Nov 13, 2006

A Fes to Remember

As I lay face down and half-naked on the warm wet floor - my buttocks being heartily loofahed by an ancient-looking topless masseuse, and being carefully watched over by two nubile air hostesses wearing only G-strings - I thought to myself:

"Well, this is not what I expected to be doing in Morocco!"

I'm talking, ladies and gentlemen, not of a sudden foray into low-budget pornography, but of my Saturday evening in a hammam, or traditional Moroccan bath.

We arrived in Fes - once the capital of the country and still reknowned as its spiritual and gastronomic heart - on Friday night, after a long mini-bus ride up from the Sahara Desert (where we beaten the floods and food poisioning to make an awesome desert sunrise and camel ride). We spent Saturday in the company of Hakima, a famous local guide (she's even listed in the Morocco Lonely Planet), touring the even more famous Fes medina. Inside the walls of Old Fes exist over 10 000 streets. Street is actually a misleading description, as most would struggle to qualify as crawl space, and one can easily get lost, or worse, barrelled over by one of the many donkeys that replace cars as the vehicle of choice for moving merchandise inside the medina.

Our visit included trips to see: carpet-making (my goodness, but the girls are fast with their knot-tying - watching them string their Australian merino wool into memorised patterns was like watching a harpist on amphetamines); the tanneries (where they dye leather after soaking it in a scrumptious batch of pigeon poo); the weaving (pretty scarves made out of cactus silk!); and the herbalist (who made a small fortune out of my love of yummy smelling things for my skin).

So after all that most of the group felt like they needed to relax - it was only as we walked into the hammam to pay that I realised I was the only girl going in. The sexes bathe in different rooms, and understandably I was nervous. Actually, terrified would be more accurate - especially after I realised Moroccan women didn't seem to share my body hang-ups and were letting it all...well, hang out. Boobs everywhere! Once I stripped down to my athing suit and entered the steam rooms, I didn't know where to look or what to do. I had paid 50 dirhams (about 8 bucks) for a steam and a massage, but with my knowledge or Arabic and French extremely limited, I was having trouble working out what I was supposed to do, beynd nabbing myself a few buckets filled with hot water.

Then Allah smiled on me. Two gorgeous young women asked if I would like to sit with them. "Yes, please!" I cried in relief. They turned out to be Miriam and Schiamae, two flight attendants with Royal Air Maroc. They offered me cleansers and shampoos, and made sure I eventually got my massage. While we waited, I asked them about their lives as young Muslim women - they said that Morocco was quite liberal, and they could live their lives as they pleased. This included having boyfriends, although they respect their families by leaving cohabitation until after marriage. They also reinforced the fact that wearing the hijab is a Muslim women's own choice - and that in Islam it's whats in your heart that counts. (Although they did admit that life is harsher in other countries like Iran). I spoke a bit about Australia, and admitted once again ashamedly that I don't speak a second language.

All the while the two girls were topless.

Now I say this not just to be titillating, but to show the friendly social nature of the hammam. It's a place where you can just be - no clothes, no worries. Still, I was clinging on to the hope that I could keep my bikini top on during my massage - even though Miriam had started being pummelled and loofahed all over while we were speaking.

Then it was my turn.

My masseuse lady arrived, bring more buckets of hot and cold water. She grabbed some olive soap and pushed me to the floor, face up. She pulled down the straps of my biki top then wham! down came the whole thing, right to my midriff. Eeek! I was bare-chested! However I was now in the hands of this woman, and I had no choice but to obey her commands of sit up, lie down, roll over. She rubbed me all over with the soap, then poured buckets of water over me to rinse. She then grabbed some of Schiamae's Pantene, and scrubbed at my head. More buckets. She disappeared for a moment, and I asked Schiamae if it was over.

"No, you must wait. There is more."

She came back with more water and a loofah, pushed me to the floor again, and got to work. Scruff, scruff, scruff. My skin hadn't felt that sort of treatment since...ever. I exfoliate at home but not with such force! She loofahed my legs, arms, torso and yes, buttocks and breasts. For someone like me, who spends most of her time trying to cover up those parts of my body, it was confronting being so exposed. I wouldn't say it was liberating (once a prude, always a prude), but I can see the enjoyment local women derive from it. Nobody was judging me; nobody cared. That's always a good realisation.

The scrub ended with another bucket dousing, and then I bade farewell to my new flight attendant friends. After being scared to go in alone, I'm glad I did, as I met two great Moroccan women and really got to mix it with the locals.

Oh yeah, and my skin was nice and soft, too. ;)


  1. I'm glad to hear you had a safe adventure, even if it was a tad confronting! It reminds me a bit of my couple of visit to the Korean baths right here in Brisbane town. I went with a group of friends (good ones, obviously) and we all were naked, once you get past that, it was a fun and terrifically girlie bonding (read that correctly - no mid word "g" :P) thing to do... maybe you should come next time! *wink*

    I hope you both continue to have fun and we can catch up when you get back!

  2. i bet you had never felt so clean and your had a good night's sleep.
    Don't worry about modesty G was baring all the they all had a good look of him in Turkey!

  3. I,ll come too!

    sounds great!


  4. i wanna go the bath's with all the naked ladies and do some bonding! (stupid decency laws!)...



  5. Hey Nats,
    The bath sounds great. Closest thing we have over here is a swim in the pool!
    Have fun

  6. Aha! You just became a star on The View from Fez!

  7. Fantastic post! Got the link from The View from Fez.

    That about sums up the hammam, indeed. I went for the first time with my now-husband's mother (we were just friends back then). HOW AWKWARD!

  8. I'll always remember Fes! Fes is a city that one cannot fail to be passionate about. The addictive essence of the pounding medina drips into one's veins like a drug that forever leaves you with a thirst to feel more, to dig deeper. A single visit can never be enough. This is Morocco's religious capital, its cultural capital, business capital with variety of Morocco property and its culinary capital (breakfasts that you'll never forget), and its frenzied pace and enormity provide an interesting contrast to the laid-back village, by comparison, which is Marrakech.