Bathtime becomes a vision of hell in hammam ritual

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The Independent Online

As I lie spread-eagled and face down on the hot tiles, an old man crawling across my back begins working a knee into my spine.

As I lie spread-eagled and face down on the hot tiles, an old man crawling across my back begins working a knee into my spine.

Under four steaming caverns, brown with age and sweat, men in loin cloths heave boiling water over themselves, or ply their tired skin with soap and stones.

Cries echo, backs bend, limbs flail, and children with buckets scurry, slosh and weave their way through the heaving mass of people.

Welcome to bath time in Morocco's medieval city of Fez; not an occasion for the faint of heart.

From around nine every evening until one in the morning, the men of the city, weary from weaving rugs, dyeing wool, beating brass and hustling tourists, gather in one of the public baths, or "hammam", situated around the main market place.

It is a time to wash, relax and reflect on a day of trade among the 9,400 alleyways that make up the old market of Fez, the restless and industrious artisan capital of Morocco. The tourists, who are on the receiving end of much of that trade, might be tempted to join them.

The ritual ablution has played an integral part in the daily life of Muslims since the Prophet Mohammed recommended the hammam - meaning "spreader of warmth" - around AD600 as an aid to health and fertility.

The water is heated as it passes across an underground fire, stoked with sawdust and wood chippings, and piped into cisterns in the central dome of the hammam.

Entrance fees to the local bath are low so that everyone can enjoy them. A caliph in A Thousand and One Nights says : "I leave it to the bather to pay according to his rank." For tourists, this means about 10 dirhams (70p) to get through the door, plus a surcharge for a locker and about 40 dirhams for the obligatory "gommage" or vigorous massage.

The women of Fez, who spend many hours in the hammam, "chatting and not washing" said one of the guides I met, and, traditionally, inspecting prospective brides for their sons, pay twice the entrance fee of the men.

The first trick is finding the place. While the Romans built enormous central baths, the smaller and more modest hammams are hidden away in the central medina.

To build a bath pleased Allah as well as the people and historically the wealthy would lavish their local hammam with ornaments, carpets and intricate mosaics. Nowadays, hammams tend to be more gritty, with many indistinguishable from other buildings in the street, bar the curl of smoke from their chimneys.

One such place is the Mernissi hammam,at the top of Talaa Seghira, in the heart of old Fez. Not here the calm repose and lavender skin treatments written up by the guide books. Nor the traditional step-by-step journey through the steam rooms, which are set at varying temperatures to maximise the healing benefits of the bathe.

With its darkness and heat, the hammam can, according to literature, be a vision of hell, as well as of a joyous reality, and that is how it feels when you step through the door.

There is an intricate social system of how and when water may be used. Dip your finger into the wrong bucket and one of the elders will tell you not to. Try and fetch some for yourself and fingers wag.

It seemed best to sit and await my gommager for the vigorous once over. And vigorous it was. One word was distinguishable from the sounds of his straining: dirham.

As I sat back to recover, a younger man bellowed in Arabic to look out and slung some boiling water over the floor. He pulled out a razor, tapped it on the tiles, and shaved himself, all over. Literally. Not for the faint hearted.

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