Every neighborhood in Fez typically has a communal bread oven, a fountain, a mosque, a school and a hammam. The hammam in my neighborhood is absolutely fabulous.
The hammam serves a practical function: to get clean. Very, very clean. It also serves a social function. Women catch up with their neighbors and kids play around with their siblings and friends. My host sister chats with me and those around us, and seems to always see a friend or two.
I’ve been in Fez for 12 days and the hammam has already become the highlight of my week. My host sister goes once every 7 to 15 days, and I’ve happily joined her twice.
Going to the hammam is an all-evening commitment. First, I gather my supplies for the hammam: a big bucket, stool, small scoop, basket with razor, toothbrush and as many soaps and shampoos as possible.
Once in the hammam, I strip down to my underwear (sans bra) in the changing room and claim a space in one of the three tiled interior rooms; one with a cold water tap, one with a hot water tap, and the last with an unbearably hot tap. My host sister and I have always taken our place in the middle room. The hammam attendant fills our buckets from the taps and re-fills them as I scoop water from the larger buckets using my little heart-shaped bucket. We place down a plastic mat and sit on our stools, backs to the wall, buckets in front of us.
Then the process begins. First, a soap-up with a mixture of traditional black soap made from olive oil and henna and rinse. (Henna used this way doesn’t stain the skin, though it does stain the underwear, as I’ve found.) Then, using the black, rough washcloth, I spend about 15 minutes scrubbing myself down, both delighted and disgusted all at once to see dead skin exfoliated off in spaghetti-like pieces. I am practically in heaven when the attendant takes my mitt from me and scrubs my back. Then follows more soaping, washing, brushing, and rinsing.
This whole process takes me and my host sister about two hours. We take our time getting dressed while drinking water and chatting with the other women in the dressing room, then carefully make our way home.