Bathing in a Moroccan Hammam

Haley Stewart
November 22, 2013

Going to Morocco was incredible, indescribable, a wholly new and foreign experience that I haven’t had enough time to really reflect upon.  There are a million different directions I could take a blog post about the trip– there’s the hospitality and warmth of the host family I stayed with in Rabat, the awesome and fear-inspiring grandeur of the Mausoleum of King Mohammed V, the beauty of Asilah, labyrinthine and misty by the sea, the auspicious coincidence of turning twenty-one on a rooftop terrace in Chefchaouen, beneath the stars and the dark mountains.  All are worthy of a retelling, but one of the experiences that really surprised, touched and taught me was going to the Hammam.

We went to the Hammam, a public bath, on our second day in Rabat.  Our program director warned us beforehand that it was an experience.  It certainly was, but as he implied, only in the best of ways.

When we arrived, stepping inside from the darkened alleyway, we were greeted by the sound of singing and hollering.  Mist crept around the corner of a door, guarded by a man sitting behind a glass window.  We paid him and he gave us soap and gloves to scrub ourselves.  When we entered, we saw who’d been making all the noise: a group of boisterous, unabashed, half-naked middle-aged women.  We stood there awkwardly out of place, unsure of what to do, unsure of ourselves.  Several women who worked there, giving intense exfoliation-massages to paying customers, patted and pushed us into a corner, leaving us to nervously ask each other: What do we do?  Do we take our swimsuit tops off?  No one else is wearing a top…

An hour later we emerged in quite a different state: clean, pink, gleaming from head to toe, relaxed and happy.  At some point we’d changed from the hesitant girls of before, self-conscious of our bodies, to girls squatting contentedly by buckets, pouring water over our heads, scrubbing each other’s backs.

As an outsider, and especially as an American woman with all my freedoms, it’s easy to see how Moroccan women are limited in ways I’m not.  Anyone walking down the street can point to the hijab, the veil that’s become a symbol for the discussion of women’s rights in Islamic countries.  My experience in the Hammam however, where no one cared what they looked like, which felt truly like a place of feminine-communion, complicates this image.  Morocco is still an obviously male-dominated society (though things are changing), but I also think us Western women should examine ourselves before we judge others; I might be free to bare as much skin as I want walking down the street, but if my insecurities about my body prevent me from doing that even in the most non-judgmental of settings, am I really free from ‘the masculine’ gaze?  I might be reading far too much into this, but if not, food for feminist thought.

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Haley Stewart

<p><span style="color: rgb(29, 29, 29); font-family: Arial, Verdana, sans-serif; font-size: 12px; line-height: normal; background-color: rgb(237, 237, 237);">Haley Stewart was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, and is currently a Comparative Literature Major at Williams College in Massachusetts. She was lucky enough to be in a Spanish Immersion program from preschool thru high school, an experience which left her a fluent Spanish-speaker, a lover of Latin-American literature and an avid traveler. She&#39;s used her Spanish in many ways since, from teaching computer classes in Oaxaca, Mexico, to volunteering at an organization for low-paid farm workers in Oregon, to her classes on Spanish literature and history at Williams. Haley&#39;s most recent travel experience, a month and a half long trip to England on a travel fellowship from Williams, hiking alone through the beautiful Lake District in the footsteps of the Romantic poet Wordsworth, has left her even more excited to explore Granada. A lover of Federico Garcia Lorca for many years, Haley looks forward to not only walking, but living, in a city full of such poetry, music and magic.</span></p>

2013 Fall
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Williams College
Comparative Literature
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