Hitting the hammam in Bensmim

Emma Jerzyk
May 9, 2017
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Last weekend, the IES Abroad Rabat Center took a trip to Bensmim, a small village in the Middle Atlas mountains in order to learn more about life in the countryside in Morocco. 

On our way to Bensmim, we stopped at the National Park of Ifran to have a barbecue for lunch. For this trip, the IES Abroad staff told us that we would be responsible for cooking lunch. First things first, a few other women and I started to set up a fire. A few minutes after starting the fire, a man who worked in the forest — there are usually men who walk around with horses and offer tourists a ride for a fee — came over in an effort to help us with the fire. But all of a sudden, he pushed us out of the way and started piling twigs and little pieces of plastic in the fire. We told him that we could put the fire together on our own, but he insisted on “helping” us. It seems that mansplaining exists in Morocco, too. We are all surprised. 

When we arrived in Bensmim, there was an exuberant welcome ceremony, including tea (of course), cake, melui, a band, and dancing. We also got a tour of a women’s cooperative that makes distilled waters and essential oils from herbs. 

After a long day of travel, we got settled with the families that hosted us for the two nights we spent in Bensmim. Being a village in the countryside, most of the homes didn’t have a lot of frills — or western toilets or showers. So we all had the opportunity to test out our squat pooping ability, which is a skill that takes a lot of time to hone. But our host families were exceedingly kind and welcoming, offering a huge dinner and making a very comfortable bed for us in their salon. 

Friday, we started the day off by hiking out to an area where a nomadic tribe lives during this part of the year. After our hike, we did a few different community service projects around the village. I had signed up to work on a project in which we were assigned to re-paint a wall. But when we arrived in the village center, there were huge mounds of dirt that had accumulated against the wall. So it became abundantly clear that in order to paint the wall, we were going to need to break up the dirt and carry it off somewhere else. This meant using a pick axe to chip away at the dirt so that we could shovel it into buckets and large garbage bags before carrying it up a hill and dumping it there, where it wouldn’t fall back down on the wall. After a few hours of pick axing and shoveling and climbing, we had barely made a dent. Fortunately, a troupe of tiny children came to our aid. (They kept trying to take the pick axe, which was obviously not going to happen. But they were very good at carrying the dirt up the hill.) 

After our service projects, it was time for the hammam. I had fortunately been to a hammam prior to this trip, so it didn’t catch me off guard. But the hammam can be a disorienting experience for a first-time tourist. Hammams are basically bath houses. It’s a series of rooms with hot water where everyone in the village goes to get squeaky clean. Typically, you bring a bunch of buckets where you keep your store of hot water, along with a few little cups used for dumping the water on your body. Additionally, hammam gloves are a very common accessory for Moroccans. Hammam gloves are basically a little bag made out of rough material that you put on your hand and use to scrub your body. If you use it right, you’ll be able to see the dead skin coming off your body in little green bits. Also, in case you’re wondering: Yes, everyone is naked. A lot of people like to keep their underwear bottoms on in the hammam, but clothes are definitely optional. But it’s a very nonjudgmental and casual environment. The hammam is generally a very relaxing and social experience. It’s a time for all the women to come together, get clean, and gossip about the goings on in town. The hammams in Rabat typically have sections designated by gender. But in Bensmim, the gender separation is done temporally: We (the women) used the hammam first, and the men used it after us. 

Our full day in Bensmim left me feeling refreshed and exhausted. We had spent the vast majority of the day working hard — hiking and pick axing away at the dirt in the center of town. And the hammam allowed us to get clean and relaxed before a very restful night of sleep and heading back to Rabat. 

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Emma Jerzyk

<p>Hi there, I&rsquo;m Emma, and I&rsquo;m from Hinsdale, IL. I&rsquo;m a senior at Brown University studying computer science and Middle Eastern studies. No, you are not the first person to tell me I should work for the CIA. I like stories, and I like data. I like combining them even more. Follow my blog for an in-depth look at Moroccan culture!</p>

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