fine (if, yes stern) care of me, slapping my limbs hither 'n yon, scrubbing me to a pulp and dumping bucket after bucket of water over my head.
Truly one of the most surreal and memorable experiences of all my travels. Thanks for describing it so well.
Glad you enjoyed. It was definitely quite an experience I'm looking forward to repeat now that I know the rope so to speak 🙂
I never really understood why we get so freaked out about being naked in places like bath houses…walking down the street or going to the store is one thing but…
I married a Finn (sadly divorced now) and a bunch of my relatives came over to Finland for the wedding. Summer weddings in Finland involve sauna and beer and sausage. Most of my family was completely flipped out by people walking around naked during the pre-wedding sauna.
I'm impressed you went. It sounds rather traumatic. We were freaked out at the shared baths in traditional guesthouses in Japan (naked in public isn't my thing either) and this sounds a lot scarier.
Ahhhh! I'm intrigued, but I'm not sure I'm ready for this.
[…] Hmmm… this story ended up being less awkward than I was expecting, I now I’m curious about this hammam business. The Time I Was Naked and Blind in Morocco […]
I know Adventurous Kate went to a hammam in Turkey, and also had a very close encounter with large swinging breasts! Lol. I'm not sure I'd ever be brave enough to try this on my own! So kudos to you.
Sounds similar to my Turkish bath experience. It was interesting but I felt vulnerable too!
I spent a month in Marrakech and a month in Fes at one time. Loved them both. I got a fever one day but didnt think much of it. That night, I went with some friends to the hammam. After about 30 minutes there everyone was asking me to leave. The fever had come on big time and I must have looked awful. A nice woman hustled me out of there and explained that everyone was afraid I would transfer the fever to them via the steam. I went back to the place I was staying and spent 3 days in a torrid fever with a Swedish friend watching over me. When it broke, it broke. I felt fabulous suddenly. A week later I went back to the hammam and met with cheers from a new crowd of friends joyous to see me healed up.
Dig it! Sounds intimidating but ultimately worth it. Now how to move the hammam to your apartment so it can be the ultimate shower-when-getting-home experience.
Well this was very interesting to read, frankly i must admit you were quiet brave to venture into a traditional hammam …. I moved to Marrakech 7 months ago and i was told by everyone i should go and have a hammam.Luckily when i moved to my new apartment, there was one right on the corner of the street, so i decided to book for a hammam and went there with absolutely no clue of what is waiting for me.I called and asked what shall i bring with me and the answer was come as you are.
The reception area was modest and clean, a lady showed me the way and i ended up in a relaxation lounge(too small)where the lady asked me to take all my clothes off, which was a no no for me, so i stepped into the steam room and as i was laying there, the lady came and said we are both women, so there is nothing to be ashamed off, so she took off my knickers right there, as i was laying face down on the stone bed.
I was rubbed with the black soap and every inch of my body was scrubbed with the special sack they use during hammams.
To keep the story short, with my little Moroccan and her little french, no english, it was a quiet funny experience but i've never felt so clean in my life, and the fact that it was right at the corner of where i live, i went straight from the hammam to my bedroom and slept like a baby.
Now i go to have my hammam once every 10 days and i still love it every single time.
Don't miss this experience when you're visiting Morocco.