A New Type of Clean

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Transnationalism: interactions when one culture comes in contact with another. The Alhambra. The Statue of Liberty. Casablanca. Cultures intertwine, physically or culturally, for me it’s in the hamam.

We’dheard the stories, been explained the process, but nothing compared to the experience. Preparing our bags with towels, soap, and shampoo, we wondered if we’d be brave enough to leave our bras behind. On our way to the hamam, our leader Iman shared in our anticipation and joked about how we would soon be hamam sisters–we had no idea the reality that statement held.

We reached the non-descript hamam, which looked like like an old pool house. The tile floor was damp and cold as the hot air from the hamam evaporated. A short woman with grey hair and folded skin welcomed us as we left our belongings behind the counter for her to hold onto.

Awkwardly we all glanced around at one another.

“Is this it?” Our faces seemed to question each other. One by one someone boldly decided to take of their clothing to get cleaner than we had been before, or so we were told. Picking up buckets that seemed to fit a beach scene rather than a bathhouse, we trudge into the hot rooms.

Everything was cement–this was not a luxury spa. I found two water faucets placed two feet above the floor. Which is hot and which is cold? Iman explained to us the next steps.

The buckets filled with warm water as our bodies adjusted the the sauna-like temperature of the room. We took what we are told is soap (though it looks more like sap mixed with dirt) and combined it with henna and water, kneading with care. I felt as if I must rush, but what is keeping me from going slow? There is so much pressure at home to be quick and use our time efficiently, but in the hamam we can rest, be vulnerable in the face of our sisters.

Sliding the slick mud over our bodies we laughed at each other. The unease we had of being naked disappeared in the dome walls where we could be cleaned and come clean with one another. I tried and follow Iman’s example, taking my time and cleaning every part of my body. My hands were sudsy as they rubbed behind my ears and in between my toes. We took time for ourselves and our neighbor. I rub Kelly’s back with soap and then it’s my turn.

We didn’t keep the soap on. It’s became time to wash ourselves again; dipping cups in our water to drizzle over our soap covered skin. Hairs rose on my arm and I realized the cold water was on too long. I looked at Iman’s bucket with only hot water pouring in, that’s what I will do, I thought.

One by one we were called to the middle to be scrubbed down. As I saw my fate, I took time to lie on my back and breathe in the damp air. Laughs and water ran through the room filling an unimpressive room with unbelievable life and warmth. I felt eyes on me, it was my turn to truly be cleaned.

I fumbled with my bucket filled with water as I tried to bring it toward a large woman with missing teeth and a warm smile. No words were needed for communication. I was pulled, turned, and scrubbed. Not only did I feel the sponge’s sting, but I saw it’s lasting effects where the dead skin settled. Too soon it seemed that it was time to wash off again.

I looked around and saw it is not only Americans occupying the hamam but Moroccan women as well. All comfortable with themselves despite the vulnerability in being clothes less. A laughing child played in his families bucket and Iman recalled her time visiting the bathhouse when she was young.

Once I washed off, I took the time to shampoo my hair, comb it out and meditate on the feeling of the cooled water over my body–limb by limb.

Getting dressed out front, I realized I feel as if I had spent the afternoon at an American day spa complete with massages, facials, and other luxuries despite the complete naturality of my experience.

There is something about that organic experience that is more refreshing than a hundred dollar European skin treatment. The community is grown through conversations over cleansing. Maybe if this type of community and acceptance of self and others was present at home less girls would refuse their luxury of food and starve themselves, and instead become comfortable with themselves and their bodies. Be empowered by the openness and feel blessed by kindness given in the vulnerable position of being scrubbed by someone else.

Now that I have experienced the hamam I better understand community, vulnerability, and kindness. It’s time to see that at home once it was experienced abroad.

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