She was clad in multi-coloured clashing Lycra. A tea-towel was wrapped around her head and her small belly strained against her swimsuit, which was layered over a pair of knee length cycling shorts. Ducking our heads to enter the changing room myself and my two girl friends stood in our bikinis ready for the wash-down.
As we stepped across into the bathhouse, or hammam, the Moroccan woman, who had earlier been cleaning our room, waved us back with her arms and motioned for us to take off our swimwear. The intense 45 degree heat, the mayhem and dust of Marrakesh, had led us to the hammam. A traditional Muslim bath, the hammam is a social event as well as a deep, skin-shedding clean.After an initial, very British hesitation, we whipped off our bikinis and shuffled into the tiny tiled room wearing the Emperor’s clothes. With three of us to be scrubbed down and only one lady to wash us, everything had to be done in turn. This meant the other two women either played a limited game of ‘I spy’ with the tiled interior of the hammam or watched the third member of our group being covered in black soap, washed down and then scrubbed vigorously with an abrasive pad while lying down completely naked on the floor.
The scene reminded me of a team of environmentalists leaning over a beached whale rubbing it (or whatever it is they do) and pouring water over them in an attempt to keep their temperature from rising before they roll them back into the sea.
We had opted for the private bath, shying away from the public gathering — hot water is still considered a luxury for many Moroccans and weekly bathing rituals are normally performed in public hammams. Rows of dimpled bums sit waiting their turn while fresh-cheeked ones, half their age, stride confidently across the hammam to collect clean warm water. In our hammam, at the bottom of the riad we were staying in, it was just the three of us and the Moroccan woman dressed like Mrs Motivator.
The giggles started almost immediately, erupting as each of us was woman-handled and scrubbed in full view of the others. Buckets of water are frequently thrown over you as rolls of scrubbed off skin get washed away. Arms and hands, which had been making vain attempts to hide busts and other more private parts, began to relax as the pointlessness of trying to hold onto any remaining dignity became apparent.
Mrs Motivator had seen it all many times before. The comedy of the hammam was further fuelled by our difficulties communicating with Mrs Motivator.
Her attempts to instruct us in pidgin French and Arabic ended up with her physically moving us around the room like puppets with arms often left aloft, hanging motionless in the air while we tried to work out if she was going to scrub our armpits. The last person to wash me like that was my mother — and I was very young.
But the subject of the hammam proved an ice breaker as we travelled around Morocco and swapped experiences with other European faces. One handsome blue-eyed Danish man acted out his hammam experience (unfortunately he was fully clothed) and said in perfect English: “I didn’t understand what he was trying to tell me to do and so he slapped me on the backside to try to get me to move.” Undeterred by having his bottom cupped by a Moroccan pensioner, he was returning to the hammam the following morning. Despite the hilarity largely brought about by embarrassment, the hammam did leave me with impossibly clean skin which was amazingly soft. Only this week I recounted my hammam experience to my two male housemates, as we settled down for a takeaway and movie night. Far from seeing the embarrassment or the hilarity of the situation they immediately banded about ideas for a new porn show and asked if we could introduce Thursday night bath nights at the house. Perhaps we Brits are more liberal than we think.