Public baths are an integral part of life in Morocco. On any given day you might see a group of women gathering outside the neighborhood hammam, a small plastic stool and bucket in hand. The hammams in Morocco come with their own set of unspoken rules, which for outsiders can be more than a little confusing. Here are a few tips to help you be ready for your own Morocco hammam experience.
There are numerous upscale, private and intimate spa experiences to be had in every major city and many boutique hotels in the country. These are a bit of a hybrid of the traditional Moroccan public bath, or hammam, and are generally a more contemporary, bespoke spa experience. These more upscale hammam experiences are wonderful, particularly for couples.
However, one of the more adventurous ways to come clean for the culturally inquisitive is to head to the local hammam. This is much less a private, intimate experience than it is a social experience where people talk and gossip all while having a great scrub. Our friend Amanda Mouttaki, an American, wrote about her first experience in a public Moroccan hammam as she was getting to know her husband’s family. Amanda’s story is one of many featured in the story collection, Our Morocco: Moroccans and Expats Share Their Lives, Hopes, Dreams, and Adventures. Check it out here: https://www.journeybeyondtravel.com/our-morocco.
As Amanda discovered, stepping into and stripping down in a hammam is something of a disarming experience for many of us. A little inside knowledge will make the whole experience more relaxing – which is ultimately what it is all about!
The traditional hammam is about community and cleanliness rather than a zen-inspired indulgence. It is essentially a practical event, and one that should leave you invigorated, exfoliated and squeaky clean. For just a few dirhams, you can take part in the bathing ritual and be part of a real cultural – and social – experience.
These local neighborhood hammams of Morocco are always inexpensive (generally around 10Dh/ $1) and cater to the local population. Many Moroccans will visit their local hammam once or twice a week. You can still find hammams spread throughout the old medinas of every major city in the country, with more modern versions of the originals scattered with regularity in the more recently built parts of the city.
Before you even enter the hammam you are going to need to do a bit of shopping. Hammams are a BYO soap affair. You can purchase most of the items you might need on the list below in the small corner shops found in and around the old medinas in every major city. As a lot of the products are available in single-use sachets (even the savon bildi), you can always stock up on a few sachets on the neighborhood shop. The utilitarian nature of the list below should give you an idea of what’s to come once inside and ready for a soak.
Shopping done, bucket and savon bildi in hand, and possibly feeling a little self-conscious, what’s next?
First things first – make sure you you have your times right! While some hammams are exclusively for men or women, in most cases there are certain times of the day allocated to each. Make sure to check for your time before you sashay in and cause a stir! As a stranger and a foreigner in a local neighborhood hammam, you will stand out and you will be guided through the steps and told what to do and when to do it. There is a real sense of community, even sisterhood, in the hammams. The best advice really is to relax and go with the proverbial flow.
The typical hammam consists of four rooms: changing room, cool room, warm room, and hot room. Usually there will be someone on hand in the changing room to lead you through the hammam ritual: soaping, rinsing, and exfoliating. They will also vigorously (if not somewhat violently) rub you down for a small charge of 40-50Dh. Most locals opt to do everything themselves, usually going with a friend or family member to have a chat and get a hand for those hard-to-reach places. If it is your first time it is probably easiest to pay a little extra for someone to rub you down as they will guide you through the process. You might also be asked to rub a stranger’s back with a kis. This is all part of the experience and is to be expected.
When you first enter the steamy confines of the hammam, you will strip down to your bathing suit or underwear and put your belongings in a cubicle in the changing room. Most Moroccans don’t strip all the way down. They’ll leave their underwear on. But do what feels comfortable to you. Men are expected to keep on a pair of underwear or a swimsuit to cover their genitals.
After the changing area, you’ll enter into the first of (usually) three rooms, each progressively warmer. The innermost room is where the hottest water flows. Buckets are provided for you to fill and mix until the water is just as hot as you like.
When that’s done, take your water and find an open space in one of the rooms. The basic idea is to gradually increase the temperature of the air and water as you go from room to room while washing using your bucket and cup. If you have someone to do the rub down and exfoliation with the kis glove, prepare yourself for the odd unexpected bucket of water thrown over you when you least expect it!
It is quite acceptable to take a moment to rinse off your floor space before starting your bathing ritual. Once ready to get started, douse yourself in hot water (dipping your personal bucket into the larger one provided) and soap up.
Unless you’re the only person there, its usually considered bad form to take more than two buckets of hot water. Likewise, the floors of a hammam are all sloped toward a central drain. Take a moment to make sure your rinse water isn’t going to flow into anyone else’s wash area.
Once you have soaped, washed, rinsed and washed again, give your area a last rinse off. Return your buckets and head back into the changing area to dry off and get dressed.
When you are done and dried and heading out, you’ll probably hear the words ‘bssHa!’ more than a few times. Moroccans say this to anyone who has just come from a bath, and it translates roughly to ‘to your health.’ Reply with a smile and a ‘llay tik saH,’ which means ‘and yours as well.’
The hammam in Morocco is a warm and welcoming space where women take time for ritual and conversation across the generations. Particularly for women, this is one of the richest, not to mention cleanest, experiences you can have in Morocco.
Amina Lahbabi is a proud Moroccan, feminist, mother, climate change activist, and promoter of education, equal rights and freedom of expression. She is at the forefront of all of Journey Beyond Travel’s NGO initiatives. She loves art, freedom of expression, and is an accomplished photographer in her own right. She holds multiple graduate degrees in translation and communication and was a Fulbright Scholar at Michigan State University. She also loves a good hammam. She lives in Tangier. You can check out her Wikipedia or find her online: http://www.aminalahbabi.com.