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To Hammam or not to Hammam … How to Hammam in Morocco

Today was one of those traveling days, where you’re tired, cranky and suffering from a bit of travel fatigue … you’re set in one of the most fabulous and mysterious cities in the world and yet all you can think about, is watching Sportscenter and eating chips in your home. So I decided to listen to my body and take it “slow” today.

My morning consisted of a relaxing FREE 45 min massage at Le Meridien (Platinum members are offered heaven and earth in this hotel – we get two free massages for our stay)… god bless the Cash and Points option at Le Meredien … when you can stay in a 5-star hotel for 40$ a night with turn down service, two bathrooms and a staff at your beck and call, it makes the road really seem much nicer. The spa itself was lovely, pretty Arabic girl doing the massage, candles, rose petals scattered everywhere, warm burnished wood, ancient stucco walls, gorgeous stained glass lanterns, fountains, billowing gold sheer curtains, singing birds in cages . blah blah blah … it was damn nice yes (Trini-speak).

After being completely relaxed and pampered in the tourist environment, it was time to hit up Mohammed and Houssam for the real deal, a scrub and massage at a town hammam. All towns and villages in Morocco will invariably have 5 community elements, and obviously the bigger the town, the more of each element you will find per village/town/city

  1. Communal bakery : Typically, Moroccans will mix their own dough at home, and then take it to the bakery to be made. A typical loaf of bread, costs between 25-50 centimes (1/4 – 1/2 dirham)
  2. Fountain : the Moroccans love their fountains … look at Fez … basically a fountain addiction
  3. Madrasa (school) : Obviously
  4. Mosque : Obviously
  5. Hammam: Communal bath house where everyone goes for a relaxing steam bath, scrub down, massage. The massage and scrub are optional, but really then why are you going, if you’re not getting these??

How to find a hammam:

Have friends who will take you! If I had to find the hammam by myself, there would be no way on earth I would know how to get there, what to do or how not to look like a complete jackass. Hammam signs are likely to be written in Arabic. The hammam that Mohammed and Houssam took me to looked like this from the outside …you try finding that yourself …

However if you read Arabic, then it should be no issue or in the worse case, you can look for some of these signs of your neighbourhood hammam :

  • People of your gender walking by with buckets full of shower supplies, rolled floor mats and towels – men and women are separated in the hammam, with different opening hours for each throughout the day (typically, daytime hours are reserved for women and evenings for men).
  • A smoky smell. It’s caused by the wood fires used to heat the water.
  • A communal bakery. The hammam often shares heating facilities with one, so if you see a bakery there’s a chance a hammam is near.

Prior to going for Hammam (and you don’t go “to THE hammam”, but rather Hammam is a process, not a place … hence you go “to Hammam”), I was quite familiar with the bath process, but each culture has their own etiquette and you should prep for Hammam, by having the right bath products

What you need for the Hammam:

  • Soap, conditioner, shampoo (anything you would normally use for a bath in your home)
  • Ghasoul … you may see this on eBay and cosmetic product counters for between $25 – $40. That is insane … a regular sized pack (1/4 lb) in any store in Morocco, is about 5-8 Dirhams (60cents – $1) . This is made of natural olive oil by-products
  • Black soap is dried chips of herb-infused Moroccan clay that functions as shampoo and body soap when you add a splash of water to it
  • Kiis : Part of the bath ritual is getting scrubbed down by the hammam attendant or by a friend – all depends on whether you have a friend who will scrub your back for you – thankfully Mohammed arranged for the attendant to scrub me down, after he took a first pass (everyone scrubs each other in the bathhouse – another cultural thing that would be out of place in Trinidadian culture for sure). A kiis costs about 10 dirhams for a really good one in the souks, paying more for one is getting ripped off
  • Plastic mat or stool (Optional) – some people don’t want to lie on the floor, even though you should wash the area you’re going to lie in … everyone does it.  If you’re a clean freak, bring a small plastic stool or mat to sit on to avoid placing your derriere directly on the hammam’s stone floor, but do know that you will look like an utter jackass doing it. The rooms will look something like this, even though this was the initial changing room.

Hammam Etiquette 101:

Once in the Hammam you will collect hot and cold water in buckets (buckets and bowls are available at the Hammam – the guys took their own, but that was their preference). You can then mix the buckets for temperature and pour them over yourself as you wash. Don’t take more than two buckets for water as other bathers consider this bad form and a little greedy.

Important tip : The hammam floors are slightly sloped for drainage, so look for a free corner and wash the corner with a couple buckets of warm water. If you end up in the middle of the floor, you’re likely to seating with in a current of dead skin (Trinidadian term is “Muck or Mock” and soap).

Basic Bathing process :

Exactly how you enjoy your time in the Hammam is your personal preference, the basic technique includes

  1. Rinse with clear hot water
  2. Wait while the heat softens your skin and you sweat. Use the ghasoul all over your skin, this helps when you’re getting scrubbed after … it helps loosen skin and opens the pores.
  3. Using the Kiis scrub away the dead skin using hard pressure. No soap is required, and do not rinse until the skin is coming off. If you are alone, you can ask someone to scrub your back, but do ask them to not rub too hard (say ‘shuya’) if you are not used to it, otherwise your friends can do it for you, or you can ask for the attendant to do it (obviously you will tip the person after you’re done)
  4. Once you have scrubbed, wash with the soap.
  5. Wash your hair and, if required, shave
  6. Rinse again

Things I took I away from the whole experience; I either don’t know how to shower and bathe myself, or we produce a lot of dead skin and crap settles on our skin. Looking around at the other men, who were scrubbing and scraping off all this disgusting skin off themselves, I realized that I wasn’t completely terrible, although after the attendant scrubbed me off, it was a little disgusting to see how much dead skin I had on me … I think I had a pound of dead skin … or it looked like that to me


Update : September 3rd, 2015
I’m going to shamelessly copy the following from The View from Morocco

What should I expect when I visit a Moroccan hammam?


A visit to a Moroccan hammam (bathhouse) is a wonderful experience and one of the best ways to connect with Moroccans. So if you are a visitor to Morocco, don’t miss out on a cleansing and cultural experience. Hammam etiquette is not an absolute, but here is a general guide to getting the most from the traditional way of Moroccan bathing.

Where to find a hammam

You will find public hammams in almost every town in Morocco, and in every neighborhood in the cities. Your hotel reception desk will know where to find a local hammam. Taxi drivers, waiters and people in the street will also be happy to give you directions.
The larger hammams have separate bathing rooms (and entrances) for men and women, some exclusively serve either gender. A third category have days of the week for men, and other days for women, or certain hours for men and others for women. You will not find “mixed” public hammams anywhere in Morocco.

A public hammam in the Fez Medina

Quite a few upmarket hotels and riads offer private hammams to their guests. Some also allow non-guests to use their baths. While these private hammams are usually more elaborate and luxurious, they also tend to be much more expensive than public bathhouses. Some hotels and riads allow people from both genders to bathe together. Ask about their policy before you book.

What to bring to a hammam

Moroccans take the following toiletries to the bathhouse:

  • soap,
  • shampoo,
  • scrub glove,
  • towel,
  • small, jug-style plastic bucket to pour water over your body,
  • swimsuit or extra underwear
  • shaving cream and razor.

Hammams usually sell travel-size bottles of shampoo and soap. When available, buy “sabon beldi,” a unique black olive oil soap. You will find this easily in the souks.  Also ask if they sell “ghasoul” or “rhassoul“, a lava clay that is used to scrub the skin.

sabon beldi
rhassoul

Kiis (scrub glove):  Part of the bath ritual is getting scrubbed down by the hammam attendant or by a friend – all depends on whether you have a friend who will scrub your back for you (everyone scrubs each other in the bathhouse – another cultural thing that would normally be out of place in Western culture). A “kiis” (not “kiss”) costs about 10 to 15 dirham /1.00 to 1.50€ for a really good one in the souks  Scrub gloves and the small plastic buckets are available at souks (markets) and épiceries (drugstores). They both cost no more than around 10 dirham. Sabon beldi and rhassoul are also widely available in shops.
You can also rent towels for a few dirham at the front desk.

Hammam layout

When you enter a hammam, you pay the man at the front desk the entry fee and continue to the changing room. Here, you change into a swim There is usually no locker-type storage available, but staff will keep an eye on your belongings. It’s very rare for clothing or shoes to be stolen from a hammam, but you should not bring valuable items to a bathhouse.
The changing room often doubles as a place for people to rest after their bath. A lot of hammams serve coffee or tea in this room. So while changing, you will be surrounded by other guests. Be careful to wrap a towel around your waist as you change – full-frontal nudity is offensive.
Beyond the changing room are three areas separated by walls and connected by small openings in these walls. The first room is cool, the second room is warm and the third room is steaming hot.

 

The hammam ritual

After changing, the usual path through a hammam is:

  1. Warm room
    Here, you get your body accustomed to the heat in the hammam and fill two of the many available large buckets, one with cold water and one with warm water.You use some of the water to clean the floor of the space you’ll be sitting on. Then you wash a first time, but just superficially, to get rid of the basic dirt on your skin and in your hair.
  2. Hot room
    The heat in the hot room allows your pores to open wide and let your sweat out. This brings all the dirt out that’s hidden in your pores and does wonders for your skin.How much time you spend in this room, depends on your tolerance for heat. You can use the water in your buckets to refresh from time to time, although most Moroccans leave their buckets in the warm room
  3. Warm room
    You return to the warm room for a more thorough washing. This is when you soap in completely, using the water from one bucket in the process. A fellow bather may offer to wash your back for you. This is a courtesy, don’t misinterpret it for anything else.
    After you wash your skin and hair, you use the water from the second bucket to rinse the soap and dirt off your body.
    When your bath is done, you carefully empty the remaining water from your buckets along the walls of the warm room.
  4. Cold room
    After your bath, you step into the cold room. Many hammams have communal showers in this room, so you can rinse the last remaining dirt and sweat off your body. There are also benches in this room where you can relax for a while and let your body get used to normal temperatures again.

 

Getting a massage

Many hammams, but by far not all, have staff who can massage you. The more upscale (often private) hammams use scented oils for this. Here, you can also choose to be washed by staff. Such a “gommage” often involves rich olive oil soap and is a real treat.

Visitor, Michael Palin having a massage in Fez

In the more basic, public hammams, a fellow bather may offer to massage you. There’s nothing suspicious about such an offer. It’s a very kind gesture, usually without financial motives, although returning the favor is somewhat expected.People with a bad back or other ailments would be wise to abstain from a massage. Even at the hand of a professional, a massage can be quite painful, although afterwards you’ll feel as new. Getting a massage is always an option, never compulsory.

Hammam etiquette

There are a couple of things that you can do to upset Moroccans in a hammam. Wasting water is one of them. Water is scarce in Morocco and splashing it around in large quantities is considered imprudent and rude. Only use as much water as you need to wash and rinse.
Even more seriously offensive is stripping completely naked in a hammam. There are no exceptions in men’s bathhouses, but in some women’s hammams people have reported Moroccan women going complete naked. Still, women tourists should only bare all when they see Moroccans doing it. As a general rule keep panties on! (take a spare dry pair to change into afterwards).
Although hammams are basically for hygiene, they also have an important social function. This is especially true for more “traditional” women, who rarely leave their house except for a visit to the hammam. People like to chat in hammams, discussing the latest news and gossip.
As a tourist, you may be quite an event in a public hammam. You will receive a lot of attention. Enjoy your special status – a hammam is a great place to get to know Moroccans. Don’t be surprised if you’re invited over for drinks or dinner.

How much a hammam costs

A bath in a public hammam usually costs around 5 or 10 dirham . Towels, soap and other toiletries are available for a couple of dirhams. If you take a massage from one of the staff in a public hammam, you are expected to tip him 10 or 15 dirham. As you leave the bathhouse, it’s custom to tip the front desk attendant one or two dirham.

Hammams in hotels and riads ask up to 300 to 500 dirham for a hammam experience. Expect to pay another few hundred dirham for a massage.

Hammam in Morocco, How to hammam in Morocco, how to find a local hammam in morocco, hammam customs

About Rishiray

Rishi Sankar is a Cloud HRMS Project Manager/ Solution Architect. Over the past 15+ years, he has managed to combine his overwhelming wanderlust with a desire to stay employed, resulting in continuing stints with 3 major consulting firms (IBM, Deloitte, Accenture). He documents his adventures around the world on “Ah Trini Travelogue” with pictures and stories from the road/tuk-tuk/camel/rickshaw. You can follow him on Twitter at @rishiray and on Facebook at “Ah Trini Travelogue . He doesn’t like Chicken Curry but loves Curry Chicken and is always trying to find the perfect Trinidadian roti on the road. He also doesn’t like cheese and kittens … and definitely not together. E-mail from his blog is appreciated like a 35 yr old Balvenie at [email protected]

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