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The Traditional Ritual of a Moroccan Hammam

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I used to be the kind that would go get facials or massages only every so often. It was good enough for me, because I didn’t need more. Or so I thought…until I went to Morocco and experienced a traditional spa or “hammam”. It is definitely an experience -especially the very first time- you’ll never forget.  If you ever go to one, you will know that you will never be as clean as when you come out of a hammam. Period.

There are traditional ones which are maybe a few dollars to go in and the more expensive and fancy ones that are in 5 star hotels. Even those, for US standards are at a very decent price. Unlike the spas here, their spas are social experiences, family experiences. Usually you see women washing their mothers’ hair, and moms scrubbing little girls bodies. Morocco is known for adoring children, nobody will dare shushing a child, so kids can still be kids inside of a hammam. There’s no spa music, the background is water, voices, children, and basically life happening.

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So, why do people shower all together in Morocco? Actually, this tradition isn’t only Moroccan, Koreans are known for their spas, and Turkish bathhouses are also known everywhere. Back in the day,  it wasn’t about relaxing but about actually getting as clean as you could. There were no bathrooms in each house, so everyone went to a bathhouse once a week for a nice day of cleaning and scrubbing the heck out of their bodies until they were clean enough to walk around for a full week, when they get to come back again. The tradition stuck to Moroccan culture and even though there’s -of course- bathrooms in every house now, people still go to the hammam once a week, regardless of how many times a day they took a quick shower. That one day a week were they scrub their bodies and wash their hair and get a little massage in good company, is almost sacred.

The full body scrub Experience

In Morocco, women have their hammam stuff always ready: small shampoo, conditioner, black soap, a small comb for the hair, clean comfortable clothes and a head wrap. They are very careful at covering their heads when they come out, since their bodies are warm. A small bucket, a plastic mat and rubber sandals to wear inside completes the hammam bag.

Hammams are usually a big building, separated by gender, girls go always with their mothers (or other female family members) and so do boys until they’re about six years old. Basically, when boys start noticing the difference in bodies and start staring, they get sent to the other side of the hammam, with the men of the family.

In traditional ones, you go pay your entrance fee and any add-on services upfront,  and then go into a locker-like area where you leave your stuff. There you take off all your clothes, except underwear. As modest as moroccan women are in their dress in public, when there’s women only the modesty goes out the window. Clothes come off and they go in the bath area.

You see all kinds of shapes and ages, and what I found hilarious is that traditional hammams are usually like your “neighborhood spa” and chances are, you'll run into someone you know in there. And they do: they stop and do their whole routine of kissing and asking how the parents, children, siblings and neighbors are doing, all while their boobies are nicely following their hand and arm gestures. I was probably the only one noticing though. I am telling you, nobody looks at anyone’s anything, and the ones who do, are probably tourists (*raises hand in shame*). In fact, I committed a major faux pas on my first few sessions, I left my bikini top on. Everyone stared. It has like walking around with a monkey on my head, everyone took a double take and the ladies who did the scrub all asked me why I kept it on. One reason was that I was nursing my baby and my girls were so heavy and full of milk,  I was afraid they’d hit my knees. Second, and my biggest reason is that I had never walked naked in front of anyone. Not my mom, not my sisters, nobody. I felt so awkward. But, I have to say, it felt more awkward to have my mother-in-law look at my bra and ask me why I didn’t take it off.  I was warming up.

Once you’re in underwear only, you go in and you feel that humid heat and wonderful smell of herbs. There are rows of low faucets and chairs and a separate area with a row of high massage-like tables where one lays down for the scrub. In some hammams, they rub you directly on a mat on the floor. Before the scrub, you need to put on the famous Moroccan black soap and let it sit on your skin for a few minutes. They methodically scrub every inch of your body. It doesn’t matter how clean and fancy you are, you will start seeing noodle-like chunks of gunk. Yeah, pretty disgusting. I thought it was the black soap but they announced to me that that was actually dead skin and yucky stuff coming out of my own body. I had just taken a shower that morning, how could it be? It’s the magic of black soap, a good glove and Moroccan hands.

Once they’re done you get to go back to your spot and finish washing your hair and rinsing. Then, you can moisturize your skin, preferably with Argan oil which is rich in nutrients and antioxidants -which is when Aynara comes in handy. Use as much as you need, this is the perfect time to moisturize your skin after you have taken all the dead skin out of your body. If you’re pregnant make sure you smother your belly with Aynara pure argan oil. The scrub makes this the perfect time to prevent stretch marks. I swear this is what prevented me to get any in my 3 pregnancies.

When you’re done, you go back to the locker area to dress with comfortable clothes and -ideally- cover your head with a wrap to prevent from “catching a cold” as Moroccans would say.

Now you take a look at your arms and feel it with your hand. You will feel your skin as soft as a baby’s bottom.

The experience at a 5 star hotel is technically the same, all the small differences are the details. First, you don’t take anything, they provide it all. And second, it is usually a private hammam, the therapist walks you to to a beautiful room with exquisite decor, in which you’ll spend the next hour or two being the most pampered you’ve ever been. The scrub goes about the same, but much quieter and yes with spa music in the background this time. The scrub in all, I found it to be as amazing in both. It depends on the mood, to be honest. If you want to relax and take the stress away, splurge in a nicer spa where you’ll have a quiet luxurious experience. Do you feel like seeing people and experience the cultural aspect of a hammam, go to the nearest corner one. You will love it.

Some important do’s and dont’s

Do- keep only your panties on (and leave the G-strings at home)

Do- Cover your head before leaving, if you don’t, someone will.

Don’t- Splash anyone nearby with water while rinsing, be careful and respectful

Don’t- Dare shushing anyone, traditional hammams are not quiet places, again, be respectful

Do- Give a small tip to the person who scrubbed you

Don’t- Walk barefoot, it does get slippery

Do you feel like going to a hammam now? Although we don’t have a Moroccan one in LA, the next best thing is a Korean Spa. If you want to make it a family affair try Wi Spa, which has a family friendly environment and co-ed areas. If you want to relax and enjoy some quiet time, try Olympic Spa. After trying all of the popular ones in the area, those are my two favorites. Warning: Korean Spas are full nudity, and they enforce it, so be ready for that. Enjoy!
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