You’ve gotten a massage, right? They all share basically the same tenets. Soft music. A dark room. Your face in a hole that is a little bit too tight. Constantly wondering if the masseuse is going to bend down and take a bite out of your butt. Massages are pretty much the same in most areas of the world. But when you’re traveling to many countries throughout the world, there is an interesting addition that comes before the massage experience. You can even have it singularly, although most tourists will have it combined with a massage, and while it has many names and different traditions throughout the world, we’re going to focus on the Moroccan form: Hammam.
Just like massage parlors, there are varying levels of hammams, from the public versions with locals washing each other and chatting over who just moved into the neighborhood to high end chateaus with rose petals, heated towels and nary a Moroccan in sight. These can run you anywhere from 20 to 2000 dirham ($2-$200) for a hammam and massage. Hammam is technically the word for the steam room where your shower and scrub will take place, but most places it was simply the word used for the entire experience, because it’s like going to the movies, no one would ever say to you “Excuse me, hypothetical person, I am going to the movies to while there I will be seeing Santa’s Slay starring Bill Goldberg,” they’re just going to the movies to see an awesome movie. You’re just going to the hammam. It’s understood what’s happening there. Well it’s going to be, once I explain it to you.
The basic steps in a hammam are:
- Sit in a steamy room to open up your pores
- Have water dumped on you with buckets or scoops
- Be slathered in Moroccan black soap
- Sit in the same steamy room to let black soap soak in
- Be scrubbed with a exfoliating glove to remove your excess skin
- Sit in, again, that same steamy room to let pores open up more
- Have more water dumped on you with more buckets or more scoops
Again, those are the basic steps, but there are hundreds of different experiences you can have. In the public hammams, the steam rooms are large and filled with people, and anyone you ask will wash your back. They’re also incredibly hard to find, usually just unmarked doors (if they are marked, they’re marked in Arabic, because they’re not made for tourists), heated by underground trash fires (for reals). While we weren’t sure we were ready for these, in the high end hammams, it seemed like it would be basically the same as attending a high-end spa in the United States. We didn’t want this either, so we opted for two lower-to-middle end Hammam experiences.
Our first Hammam experience was in Marrakech, was a few blocks from our riad, and came recommended by our friend Ibrahim at Riad Atlas (I tried and tried to find the name of this hammam, but sadly couldn't. If you're in Marrakech, it's at the corner of the second street from the main square off Rue Riad Zitoun el Jdid). They had established pricing, and 600 dirham ($60) for a hammam and hourlong massage for each of us sounded like a nice price considering how much massages were in the States. We later learned that some other travellers staying in our riad had bargained the same treatments down to 500 dirham, the lesson being: ALL PRICES ARE NEGOTIABLE IN MOROCCO! Without knowing we were paying 100 dirham too much, we let them know we were interested, and we would be back in an hour.
When we arrived, we were ushered upstairs and allowed to put our valuables in a secure locker (a nice perk!) and ordered to strip down to our undies, which we did. We entered our hammam, a sparsely decorated room with benches built into the walls and a metal tub with two spigots above it which seemed to constantly be flowing hot or cold water, the ambient echo of running water setting the mood while we sat awkwardly as steam began to fill the small room. Our hammamist (DEFINITELY not the right term) entered and began to dump water on Renee while I sat on the other side of the room awkwardly; we then switched spots and it was Renee’s time to sit awkwardly while I had buckets of incredibly hot water poured on me.
SIDE NOTE: if you’ve never had buckets of water poured on you, I recommend it, you feel like the King of Siam. Just have your significant other do it in the backyard, it’s very relaxing.
At this point, our hammamist (I’m going to refer to her as “Your Mom” from here on out. She spoke literally zero English and we spoke literal no Arabic, so that may have been her name for all I know. Also, it will make certain details of the story hilarious, perhaps only to me) left for a few minutes before returning to scrub us down individually with viscous Moroccan black soap, and it was at this point where it got a little weird. While Your Mom is rubbing soap all over (and I do mean all over, they are not shy) my wife’s body, Your Mom would sneak weird glances back at me and holding three second of weird eye contact! I wasn’t sure what to do, do I watch? Do I look at the ceiling like I’m at a urinal? I couldn’t decide, so I just sat awkwardly in my underwear while Your Mom rubbed soap on Renee. Then it was my turn. I later learned that Your Mom was sneaking the same glances and holding the same weird eye contact with Renee while I was getting soaped! We have been debating that eye contact for months. WHY WOULD YOUR MOM DO THAT? IT IS WEIRD.
At this point, Your Mom leaves the hammam for a few moments to allow the soap to seep into your pores. Meanwhile, all we could talk about was the eye contact until she came back in to scrub us individually with an exfoliating glove. When I say “scrub with an exfoliating glove”, picture using a piece of steel wool to clean the bottom of a two-day-old lasagna pan, that is the level of intensity Your Mom was using on both Renee and I’s milky white bodies. After inflicting punishment on us for as long as we could stand (PLUS MORE EYE CONTACT!), she left us to soak in our own dead skin for a few more minutes before returning to dump more buckets of water on us than felt appropriate given we were in a desert climate.
After this, we were given robes and slippers and ushered to a darkened room for massages, where we received an hour of standard, if a little timid, massage. A few minutes to sip our complimentary mint tea, and we were done. Sixty dollars for two hours of spa experience for two? Unbelievable. We’ve got to do this again, we told ourselves, although probably next time we’ll have less weird eye contact.
Little did we know.
A few days later in the beach town of Essaouira, we were ready for another hammam and massage, but after learning that someone else paid a lower price in Marrakech, I was determined not to get ripped off again. Since I needed to get a haircut anyway, I would forgo the massage portion; after discussion, we felt a fair price to pay for a hammam for each of us and a massage for Renee was 400 dirham ($40). A man approached us on the street asking if we were interested in hammam, which we were, and he began escorting us to what appeared to be a nice hammam about a ten minute walk away. When we arrived, I started negotiating, and after threatening to walk away (my go to negotiating tactic), they agreed to our price of 400 dirham. But then they told us it would be a thirty minute wait, as someone else was in the hammam currently. UNACCEPTABLE! I marched us out of (reiterating for emphasis) a VERY nice hammam as I REFUSE TO WAIT!
Almost immediately after leaving, we saw a small sign directing us to a hammam offering a hammam and massage for 300 dirham, and I was sure we could work out the same price for the services we wanted in this other hammam. We entered through a sliding glass door into what could only be described as a shabby waiting room, being greeted quickly and told that yes, we could have a hammam for two and massage for one for 400 dirham, and yes, we could enter immediately, just let her run some water. FANTASTIC! My expert negotiating had won out.
Not so much.
Turns out the “water running” process took about twenty minutes, so it was now clear that we had downgraded from what appeared to be a very nice hammam to what was clearly a very shabby enterprise and were still paying the same price and waiting the same amount of time. This is what we like to call a “Classic Josh & Renee”, balking at something we really want, only to pay the same price or more for a shittier version of the same thing.
So once the water has finished running, we enter the hammam and it smells. Not terrible, but enough for both of us to notice, and if you’ve ever sat in a steamy, slightly smelly room, it’s not that fun. We had basically the same experience as we had with Your Mom, but there was no awkward eye contact and MUCH MORE time in between the steps. She would literally leave us sitting in this smelly, steamy room for almost fifteen minutes. Every time she would be gone, we would sit awkwardly (Just to be clear, we’re in our underwear), covered in soap, and ask if she had forgotten about us. EVERY TIME. Once the phone rang, and she left to answer it; this is the kind of service we’re talking about.
Once the hammam was finished, and let me be clear, even with all the weird elongated pauses in our washing and scrubbing, the hammam was still AWESOME. Even a bad hammam is still pretty terrific; it leaves both your skin glowing and your entire body feeling refreshed. Again. It’s another person pouring buckets of crazy-hot-but-not-quite-hot-enough-to-burn-you water over you again and again and again. It’s fantastic.
I didn’t get to experience the massage, but Renee gave me some highlights:
- Masseuse didn’t leave the room when she made Renee take off her underwear (GREAT START).
- The face hole was too big, so she was essentially choking herself the entire massage.
- Left multiple times, she would rub Renee's leg for 3-4 minutes, then leave for 7-8 minutes. Every time she would leave, the “laptop starting up” noise would happen.
- During one of the masseuse’s many exits, Renee assumed the massage was over, got up, got dressed, and left the room. She walked out and the masseuse was playing what Renee insists was SimCity 2000 on her laptop. She did not seem embarrassed.
So, let this post be a VERY wordy lesson to you. If you go to Morocco, you absolutely must go to/have a hammam. At the very least, you will have some great stories to tell your friends. Just make sure you negotiate your price, don’t be afraid to ask advice from someone you trust, and please, whatever you do, don’t pull a Classic Josh & Renee. Just go with the first hammam.