IN THE HAMMAM
jane bernstein

What a disappointment we were to the proprietor of our riad, one of two English brothers who’d restored an ancient Sultan’s residence into a guesthouse, filling it with art and furnishings as well as Buddha heads, small fountains strewn with rose petals, and offerings left in the shrines. He greeted my daughter Charlotte and me on our arrival in Marrakech, ready to arrange whatever we desired — a guide to take us through the medina, advice on the best places to shop for leather good or rugs. But all we wanted to know was where to find the nearest hammam, the public bathhouse. We knew the hammam was central to peoples’ lives in Islamic countries, where cleanliness — ritual purity — compelled them to do their ablutions before entering a mosque. Bathing with the local women might be the closest glimpse we’d have of everyday life.

He did his best to stifle his response — our bathroom was as elegant as the rest of the riad — then walked us onto the narrow dirt road, through the gates to the medina, and pointed to a nearby dome. Bikes and motorbikes whizzed past, and donkeys carrying planks of wood or sacks of grain. The hammam is never marked, he said. To find it, we had to first locate the mosque, easy to spot because of the dome. On a street just to the side we’d find the hammam.

Charlotte looped her arm through mine when we set out on the dusty street a short time later. There was so much life going on around us, old people squatting beside heaps of mint, and boys carrying unbaked bread on boards held high above their heads. In the stalls, the merchants sold bread, candy, and eggs. The dust and crows, the bloody hanging slabs of meat, the smell of mint and toasted nuts, the zigzagging motorbikes — it was mesmerizing and exhausting. Several times, Charlotte pulled me away from oncoming traffic.

“Walking with you is like walking with a blind person,” she had complained the year before. Now she took my arm in a protective way, as if worried that I would get crushed by a donkey’s wide load or run down by a motorbike. Feeling her concern reminded me that she was a young woman and that I was middle-aged. Though I was still vigorous, it was as if I had become vulnerable in her eyes, as if for the first time she was seeing me as mortal. This small shift in our relationship reminded me how long we’d be apart when our trip was over. After a few days in Marrakech, we had plans to trek in the High Atlas Mountains. We knew we’d most likely travel next to Fes and that at the end of the trip, on the morning after her twenty-fourth birthday, we’d say goodbye and in all likelihood not see each other again for nine months. What unsettled me wasn’t simply that she would be traveling alone in India, but that for the first month she would be in a remote village that had no electricity, no phone or internet, no way for me to hear her voice or know she was okay.

Later in the day, we tried to find the hammam the proprietor of our riad had shown us. Several times, fooled by tiled walls, we stumbled through doorways, expecting to see the entrance to the bathhouse, and found ourselves in a tailor’s shop or a place that dry-cleaned djellabahs. It wasn’t until the end of the day that we found the unmarked entrance to the hammam.

We returned that evening with shampoo, a small bar of soap, and the towels and rubber shower mat borrowed from our riad. We paid our fee of seven dirham (about seventy-five cents) at the entrance and found the room with the benches along the wall, where we changed out of our street clothes, and then the storage area, tended by an older woman. We left our bags with her, remembering a little belatedly the tip, then stepped into the cool room and saw the stacked black buckets and cups beside the spigots. Beyond that was the hot room, half full of bathing women. We could hear their soft voices reverberating.

Even though it was exactly as our guidebooks had described, we felt lost and stood by the cistern, naked and confused until a pretty young woman in black bikini underpants showed us what to do. Fill the big bucket with steaming water. Go ahead. All this she explained with gestures. Now fill a second bucket. Like that — yes. Take the cups. Two of them. Don’t be shy. Her attitude was amused, a little surprised, never mocking.
The women in the hot room sat on mats against the walls, washing with their scrub mitts and chatting. The girls wore pretty underpants; the older women were completely naked, as we were. The eldest of us sat in a queenly way in the center of the room with her legs straight out, her long ropy hair hanging loose, gesturing, observing everyone, offering up comments. This is the way it’s supposed to be, I thought. The way it is, except in the U.S., where no benefits came with cronehood. None I’d ever seen, at least.

All day I had been self-conscious, embarrassed by my toddler-level French, my ignorance, and my propensity for wandering cluelessly as I absorbed myself in the sights. Here I was just another naked woman. Although I was whiter, skinnier, and smaller breasted — sickly looking to the others, I supposed — I felt comfortable squatting in the corner of this steamy, echoey room.

Charlotte and I had just begun to splash ourselves with water and wash with the small bar of soap from the riad when the woman in the black bikinis hurried over to correct us. The black bucket is for clean water only, she managed to convey. After you soap yourself up, use the scoops to rinse yourself off. She wrinkled her nose. You don’t want to pollute the water in the black buckets, she seemed to say.

It was as if we had never bathed ourselves, the way we got everything wrong.

I offered to wash Charlotte’s hair and back, something I hadn’t done since she was a baby. It was so nice to shampoo her hair and rub the soap across her smooth, broad back. I liked being a woman in a world of women, a mother scrubbing her daughter’s skin.
When I was finished, the crone gestured impatiently to Charlotte, and she washed my hair next. Then we rinsed off a last time and got up, leaving the other women languidly scrubbing their bodies with coarse mitts.

We walked all the next day, veering from carts, hugging the walls when motorbikes zipped by or donkeys trotted past with wide loads. We bought mats and flip-flops in the souk and scrub mitts, coarse as the nylon scouring pads I used on scorched pots, and in late afternoon, stopped for sandwiches from a vendor, warm bread stuffed with hardboiled eggs and potatoes doused in fragrant olive oil. Charlotte told me that India was only the start of her journey. She wanted to live outside the U.S., maybe in Spain, and go to film school in England or Australia. She yearned to have an international life, like so many of the people she admired. Also, she needed to move. When she was traveling she felt most alive.

I felt that she was speaking with a kind of self-knowledge unusual in someone her age, that what she said wasn’t a dream that would be forgotten in a week, so I listened, saying little in response.

That night, we brought our bathing items to a different hammam in the neighborhood adjacent to our riad. Here, naked toddlers sat on small plastic chairs in the second room, toys scattered everywhere, their mothers taking turns watching them. As I washed Charlotte’s back and she washed mine, we saw that going to the hammam wasn’t simply about getting clean, despite the hammam’s religious origins. It was a place to scrub every inch of your own skin with those coarse mitts — to exfoliate, yes! — and just as much a place to wash your neighbor’s back, your mother’s hair, your sister’s baby; it was a place to linger and relax, to share news and gossip. “Arabic newspaper,” a guide had called it, laughing. The showers we took at home, quick and perfunctory, were fast food compared to this. The hammam was al fresco dinner on a summer night, something to be savored with family and friends.

Later, when we were reading in bed under dim light, our conversation about traveling came to mind. I thought about my grandmother, who had emigrated to the U.S. from Moldava as a young married woman. Given the nature of the daughters she produced, I had to imagine she had a strong, if not dominant, voice in the journey she and her family made. I thought of my mother, the youngest in her family, who as a child read of distant places she yearned to see. In her eighties, when little engaged her, my mother still talked about her trips with pleasure, calling travel the best part of her life. I was different. Rooted was the way I described myself, though in my twenties I had lived in London for over a year and since then had yearned for the chance to take a leave of absence from my everyday life. It had taken me many years to able to do this again, but in the winter, while Charlotte was in India, I would leave for Tel Aviv on a Fulbright. Now, when I looked at the four generations, it seemed as if my grandmother had traveled out of necessity, my mother traveled to walk the streets that had been described in the novels she’d loved, I traveled to have a second life, different from my usual life, and Charlotte, lying near me in this small, artfully decorated room, saw travel as a fundamental part of her life, the whole world a place she wanted to live. I wondered if, as the dreams of women were given more chance to flower, our options became bolder. Wasn’t it good? I thought, feeling achy inside. Wasn’t I pleased to have raised a daughter who knew what she wanted and would let nothing get in the way of the journey she needed to make?

§

Bathing in the hammam was such a source of pleasure that when we read about Moulay Yacoub, a small spa town an hour or so outside Fes, famous for its sulfur water, it sounded like a kind of hammam heaven. We packed our mats and mitts and took a grand taxi from Fes, a ramshackle beige Mercedes Benz, stuffed with riders clutching plaid carryalls bulging with towels.

Fes is a harsher, grimier, poorer city than Marrakech. The mazelike souks in this ancient walled city, seat of Islamic culture, made those in Marrakech seem almost serene. The weather had turned cold the day we walked on the outskirts of the city, where the shops were beneath tents. People picked through rotten vegetables strewn in the street, and Charlotte was gloomy. I could feel our trip drawing to an end.

Moulay Yacob is situated on a hillside. The taxi let us off at the top of the broad steps that even the donkeys are forced to descend. At every level the shops that sold towels and flip-flops were empty. The inflatable pool toys mounted high blew in the prickly wind.

The famous spa described in the guidebooks was at the very bottom of the town, a modern building bracketed by topiary. Few cars were in the vast parking lot.

Inside, behind a sleek counter, an officious young woman in what looked like a flight attendant’s uniform handed us sheets that listed services and tariffs in Arabic and French. There was a pool and a private spa, where we could schedule a facial and a massage, a “vaporarium” where we might steam, and private whirlpools to soak. We could pick and choose or purchase a package and do it all.

“Is there a hammam?” I asked in a tentative way.

The receptionist looked at me blankly, as if the word was unfamiliar to her.

 “Hammam?” I tried again. A place where we could wash together? “Meme chambre?” My French was so dreadful.

I began to see that it was not confusion on her face but a kind of disdain. I would find no proletarian hammam at this renowned spa, where people came to be pampered and to experience the healing powers of the sulfur water.

Okay, non, merci. Au revoir. And up the broad steps we went, to the highest part of town, where we were told we could find the hammam.

We paid the state-regulated fee and found a large public pool filled with murky tan water. Clots of hair were on the tile floor, and the rotten-egg smell of sulfur filled the air. Again it was non, merci. And au revoir.

Mostly because we’d taken a taxi here and didn’t know what else to do, we returned to the famous spa, and paid our tariffs for the vaporarium and the whirlpool — about fifty times more than the cost of the hammam.

An attendant in a white nurse’s uniform gave us white hooded robes and rubber slippers made for delicate feet much smaller than ours. We took a quick trip through the vaporarium, which so closely resembled an abandoned subway station, with its arched ceiling and crusty walls, that I expected to see the bright eyes of rats staring from the distance. When we emerged, a second attendant escorted us down a tile corridor into a room lined with a long row of windowless doors. She adjusted some valves with a giant wrench, unlocked the door to one of the rooms and then the next, and gestured for us to enter.

Charlotte stepped into one small tiled room, and the attendant shut the door behind her. Then I did the same. The room was as dim as a cell and hardly bigger than the tub. The murky water was up to the rim. I shucked off my robe and stepped into the chilly water. I felt the churning jets against my skin, watched the water burble and rise, never quite overflowing, and began to fret about my daughter’s well-being.

“Charlotte?” I called.

All I could hear was the churning water.

“Char?”

I looked at the tile walls and wondered how much time I had to stay in the tub. I didn’t know if someone would open the door and let me out, or if it was a decision I was expected to make myself. The clammy water bubbled away. I couldn’t imagine what Charlotte was thinking in the next cell. It was hard to believe she was finding this pleasant, but I had no way of being sure. Already she felt so far away. In two days we would return to Casablanca. I would accompany her to the bus station and wait while she boarded a bus to Spain, the initial leg of her long journey to India. It would be the first day of her twenty-fourth year.

I considered what she had told me about traveling. How clear she had been about both what she wanted and what she needed. If I had been able to take my own mother’s arm on a city street when I was twenty-four, I could have said that I yearned to be a writer, but not that I took pleasure in making sentences, or that, like a puppeteer, I needed to create something like life and see it played out. I had no idea that separate from my desire to write was a need to work alone.

Now I had a daughter who was a seeker. Where I needed a room of my own, she needed to travel. Alone in the cool, smelly water, stewing in my own juices, I thought how fortunate she was to know herself so well, to be able to pursue what was necessary to live how and where she wanted. Wasn’t she fortunate to have these freedoms? And wasn’t I fortunate to have mine?

What more could I want, I asked myself in that tiled cell, where I’d been left to contemplate my mortal flesh. Did I wish instead that we could live in the same town and meet in the bathhouse, so I could wash the hair and scrub the smooth golden skin of my grown-up daughter? Did I wish we could be beside each other, part of an unbroken chain of women, instead of women who got on steamships and traveled across oceans, far from their cultures and homes? Oh I did; I really did. More than anything in the world.

 

Jane Bernstein’s fifth book, Rachel in the World, was just reiussed in paperback, and her essays have been published in many journals and magazines, from Brevity to the New York Times Magazine. She teaches creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University.