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Talking Dirty

by Alegria 

Posted: 18 May 2005
Word Count: 923
Summary: Hot and cold running buckets and untethered pubic hair; the womenís hammam in mediaeval Fez is a different kind of spa experience.

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Hot and cold running buckets and untethered pubic hair; the womenís hammam in mediaeval Fez is a different kind of spa experience.
Iím standing uneasily with three other women, two French, one English-speaking Italian, all strangers. We are all naked, and trying not to stare. Now the greeter, Fatima, who has just relieved us of our clothes and personal items, grasps my hand and pulls rather than leads me into an echoing tiled hall whose high vaulted ceiling is lost in shadows. I have just entered the womenís hammam, the public baths in the mediaeval walled Medina of Fez, and I donít think itís going to be relaxing.

In the main hall, another 30 or 40 naked and glistening women are going through their beauty routines. Some of them bathe alone, others take turns dashing water from sagging plastic buckets at each other. One squeal registers hot water, two squeals cold. The hammam space is large but contains no showers or shelves, towels or mirrors, nowhere to sit except the floor. When the big buckets of water are empty, bathers refill them at the hot or cold taps either side of an adjoining room. Many, though not all, of the buckets have handles.

As I study the green tiled walls with intense interest, a big dark-haired woman with breasts like boulders reaches up from her cross-legged position and pulls me down to join her on the slimy floor, arranging me face up, everything up. Itís time for my hammam experience.

Rashida is chief tayeba, or bather, and biggest fish in the steamy shallows of the hammam. Iíve seen my new Euro-companions prodded and pummeled, soaped and squeezed and splashed like toddlers. As I join in their shrieks of laughter, Iím busy running escape scenarios but one look at Rashida and I know Iím not going anywhere.

You donít argue with Rashida and not only because you canít speak Arabic. With my head resting in her lap, Iím forced to gaze trustingly up into her stern face as she soaps me from head to foot. Itís difficult to be assertive.

Pulling me up to face her, my legs uncomfortably entwined around hers, she pours watered-down shampoo from an orphanage-size pink plastic bottle over my head. I try to rehearse the French for ďdo please take care, I am wearing soft contact lenses,Ē but shut my eyes tight instead. At that moment, I feel something raking my scalp in long, heavy strokes, as though Iím being groomed by a she-bear. Unscrewing my eyes I can see a blue hedgehog, a plastic toothed brush for scraping burnt-on grease off saucepans. Nothing to worry about after all, this must be the head massage.

Rashida kneads my flesh in short but energetic bursts, gratified whenever I let out a whimper of pain. Iím twisted round and flipped over, can hardly tell where I end and Rashida begins. Is that my foot tucked between her breasts? It certainly is. A frail island of someoneís new-mown pubic hair floats past inches from my nose, but like Alice in Wonderland, this seems quite normal to me.

Waiting my turn for each procedure, I chat to the other bathers, stretching my schoolgirl French to the limit. One old dark-skinned woman flashes me a gold-toothed grin, and offers me five million francs if I will marry her son. I also make polite conversation with two young Frenchwomen, who assure me they are finding this experience Ďgťnialeí, and we exchange the usual small talk about the weather and where we are staying, raising the banal to the bizarre under the circumstances.

Iím called away from this cocktail party scene. Rashida is ready for me again, and this is her grand finale. She Ďmassagesí my back as though she has a personal grudge against me; itís like King Kong playing scales on an inflatable piano. When sheís finished with me, she motions me to sit up, then with a firm push on my back, shunts me across the slippery floor. I travel surprisingly quickly towards the rest of my group.

Back outside in the changing area, these once intrepid, assertive women travellers wait passively for towels and the return of our clothes. I dry myself on what is surely a floor mat, hoping that the faded marks on it are part of its original pattern, and climb gratefully into my cotton and linen protective armour.

Clothed, I feel better already, more in control of my destiny. When our hostess, Fatima, wedges herself next to me on the bench and asks insistently for my address (her son just happens to be planning a visit to the small town where I live in Southern Spain), I tell her about my big, jealous husband and our slavering dog before making a swift exit and hurrying back to my hotel. I need to relax, and I really need a shower.

(800 words)

Suggested sidebar:

Hammam Know-How:

<sum> Take your own towels and toiletries to the public hammam. You can buy soap on-site, but buy a kees, or rough scrubbing mitt, in a shop or at the market before you go.

<sum> Hairdryers are not permitted, so take an extra towel for your hair.

<sum> Expect to pay about 30-50 dirham (about E3-5) entrance fee, and the same again if you hire a tayeba (bathing attendant). Take 5 and 10 dirham coins to tip the cloakroom attendant and others.

<sum> Avoid Thursday evening and Fridays if possible. Friday is the Muslim holy day and the hammams get crowded.

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Comments by other Members

Silverelli at 16:53 on 18 May 2005  Report this post
This completely blew my mind! Fascinating!

Welcome to WW Alegria, and muchos thanks for the report from where some of us aren't allowed to go!

Don't change anything, except maybe it could be longer.


Cornelia at 16:57 on 18 May 2005  Report this post
This really captures the atmosphere, and it is as near to a Hamm-mam as I intend to go!

Excellent detail, down to the price list,and what a good idea to have the list of do's and don'ts.

I think this is much more intrepid than trekking up steep mountains or travelling by bus on slippery roads, although I know there are those who relish this kind of hands-on experience. As for me, hide the pubic hair, I'm British!


Account Closed at 17:26 on 18 May 2005  Report this post
Hola Alegria,
Really enjoyed this. I went to hammams like this one in Morocco but came out feeling clean and refreshed and it was a substitute for the hotel showers. Although self-conscious at the beginning, I found the atmosphere relaxing and friendly, and a relief from the hustle and bustle of outside. Also it was a chance to make contact with the women who are otherwise quite covered up (if you're thinking of expanding you could mention the contrast). However, for the men in the group, the men's hammam wasn't quite the same atmosphere.
There is a clean version in the Mosquť in Paris where you can get a cheap gommage - I would imagine there are some in the south of Spain.
Good luck with it, have you had it published?


Richard Brown at 09:59 on 19 May 2005  Report this post
Wonderful! Beautifully written. If it hasn't already been published it should be! Like the other commentators, I wouldn't want you to change a word.


hsl at 11:37 on 19 May 2005  Report this post
Yup, I agree with previous comments. This is well written and accurately conveys a sense of otherworldliness - the hammam itself, Moroccan culture and the splendid isolation that comes from lying naked beneath a formidable tayeba with the eyes of the world apparently fixed upon you.Good stuff.


James Graham at 11:48 on 19 May 2005  Report this post
This is an excellent read - such immediacy and such a lively style. To quote all your good turns of phrase and fine detail would make this comment as long as the article, but 'biggest fish in the steamy shallows', 'orphanage-sized pink plastic bottle', 'groomed by a she-bear', the Alice in Wonderland moment, are just a few. As Richard has said, this should go straight into print.


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