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The International Writers Magazine: Morocco Life

Surviving the Moroccan Bath
Sidi Benzahra

When I was six, or probably seven years old, my mom always took me and my sisters to the public bath. Whenever we built up a good thick layer of dirt on our skin, or had gone two weeks without washing for some reason or another, she would take us there.


We didn't have hot water in our house and we didn't have a tub where we could sit and wash in warm water. All we had for washing were a long faucet over a sink in the kitchen and one old, short faucet over a plastic bucket in the bathroom. And the bathroom was always cold regardless of the seasons. We had to go to the hammam instead, where we had to wash ourselves in the company of neighbors and strangers, in the company of people whom I had never met before in my life.

The hammam of our neighborhood consisted of three large wet rooms and one dry one, as did almost all hammams in Morocco. Each room consisted of four solid, thick walls, and two large arched openings that lead to the adjacent rooms. The last room at the far end didn't have a second opening, but a short well of hot water where we would scoop water from. There were no windows in these rooms and there was no daylight that could penetrate them. The only lights that shone in those rooms were from cheap light bulbs that were hung in the middle of the high ceilings, one in each room.
The first room was large and warm. People in this room would take off their clothes if they were going into the hammam or would put on their fresh clean clothes if they were going out. At the entrance of this room there was a desk and behind that desk there was an old woman who was always sitting there, looking at who was coming in and who was going out. She was also the woman whom my Mom had to pay 10 or 15 Rials a person to let us in.

The other three rooms were of the same size but they were always at different temperatures. The first one was lukewarm, the second was of a medium temperature, and the third one was dangerously hot. Small kids were not allowed to stick around more than a few minutes in the hot room. You would only find a few young people sitting in the hot room, washing themselves.

The woman behind the desk looked at me to see if I was eligible to get in. She gave me a mean look and then Okayed me in. The reason she gave me a mean look was because there were some dirty young boys who would act inappropriately in the hammam. Boys above six years old or who looked bigger even though they were less than six years old were not allowed to bathe with women. After we got into the dry room, we took off our clothes, we balled them, and then placed them on a long, high wooden shelf against a wall -I was too short to do that so my mother had to do that for me--, which was covered with beautiful Moroccan, Arabic tiles. After one opened the door to get in or get out of the warm room, we could hear shouts and echoes of women, and we also could hear the subterranean sound of waters splashing on tile, wooden buckets being lifted and dropped against the floor. Sometimes we could hear a scream of woman who was probably hit by a bucket or was just laughing hysterically.

We entered the warm room and my mother automatically herded us forward to the hot room. She wanted us to marinate there for a while so that scum and dirt would come off our skin easily once she started scrubbing us. My mother had two kinds of scrubbers: one was made of wood, which has the shape of hockey puck, covered with canvas. This scrubber was specifically made for the soft skin of the body, such as the inside of the thighs, and under the arms. The other scrubber was a piece of rough, hard rock. It looked like it was made in a volcano just for this purpose.

I always hated the way my mother washed me. She didn’t know my threshold of pain. She would grab me from the arm and slide my small body and park me right in front of her. She would then start scrubbing my skin as hard as she could, shaking me and making me uncomfortable. Sometimes she would scrub me so hard that I would whence or even scream. And If I screamed loud she would smack the side of my head with her hand and tell me to shut up. The worse thing of all this cleaning business was the way she would comb my hair. She had this sheep-horn made, sharp comb that she always brought with her to the hammam. She would grab my neck with her left hand and comb my short hair with her right hand so hard, thinking that the harder she combed, the easier lice or dirt would come off.

I was a worried sick about the time when she would start combing my hair. She was now working on my sister and my poor sister was crying in front of her. She smacked her to shut up but my sister wailed instead. My mother was biting her tongue and combing my sister’s hair as though she wanted to snatch it from the skull. After my mother finished with my sister she called on me. She put the comb on tile beside her and looked up to a woman who came to talk to her. When I saw my mother busy talking to the woman, I quickly pulled the comb towards me making sure nobody was watching me, and sat down on it with my naked butt. I said to myself that if my mother couldn't find the comb, she would skip combing, rinse me out, and send me out the door.

I was wrong. After my mother finished talking to the woman, she slapped her hands together once and said, "Where is the comb?" I pretended like I didn’t listen. My mother looked around her for a moment and said, "Where did the comb go?" Again, I pretended I didn’t listen and I didn't say anything. My sisters went either outside or to the lukewarm room to play with water and buckets. My mother stood up now and screamed, "Where is the comb?" she was angry. She was moving around me like a lion and looking down at the tile irritated. Other naked women came to look for the comb with her. They kept talking to each other while searching for the comb. I was sitting there underneath them, not moving, praying they wouldn’t find the comb. Finally, one woman said, "your son could be sitting on it." And they all looked down at me at once. My mother quickly said, "Stand up, you snake!" At that moment everybody was waiting for me to stand up. I slowly stood up to expose the comb and my mother smacked me on the back of the head and my body jerked forward with the smack. She ordered me to sit down while she was sitting down and pulled me towards her. She tightly grabbed the back of my neck with her right hand and started combing my hair, displacing all that anger on my skull.
© Sidi Cherkawi Benzahra Feb 2008
Sidi.benzahra@gmail.com


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