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I have found that the words “communal bathhouse” strike fear into the hearts of most Americans, but not so in Morocco where they are called hammams.

Hammams are large, slippery, and generally full of naked people. The taps go from boiling hot to ice cold, and the steam is so thick it's difficult to breathe, let alone see. Yes, they sound scary, but in Morocco they are a part of everyday life.

I found myself standing outside of one two months after I turned 16. I was on a service trip with two leaders and nine other children, six of whom were boys who were visiting the men's hammam. Our leaders had set up the visit to give us a taste of real Moroccan life.

As we entered the hammam, two old women told us to take off our shoes (and any other clothing we felt comfortable removing) and to put our things in a cubby. They didn't speak English, of course, so there was a lot of pointing.

There are several main bathing areas in a hammam. Once you have chosen a tap and spread your yoga mat on the floor, there is not much difference from how you normally get clean.

There aren't many reasons to feel shy, because in most parts of the world, no one cares about your body, what type of shampoo you use, or if you take an hour getting clean. It's refreshing, to say the least. Realizing that certain things that may be important to you and your culture are of little significance is humbling and liberating.

I was thoroughly enjoying the hammam. I filled my bucket with ice-cold water and poured it over my head, which momentarily cleared the humid air. I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. It was Julia, my group leader who told me that she had paid for all of us to receive a “traditional cleaning.”

When faced with something strange and new, I have found that it's best not to think about it too much, apart from is this dangerous? It's like running off the high diving board, instead of standing with your toes curled over the edge for 15 minutes.

So I rolled with the situation. And yet, as I made my way through crowds of soapy people all shouting in regional Arabic, on my way to get washed by a stranger, I couldn't help but think, How on earth did I get here?

My bather was very old, and she wore an expression that I took to mean she would rather be anywhere else than washing adolescent girls covered in construction dirt, but I sat on the floor and was scrubbed. It was not gentle, but when someone you don't know is cleaning you, it's best not to complain. And when an older Arabic lady is scrubbing you to within an inch of your life, it's best to think about something other than this fact.

I chose to think about the last ten days. I remembered Fez, the city with ten thousand walls so close together the streets are barely an arm's length apart. I remembered strong coffee served with soft bread and sweet potato spread for breakfast. I remembered learning to cook tagine, and skinning almonds, and waiting for prunes to boil. It was all so different, and I was pleased to find that after traveling to other countries in the past, the differences excited rather than frightened me.

It was at that exact moment that the lady scrubbing me ran over the burn on the back of my hand with the rag I was becoming rapidly convinced was made of steel wool. Tears came into the corners of my eyes as I forced a grateful smile.

Suddenly it was over. I paid my twenty dirhams ($2), and exited into fresh, cool Moroccan evening air. Experiences like as this are why I love to travel. While you build respect for different ways of life, you also build an immunity to the bizarre. The earlier you start seeing places and trying things, the sooner you lose your fear of the world around you. Everything becomes possible.

I would highly recommend being washed by a stranger in a hammam at least once.

Even if you manage not to feel a greater appreciation for customs and cultures different from yours, you can't escape without feeling a bit invincible. After all, you took on an old woman armed with soap, a scrubbing rag, and a pension for cleanliness.

At the end of my first visit to a hammam, I felt wiser, more open-minded, and very adventurous.

But mostly, I felt really clean.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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