Planned by forces other than myself, I’ve participated this week in two major rites for Moroccan women.
Part One: In which I am cleansed.
Earlier this week, my host sisters – ages 17 and 18, you’ll remember – asked if I’d like to visit the hammam. I only half understood, but I knew the offer was coming, and I knew I had to be brave enough to say yes, dread it though I might.
The hammam is a public bathhouse, frequented regularly by Moroccans of all classes, whether they have their own indoor bathing facilities (as my family does) or not. Getting clean is serious business; there’s also a good deal of community spirit involved.
Armed with a bag of clothes and a bucket of supplies, we walked through the souq stalls near our home, dodging mud puddles as best we could. Hammams are scattered about the community, in unmarked buildings, but I knew where we were going as soon as I saw the ginormous pile of wood logs out front; a huge wood fire, constantly stoked, is the source of the hammam’s famed heat.
Admission: 8 dirham, or a little over a dollar. The dressing area was smack inside the front door. Travel books had prepared me to leave my undies and bra on … but, in this case at least, the bra went as well. It’s entirely uncouth to look at anyone, though; keeping my eyes on my feet, I became as unselfconscious as I could, but I also came away with little idea of what was going on.
We skipped the first washing area and went straight into the second, where the heat immediately coated my lungs so I could barely gasp. we dipped a bucket into the fire-heated water basin, rinsed off an area of the tiled floor, laid down several rubber mats and got to work. Around the room, as far as my downcast eyes could tell, women and girls were doing the same thing. A series of buckets is filled with water nearly boiling, tempered with a scoop or two from a cool-water spigot.
We sit on our mats and start by rinsing down, scooping bowls into the buckets and dumping water over our heads. Shampoo, rinse, repeat; then a good soapdown. If you’re so inclined, you can scrub your skin with a loofah until the epidermis is completely removed. Rinse and rinse and rinse and rinse and rinse. At one point, Hadija casually reached over and started scrubbing my back; the implied sisterhood in that small act made me grateful for the damp steam that camouflaged a couple of tears.
Most hammams have a third room, even hotter, that acts as a sauna. Ours didn’t have one, and I can’t imagine a room hotter than this one. Inefficient, perhaps, compared with a five-minute shower at home, but incomparably more relaxing. Slowing down, I’m learning, can be a good thing.
One unanticipated lesson of the day: I think of these two sisters as quiet and sheltered homebodies because I’ve yet to see them leave the house; I’m unable to lure them to the cybercafe or the dar chebab (youth center). But in the souq we were greeted repeatedly by a series of lovely young women who kissed the girls – and me, a stranger – repeatedly on each cheek. Same thing happened in the hammam, where they made casual conversation with women of all ages. Important not to forget how the slow, home-based pace of Ramadan is affecting our first impressions of Morocco.
Part Two: In which I am adorned.
Last evening Aziza, a friend of Haajja (my host mum), stopped by during the late supper. She was with a young girl who I assumed (wrongly, I now realize) was her daughter. The girl – I’d put her at about 12, so she’s probably about 17 – had henna painted on her hands, and in yet another attempt to enter the dinner table conversation with my pathetic Darija skills, I pointed at her hand and offered an enthusiastic “Zwina!” (pretty). A lively debate ensued, none of which I could understand, but as it turned out they were arranging to have the girl return today to paint me and my host sisters.
Henna is a red or black dye used in many cultures to adorn women, especially their hands and feet, for special occasions such as a wedding, or, in this case, L-Eid Sgr, the feast that will mark the end of Ramadan when the new moon arrives in a day or two. The paint looks like chocolate pudding in the bowl and is piped onto the hands with a needleless syringe not unlike the tools used to pipe icing onto grocery-store cakes. Out of this mud come swirls and petals and spirals and dots and brushwork, intricately detailed. The mud is wash;ed off several hours later to reveal semipermanent tattoos that last a week or two
Anyway, the appointed time came and went this morning, and I was OK with that because I really needed to study and make some geekorama flash cards. I bathed (third time in eight days – such a glamour girl!) but didn’t wash my hair, clipping it up instead and forgoing makeup (yes, I’m still wearing makeup … and even ironing my hair, most days, even though I’m not washing it very often and use very little product; it actually looks better as a result).
Next thing I know, I’m being ushered out of the house and across the neighboring souq (market area) with Aziza and Hannan, Haajja’s 16-year-old housekeeper. After greeting a couple of elderly women outside the mosque, we arrive at our destination. Aziza, it turns out, is the president of an association (like an NGO or nonprofit) that teaches sewing and cosmetology skills to at-risk young women. Immediately I was drawn into the classroom and encouraged to dance, joined by an ever-widening circle of chattering and lovely girls, then to pose for about a zillion cell-phone photos, in a series of group configurations.
Finally Raheema and Asma ushered me off the dance floor and into a tiny room – barely room for two mats, a chair and a tiny table with a plastic floral arrangement and a bowl of mud. Even so, two more chairs were brought in and Raheema and Asma got down to business on my hands while Hannan and a series of other workers rushed, giggling, in and out. (What I took for a wadded-up blanket on one of the mats I eventually realized was a poor young thing sleeping under a wadded-up blanket; despite the ruckus, she never roused.)
I’ve had henna applied once before, in similar circumstances – at a school that taught life skills to street girls in New Delhi. But I was wholly unprepared for the art Raheema and Esma were able to so casually brush onto my hands as they talked and laughed and screeched and poked at me. Within 15 minutes my hands were encased in sticky curves of black mud … yet the ladies spent another 45 minutes making sure no dot of skin went unadorned.
But that wasn’t the end of today’s Becki-beautification effort. (Did I mention just how shlumpy I felt, in my gym pants and sweatshirt, the last of my somewhat-clean clothes?) The ladies insisted – “Coiffure! Coiffure!” – that I stop at the beauty salon next door, apparently also a part of the association. Off came my glasses; what at first I in my nearsightedness feared (and was ready to succumb to) was a pair of shears turned out to be merely a comb, and my unwashed hair was promptly spritzed down and given the best blowout of my life. Then: “Maquillage?” Pancake makeup that managed to cover the recent explosion of zits along my jawline, eyes heavily rimmed with kohl, lips given a bright pink lipstick, then gloss, then glitter, then another gloss.
Despite my personal practices, I don’t like promoting the idea that women need makeup to be beautiful, nor that beauty is all they have to offer the world. On the other hand, it did me no small bit of good to feel somewhat presentable (from the neck up, at least) for the first time in weeks.
And the young women were delighted with the results. More dancing; another mass photo shoot. Several girls insisted on walking us home. Many scraps of paper were pressed into my hand – cell numbers for when I finally get my own “portabl.” I felt full of inspiration for the possibilities of working with these girls, so hungry for attention and with so much to offer. Aziza said I was welcome to teach English there any time, and if our training schedule allows, I’ll do it. At the very least, I can donate some of my paltry Peace Corps “walking-around” allowance and stop by with pastries and the hope of another dance lesson.
It’s raining as I write this late at night (nearly 10:30!), huddled under a wool blanket, trying to escape a cold so bitter I don’t even dare change clothes before climbing into bed. It’s the third heavy rain today, complete with blustery wind and menacing lightning. Just before lftur (the Ramadan break-fast just after sunset), the parlor windows were pelted with tiny hailstones. I know the rain is desperately needed in this apple-growing and honeybee-raising region, but I thought I’d come to Africa to escape such cold. (Though, I’m constantly reminded by Moroccans, this is not Africa.)
It’s hard not to get a little homesick, especially for central heating and steady electricity and paved streets that don’t become muddy bogs under constant rain. But at home I’d still be whining to y’all about my adventureless small life, instead of bathing and dancing comfortably with women I can’t hold a traditional conversation with. Instead, we bond in other ways. And it is definitely an adventure, every second of it.