A Singaporean's first experience in a hammam
Love at first scrub
"I'm going to pour this bucket of cold water on you...," said the middle aged Moroccan lady. Wait what? Nobody mentioned anything about cold water. I came in here for the warmth and smooth skin. I didn't want a cold shower. For the uninitiated, hammams are public steam rooms where Moroccans habitually go to cleanse themselves. They are an essential part of Moroccan culture. While Singaporeans like to hang out at mamaks or cafes and catch up over kopi or teh, Moroccan men, women, and children go to their local hammams and spend hours catching up with their friends.
When I first heard about the Moroccan hammam cleansing ritual, I was intrigued but wasn't keen on trying it out, as I've never liked being in hot and humid steam rooms. However when I visited Morocco last December, the cold winter chill and promise of soft, silky skin changed my mind. My first experience was in a private hammam in Fes medina, at Riad Laaroussa. When I arrived, I was greeted by a really nice, smiley middle aged lady — who I nicknamed smiling auntie. She led me to a changing area to change out of my clothes and into just underwear and a robe (which I had to promptly remove at the next stage). I was then lead into the steam room and left to lie down, unwind, and let the heat open up my pores. At this point as I was lying naked on the tiled platform, I felt strangely vulnerable in the immaculately decorated room, but relaxed just after a few minutes as the warm glow of dispersed lights put me at ease. I felt like I had travelled back in time to ancient Morocco.
THE CLEANSING RITUAL
After the steam and heat had sufficiently prepped my skin, Smiling Auntie came into the room to start the cleansing ritual. She poured warm water over my face, hair, and body, and then applied Moroccan black soap to cleanse the skin of dirt and toxins. The soap was then washed off with warm water she started vigorously scrubbing my body with the kessa glove — a mitt made from rough piece of cloth, traditionally used by Moroccans in their bath rituals. Though it did not hurt, the glove felt like sandpaper and I was slightly worried about getting skin abrasions, especially in the more sensitive areas. Halfway through scrubbing my arm, Smiling Auntie asked me to open my eyes and then said "Look, touch. Old skin all come off." True enough, I saw rolled up pieces of dead skin. "Cool," I said, and went back to semi snoozing.
After the scrubbing, warm water was poured over my body for a final rinse before I was chaperoned back to the changing area to dry off. The entire experience was completed by a one hour body massage, where Argan oil was generously used all over my body, hair, and face to provide luxurious hydration. I left the hammam loving the experience, and with a greater appreciation for traditional rituals. Now feeling warm and toasty, I stepped back out into the cold winter night in search of dinner.
While visititing a hammam for the first time, here are five things you should know about the experience and the appropriate etiquette:
1. Public hammams have separate areas for men and women. Children, up to the age of 10, normally visit with their female relatives.
2. Most people will be completely naked, with just their underwear on. There will be some people who prefer to be completely naked, so do not be taken aback.
3. If you’re not sure of what to do, don’t be afraid to ask.
4. If you’re visiting a public hammam, there will be equipment available for rent and/or purchase. These include a pail (for the water), little stools (to sit on while showering), khessa gloves, and black soaps. However do bring your own towel and slippers.
5. If you prefer a private hammam experience, most luxury hotels or riads will have their own facilities as part of their spas. Alternatively you can also find mid-ranged hammams at standalone spas.
Fern Lee was born and bred in Singapore and is always on the lookout for new experiences. Lee began her exploration of natural ingredients and traditional remedies as a way of passing time when she was living in Melbourne. Her curiosity lead to a full time interest and played a pivotal role in her co-founding of ANIA, a skincare company with a focus on bringing the highest quality natural and organic formulations from Africa