SIDE ORDERS

Marrakech Hammam: What's the Scrub?

(Andrea Sachs)

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

WHAT: Bain Majorelle, a Moroccan hammam, or bathhouse.

WHERE: In the Ville Nouvelle of Marrakech, outside the medina.

WHY GO: To soak, scrub and socialize -- then repeat.

Bathing usually is a simple operation, but in a Moroccan hammam, it's not your typical rub-a-dub-dub.

First, there's no tub, just a honeycomb of tiled rooms with streaming faucets and perspiring walls. The multi-step cleansing technique requires a chemist's brew of hot and cold water, olive oil soap and a mud-like paste. You need to know when to douse and when to drench, when to scrub and when to soak. If you do it right, you'll walk out of the sweat chamber relaxed and glowing. Do it wrong and, well, you should've just stayed in your own bathroom.

Most Moroccans know the drill, since they've been visiting hammams since they could fit inside a bucket -- a common sight at the facility. On any day, from early morning to late evening, you can see men in traditional jallabas, women trailing children and best girlfriends dragging their toiletry-filled buckets to the ubiquitous hammams.

To be sure, the popular outposts are more than just a place to get "a good soak, steam and scrub, and to exfoliate your skin like a snake," explained Latif, my Marrakech guide. Descended from Roman baths and modeled after Turkish baths, the hammams were originally patronized by Moroccans whose homes lacked indoor plumbing. The baths also are rooted in the Islamic ritual of ablution: Muslims wash distinct parts of their body before their daily prayers. With modernization, though, the hammams have morphed into soak-and-socialize centers; indeed, at Majorelle, the chatter flowed like tap water.

Each hammam's appeal (read: sanitary factor) varies immensely. Some are undeniably dirty, with dank surroundings and hairballs. Others are hospital-clean and modern, such as Majorelle, which shares the name of the nearby Oriental gardens that were planted during the French protectorate and are now owned by fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent. High-end hotels also have hammams, but many are often solitary and silent. That sounded like my boring-old bathroom at home; I wanted company in the shower.

"Here you are with Moroccans," said Latif, as he led me to the women's entrance at Majorelle. "It is traditional. I go at least once a week."

For the uninitiated, hammams can befuddle: Do you soap first or use the mask? Cold water, then hot, or vice versa? And the biggest question: naked or beach attire? And if the latter, European or American?

Fortunately, the all-inclusive package (cost: about $9) includes a fairy godmother with a magic bucket. Mine was Rabia, a doughy Mother Earth type in droopy white bikini bottoms. Taking my hand, Rabia led me to the largest room in the back, where half-naked women sat behind a fortress of buckets, scrubbing their bellies, brushing their wet hair, shaving their legs.

Rabia filled a scoop with the henna-clay mixture and mimed for me to paint myself cocoa brown. Covered in the sludge, I waited for her return. And waited. I wrote "HELP" on my muddy leg, but the woman next to me spoke only Arabic.

Eventually Rabia returned, drowned me under a waterfall, then escorted me to the middle chamber. She then busied herself with filling buckets (my cache had grown from one to three). I was then slowly spun around as she scrubbed all of my angles with a Brillo-like mitt; I could feel my snake skin shedding. More rinsing and lathering followed, this time with a supple olive oil soap that oozed like warm caramel. Then, a massage.

After nearly an hour of cleansing, scrubbing and kneading, all that remained was the finale: the ceremonious dumping of the bucket over my head.

Rosy red, I was ready to plunge back into the grit of Marrakech. As I gathered my belongings, Rabia handed me a parting gift: my mitt scraper. Now all I needed was a bucket.

-- Andrea Sachs

At Bain Majorelle (Rouidate 3 No. 57, Marrakech), a full hammam includes supplies, gommage, massage and tip, and costs about $9. Shower only costs $1.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company


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