Getting Awkwardly Naked in Morocco
Jess O’Callaghan gets nekkid:
I barely know how to handle myself in the changing room of a swimming pool in Australia, where women huddle against the wall and slip their underwear back on up under their towels. What if somebody thinks I’m looking at them for too long? What if I am looking at them for too long, zoned out, thinking about what I need to buy for dinner on the way home? Where do I put my hands now? Awkward awkward awkward.
I’m letting you know how awkward I am in naked situations (in all situations), so that if you ever go to Morocco, or Turkey, or anywhere with a hamam or bathing house, you experience it for yourself. If I can muddle my way through without collapsing of awkward onto the soapy hamam floor, then you can definitely enjoy yourself too.
The hamam I venture into is in Fes, Morocco. Between 12 and 7pm it’s used by the ladies, so I follow some until I find the correct tiled door. I buy 1 dirham of soap and follow a pajama-clad woman into what looks like a house but smells like a shower. I’ve entered the hamam, and it’s time to get naked.
The air is thick with the smell of cleaning bleach and the black soap, made of olive oil. I keep my knickers on (like the internet told me to) and everything else comes off. If I hadn’t read that, I would sure be entirely naked in my efforts to act cool, like I do this hamam thing all the time.
I pay my 50dh and another 5 for borrowing all the things – the mat, scoop, bucket and brush. I fold all my clothes into my handbag, to be kept in a room off to the side of the front chamber, where we are all changing.
An old lady, one of the few wearing pants, takes me by the elbow the moment my bra is off and my bag’s stowed away, hustling me into the second chamber. Women are laughing, water is splashing and there are breasts swinging everywhere. She takes the shampoo and soap from my hands and disappears, leaving me awkward, in the doorway, wondering where to put my hands.
I shuffle around a little, trying not to look directly at anyone. When I catch someone’s eye I smile, and they either look quickly away or stare back, confused. Some are filling buckets, some are brushing each other’s hair, and then she’s back, my old lady, grabbing my elbow and steering me to the corner full of children.
She pushes me down to kneel, on a mat, gestures to the bucket in front of me and disappears again.
I sit, naked. I’m Alice in Wonderland, oversized in the world of pre-pubescent girls, but I’m not foreign anymore. I feel invisible. I’m just another kid to be scrubbed down.
I touch the water in the bucket she had gestured to, gingerly, then draw my hand back out, unsure. The girl next to me shakes her head, that I’m doing it wrong, and whispers, out the side of her mouth, in French. I can’t understand a word of it, but I smile, and put my hands on my knees instead of in the bucket. She nods, and then turns to me properly.
She’s the eldest in our corner, eight at the most. What is your name? she asks, and with a flashback to year seven French class I understand. Je m’appelle Jess, I reply, with the Je as in Jess and the Mappelle as in syrup, which I can tell is wrong but don’t know how to correct. She giggles, a baby tooth missing from the front of her mouth and an adult tooth growing up in its place.
Aliah, she tells me, pointing to herself, telling me her name.
She tosses water down her front with a pink, heart-shaped paddle from the water I’d incorrectly stuck my hand in earlier, and seeing me shiver she tosses some down the front of me too, less to wash either of us, more to keep warm. The air is thick but we’re naked and damp and the water is warmer than both of us.
My lady is back – without reassuring smiles like Aliah. I recognise her now, apart from all the others, flowered pants rolled up at the ankles to keep out of the water, breasts swinging around the elastic at her waist and a prominent chin.
She points to the mat, where I’m meant to sit, but I’ve been wrong before. I glance back at Aliah and she nods, encouraging. I’m just across the room, she is saying with her smile, and I give her a look of half fear and half excitement. Her laugh bounces around the tiled room. I sit on the mat, next to my shampoo, and return to the question of where to put my hands, not wanting to touch another bucket that’s not mine.
There are four in front of me, each with a different temperature of water. My lady adds a fifth, and, seeing that I don’t get it, gathers a scoop full of water and tosses it over my head. My fringe is plastered to my forehead. She throws another over her own shoulder, so it splashes down her back, in demonstration.
Satisfied, she leaves me again, alone with my bucket.
Aliah throws water on herself, to show me it’s ok and I copy for a while, looking about self-consciously. Then my lady is back, with more hot water, and she pushes a fistful of my black gunky soap into my hand. She’s pleased with my progress, I think. Pleased by the fact that I am no longer moving my hands from my hips to waist to my hair to the floor to other people’s buckets, or trying to look nonchalantly at all the nakedness.
But I’m sitting wrong, she decides, and pushes me by the shoulders, further to the mat, so I’m folded down, calves tucked uncomfortably under my bum.
My soap is gone, and I’m back to wondering what to do with my limbs, where to look, what to touch. I always expected that in a hamam my breasts would be the most awkward body part, or the pasty expanse of my torso, but never my hands, desperate always to know what they are doing. It’s the same feeling I get at an awkward party when I haven’t got a glass of wine or a dress with pockets.
I look at Aliah again, but her eyes are turned towards the ceiling, while her mother brushes shampoo through her hair. She wears not so much as a grimace, and I think with shame of the pink rubbery visor I insisted on wearing until I was much too old for one, to keep the shampoo suds out of my eyes while mum washed my own hair, and the fuss I kicked up if it was pulled by a brush.
I feel like eight-year-old me whispered in bad French to Aliah and twenty-two year old me up and left the room half an hour ago, pulled her jeans back on and left the hamam altogether.
Another lady wearing cuffed up pants pushes orange peels past me with a broom, and I watch until my lady is back and suddenly there is no more time to think about where to put my hands.
She’s scrubbing my arms, the coarse mitt rubbing black rolls of skin off my body and onto the floor. My hand is anywhere she pulls it, on her shoulder, against her breast, above my head so she can reach under my arms, on the floor so she can grind the mitt into the skin of my back.
She stands up and takes the bucket into the next room for a refill of hot water, while I sit there, properly on the mat now, tangled up in limbs like a newborn horse. I try to turn around to see where she has gone, but get a scoop-full of water in my face.
Shampoo splutters into my hair, and she tutts out a laugh, perhaps at the fruity smell which seems ridiculous in the room full of black olive soap, not at all what hair should smell like. I try to keep my adult face as stoic as Aliah’s little one, eyes closed, deep breathes before each rinse comes, tumbling over my mouth and nose like being dunked in the ocean.
Then she shows me, again, to rinse, warming the water with the newest bucket. I catch my breath after all the hair rinsing and smile at her, trying not to look too triumphant.
She pulls me to my feet and leads me back to the front chamber. The lady who sits with the bags hands me my towel and I pull back on all my clothes. I still feel unbelievably like a child, and I feel an odd fleeting panic when the lady who washed me turns to leave.
“Thank you!” I say, perhaps too enthusiastically, wanting her to understand. I say it again, in the worst accented Moroccan-Arabic, Shoo-cree-an and then Merci, Merci, trying to think of how much thanks is appropriate when someone has just scrubbed you clean. Surely more than I’m giving.
She just seems amused, barks a laugh and nods, accepting the thanks as quickly as she can and disappearing back into the rooms that are kept humid, escaping the bite of the air in the change room.
I don’t see Aliah again until an hour later, out on the street, a few blocks away. I’m writing, in the front of a cafe, happy and clean, watching as people walk back from the medina.
Her damp hair has been pulled back into a braid and she’s wearing a dark denim jacket and pajama pants, swinging her mum’s hand as they walk along. She catches my eye gives me a grin, with a baby-tooth gap and a secretive wave three-fingered wave.
I’m freckled and pale and being charged too much for bad coffee and I’m far from home and speak none of the languages and I’m all on my own, but she knows my secret – that I’m only pretending, with my glasses and coffee and nonchalance. She knows I’m only eight-years-old as well.
Words by Jess O’Callaghan