“La,” a middle-aged woman in a colourful hijab resolutely shakes her head while pointing at my bra. “What’s wrong with it?” I ask, confused. “La.”
I am fairly certain I was told to undress to my underwear before entering a Moroccan hammam. But the air is so hot I can feel it scrambling my brain and my confidence in its abilities waning. I must have gotten it wrong. Embarrassed, I begin to put on my shirt.
“La,” the woman says, jabbing her finger into my chest. She appears frustrated and I don’t blame her. Imintanoute, the town I am visiting, has a population of seventeen thousand and one – seventeen thousand locals and one clueless blonde tourist standing in front of a fully-clad bathhouse attendant in nothing but her pink lace underwear.
The woman pretends to cover her breasts and wiggles her finger from side to side, before repeating the only Arabic word I know so far: “La!” “You want me to take off my bra?” I ask apprehensively as I act out a small PG-rated striptease. Her face lights up and she nods enthusiastically as I remove my clothes. I wrap myself in a soft towel and sheepishly follow her into the next room.
Fluffy clouds of steam hover in the air like giant seagulls, each of them carrying a black-haired goddess on its back. Young and old, they communicate in a beautiful symphony of laughter and relaxed chatter. Opposite me, a girl with deep emerald eyes squeals as someone douses her in water. When she notices me looking at her, she flashes me a bright smile.
The bath attendant sits me down on a rubbery mat and, to my great alarm, leaves. I shuffle around nervously – what comes next? I wistfully recall my friends warning me against exposing my flesh in public after I booked my flight to Morocco and am about to begin laughing hysterically, when my helper reappears from the fog. Her clothes are gone and she’s carrying a tub of formidable-looking black jelly.
Before I can protest, she starts massaging the substance into my body and vigorously scrubbing me with a big orange glove. I shut my eyes in pain and when I finally open them minutes later, I notice grey rolls of skin hanging off my arms. Instead of disgust, I feel utter bliss. It is as though a weight has been lifted off my shoulders – and not just in the form of dead skin. I am like a butterfly emerging from the lifeless cocoon of omnipresent stress and worries I wear back home.
The bathhouse attendant – once again fully dressed – pats me on the head as I leave the bathhouse. I walk out onto the street with a skip in my step and notice the girl with piercing green eyes sipping a Coke in a café across the road. As I walk past her, she smiles at me again and coyly tucks a stray hair underneath her hijab. What happens in the hammam stays in the hammam.
photo via Jean-Pierre Dalbera