The Bathhouse

Later in the afternoon, Anas informed me that he was going to a hammam and asked me if I wanted to go. I most certainly did. I imagined hammams were exotic bathhouses with ornate hot tubs and beautiful female attendants. It was about time I paid a visit. I asked Anas if I could first get a long overdue haircut before going to the hammam. The barber was right nextdoor to the hammam, he told me, so it wouldn’t be a problem. Anas loaded a small bag with some items, and we headed out.

I arrived at the hammam with a fresh hairdo and full of anticipation. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this place wasn’t what I had expected. What struck me first was the smell. The place reeked of sweat and mildew. To be expected in a public bath but discomforting nonetheless. Anas led me to a corner, and after pouring a few buckets of hot water over the tiled floor, he instructed me to sit down. I felt very uncomfortable. There were only men here. They were all in shorts, some in more provocative pieces than others. I gingerly sat down. How was this any different from a communal shower? I wondered. Granted, nobody was completely nude, but weren’t they all cleaning themselves in one communal area? Who knew what kind of filth I was sitting in? I sat tensely. Anas noticed my discomfort and tried to get me to relax. He poured a bucket of hot water on me and handed me a bar of soap. It was an unusual kind of soap. It was a maroon color, and it was soft like butter. I lathered my body with it. I quite liked it. I moved to wash the soap off, but Anas stopped me. He gestured that I should leave the soap on for a while. I sat back and leaned against the wall.

The humid heat in the bathhouse had a calming effect. I was getting used to this strange environment. Watching scantily clad men scrubbing each other, however, isn’t exactly my idea of a fun time. One man in particular weirded me out. He would lay on the floor for a bit, stretch this way and that way, perform some rapid exercises, and then start scrubbing himself vigorously. Every few minutes he would repeat this regiment. I tried to avoid looking at him, but he was in my direct line of sight. I wondered how long it had been since he last bathed. How much scrubbing was enough? To make matters worse, he wore especially skimpy shorts. After some time I saw him offer to scrub another man’s back. The man accepted.

Presently, Anas produced a dark gray, sandpaper-like scrubbing glove and offered it to me. I refused to take it. A little while later he insisted on helping me stretch out my muscles. I relented, and he proceeded to fold my appendages in different angles. He cracked my back and stretched out my arms and legs. He knew what he was doing, and it felt good. I finally started to relax and to understand this element of Moroccan culture.

Whereas for me, an American, this type of physical contact with other men carries homosexual undertones, for Moroccans it’s not an issue. These men could scrub each other’s backs without thinking that either had a homosexual attraction to the other. Male-to-male physical contact has a brotherly aspect to it, not a sexual one.

Anas pulled out the scrubbing glove again, and this time I let him scrub my body. I began to enjoy the rigorous cleansing. I couldn’t remember the last time I had my back scrubbed, let alone with the kind of vigor that Anas applied.

My whole body felt rejuvenated after Anas finished. I sat back against the warm wall, physically and mentally at ease as Anas poured two buckets of hot water over me. He asked me to scrub him as well, and though I resolved to return the favor in equal form, I didn’t quite do justice. After a while Anas retrieved the man in skimpy shorts to get his back scrubbed. When he finished, the man offered to scrub my back, too. I declined. He still gave me a weird vibe despite my new understanding of the Moroccan culture.

It had grown dark by the time we emerged from the hammam. A cool breeze had picked up, and my eyelids suddenly felt very heavy. I could use a nap.

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