The Hammam, Essaouira

Essaouira street

A thin Muslim man, grey hair under a white skull cap, blue jacket and a pair of leather sandals. He picks up his half-smoked cigarette from the nook where he placed it a few moments ago, before coming into the hotel to pick me up. A quick puff and it’s alight again. Call him Ahmed.

I follow him through the alleys of the medina, away from the handbag stalls and the cafes and down a passageway and through an arched entrance with a hand-painted sign in three languages, Arabic, Berber, French: hammam pour homme. The floor of the waiting room is marble and damp and a long blue and white bench runs the length of the room. There’s a bright energy-saving globe screwed to the wall lighting a small blue clock: it’s four.

Ahmed points to the locker above my head – number 7 – where I stow my clothes and he passes me a pair of rubber sandals with the letters VIP painted in white. He takes three buckets, a dipper – actually a plastic yoghurt container – and a couple of sachets from the bearded man at the desk – who is snipping hotel shampoo sachets from a long string into a basket. We we walk through the plastic door past a shower on the left and through warmer and warmer rooms until we arrive at a large central room. The room has a marble floor and there’s a bench at one end where a man sits washing. Another lies on the hottest part of the floor. On one side is a large hot water sink and opposite is a small alcove with a black pipe with running hot water.

There’s no conversation, a polite greeting maybe but no discussion, no chat– everyone is focussed by the heat and the earnest business of washing.

Ahmed fills the buckets and brings them over. He sluices the floor with water then bids me lie down on my stomach and takes a small nylon net and starts to scrub. Scrubbing like you would sandpaper a piece of wood, over and over working to get the shape you want – arms stretched out, fingers splayed and then legs. First scrub finished, he sluices hot water over me, so hot it makes me gasp. The same with the front, wearring away layers of skin, again and again. He leans over me and his sweat drips onto my shoulder or my back. Occasionally, he has me hold onto his shoulder, or entwine my hand with his while he pulls and stretches the muscles listening for the vertebral crack or the joint giving up its tension.

We step back in the waiting room until our temperatures drop. Ahmed greets the young men who are coming to bathe, and those finished. Back into a cooler room this time where, with a small cake of soap in his net, we set about the lathering. ‘Savon, savon,’ he says. ‘Ah oui,’ I reply. We then open a sachet of shampoo which he hands to me. The shampooing you do yourself.

More sluicing and then a cold shower and I’m back in the waiting room with him, towel around my shoulders. I look at the clock – an hour has gone. I start to dress – but he gestures for me to sit – take a moment, relax, the world will still be there. A cat finds its way into the waiting room and one of the men tosses it up onto the lockers, so it can find its way up the hole in the wall to the apartments above.

Ahmed has no English, barely any French and I have no Berber. With language, I might have quizzed him about being a washer at the hammam, about his family, his background, about the stoker who works below the baths at the furnace raking ashes all day long. I might also have asked him about faith and modesty and growing old. But dressed and back in the busyness of the street it was time to say farewell. He touched his heart with his right hand and bowed slightly and smiled and I did the same and we walked off in different directions.

Photo: Essaouira medina – by ✿ Vlinder ✿

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