Rethinking Gender Across National Lines


       In crossing cultures into the nation of Morocco, one experience I was entirely unprepared for was that of the hammam. The hammam is a place of great cultural significance in Arabic culture, a public bath that cleanses one in a way unlike any other. Scalding hot water, black soap– a rough mixture specifically engineered to grind away the grime– and a coarse scrubbing glove that are all utilized by the hands of another person make  the hammam an emotional and spiritual experience as well as a physical one. 

      My only previous public bath moment was the showers after sports matches in high school. The immature, collective consciousness regarding group showers left my expectations of the hammam wildly incongruent with its reality. Instead of a testosterone-fueled gauntlet of sorts, those in the hammam welcomed me with a graciousness that accepted the fact that I was there to get clean. This is not to say I was traumatized by my high school experience, but merely left my bar a little lower regarding this event in Morocco.

       In Moroccan culture, I experienced a respect and openness to the male body that is typically disregarded in younger male circles in America. There is still laughter and camaraderie to be had, but it is out of a genuine graciousness instead of competition. As I was being bathed and scrubbed like I had lived my life in utter filth, I felt grateful, rather than weary of what might come next. It is quite an experience to submit oneself to another person and have them bathe you. I’m quite sure it would be akin to being a newborn again, helplessly at the mercy of another individual.

      The concepts of respect and submission in the hammam are undoubtedly influenced by Islamic culture.  Witnessing firsthand more peace from the Islamic community further ripped me from my narrow, American experience. I was a student, being taught by my scrubber the value of releasing my inhibitions and trusting another person. WHile I left feeling as though I’d been polished within an inch of my life, I also ventured out with something far greater, a lesson in humility and grace.


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