Hot and cold running buckets and your ego scrubbed away; the women’s hammam in mediaeval Fez is a different kind of spa experience.
I’m standing with three other women, two French, one English-speaking Italian; all strangers, all naked, and trying not to stare. Fatima, who has just relieved us of our clothes and personal items, grasps my hand and pulls rather than leads me into an echoing tiled hall whose high vaulted ceiling is lost in shadows. I have just entered the women’s hammam, the public baths in the mediaeval walled Medina of Fez, and something tells me it’s not going to be relaxing.
In the main hall, another 30 or 40 naked and glistening women are going through their beauty routines. Some of them bathe alone, others take turns dashing water from sagging plastic buckets at each other. One squeal registers hot water, two squeals cold. The hammam space is large but contains no showers or shelves, towels or mirrors, nowhere to sit except the floor. When the big buckets of water are empty, bathers refill them at the hot or cold taps either side of an adjoining room. Many, though not all, of the buckets have handles.
As I study the green tiled walls with intense interest, a big dark-haired woman with breasts like boulders reaches up from her cross-legged position and pulls me down to join her on the slimy floor, arranging me face up, everything up. It’s time for my hammam experience.
Rashida is chief tayeba, or bather, and biggest fish in the steamy shallows of the hammam. I’ve seen my new Euro-companions prodded and pummeled, soaped and squeezed and splashed like toddlers. As I join in their shrieks of laughter, I’m busy running escape scenarios but one look at Rashida and I know I’m not going anywhere. You don’t argue with Rashida and not only because you can’t speak Arabic. With my head resting in her lap, I’m forced to gaze trustingly up into her stern face as she soaps me from head to foot. It’s difficult to be assertive.
Pulling me up to face her, my legs uncomfortably entwined around hers, she pours watered-down shampoo from an outsize pink plastic bottle over my head. I try to rehearse the French for “do please take care, I am wearing soft contact lenses,” but shut my eyes tight instead. At that moment, I feel something raking my scalp in long, heavy strokes, as though I’m being groomed by a she-bear. Unscrewing my eyes I can see a blue hedgehog, a plastic toothed brush for scraping burnt-on grease off saucepans. Nothing to worry about after all, this must be the head massage.
Rashida kneads my flesh in short but energetic bursts, gratified whenever I let out a whimper of pain. I’m twisted round and flipped over, can hardly tell where I end and Rashida begins. Is that my foot tucked between her breasts? It certainly is. A frail island of someone’s new-mown pubic hair floats past inches from my nose, but like Alice in Wonderland, this now seems quite normal to me.
Waiting my turn for each procedure, I chat to the other bathers, stretching my schoolgirl French to the limit. One old dark-skinned woman flashes me a gold-toothed grin, and offers me five million francs if I will marry her son. I also make polite conversation with two young Frenchwomen, who assure me they are finding this experience ‘géniale’, and we exchange the usual small talk about the weather and where we are staying, raising the banal to the bizarre under the circumstances.
I’m called away from this cocktail party scene. Rashida is ready for me again, and this is her grand finale. She ‘massages’ my back as though she has a personal grudge against me; it’s like King Kong playing scales on an inflatable piano. When she’s finished with me, she motions me to sit up, then with a firm push on my back, shunts me across the slippery floor. I travel surprisingly quickly towards the rest of my group.
Back outside in the changing area, these once intrepid, assertive women travellers wait passively for towels and the return of our clothes. I dry myself on what is surely a floor mat, hoping that the faded rust-coloured marks on it are part of its original pattern, and climb gratefully into my cotton and linen protective armour.
Clothed, I feel better already, more in control of my destiny. When our hostess, Fatima, wedges herself next to me on the bench and asks insistently for my address (her son just happens to be planning a visit to the small town where I live in Southern Spain), I tell her about my big, jealous husband and our slavering dog before making a swift exit and hurrying back to my hotel. I need to relax, and I really need a shower.