Eyes Closed, Hands Open

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I don’t think she washed her hands, I thought as I watch the old woman roll a ball of couscous in her hand, picking pieces of rotisserie chicken off the bone and clumping it into the yellow ball of couscous. She then pours sauce over it, the sauce seeps through her fingers and she turns and looks at me. This perfectly organized handful of food was prepared just for me. I reach out my hand and she plops it in the middle of my palm, and I slowly raise it and put it into my mouth. It was delicious. That was the thing about Moroccans. You just have to trust them. There’s an irresistible honestly in their eyes. Intimacy bled into everything they did. I spent a week hanging out with some Moroccan boys and it amazed me how they embraced each other, shared food, paid for each other’s cigarettes and kissed the cheeks of each other’s mothers and sisters. I didn’t understand this intimacy at first, and then I went to a Moroccan hammam.

The entrance of the hammam looked like the inside of a rec-center locker room except for there was a cash register and an older woman standing behind it. The room was cool and dimly lit with wooden benches along the walls. I had never been to a public bathhouse before, but it was a place Moroccans visited once or twice a week. After paying, the woman gives me a couple of buckets, and I am told to undress and enter the next room. The other room is tiled and rectangular with two pipes that run along the perimeter, one for hot water and one for cold. The women sit on the tile floor next to their buckets facing the faucets on the wall. Many women are there with friends, comfortably chatting, washing their hair and rubbing black soap and henna on their skin. The room is humid and smells strongly of henna and rust from the pipes. I walk in and pick my spot and rinse the place where I’m going to sit. At the hammam, you also pay for another service, which is essentially a scrub down. After I’m settled, an old woman walks in, her breasts sagging to her hips, and her gray hair pulled back in to a bun. She smiles, saying a couple words to me, exposing the few teeth she has left. It was my turn to be cleaned, and she was the one who was going to do it. She sits herself in the middle of the muggy tiled room and motions to me. At first I sit in front of her, hugging my knees to my chest while she scrubs my back. It hurts and I wince as she scrapes the skin and dirt off of my body. Then she pulls me back and lays me across her thighs, all of my skin laid out in front of her. I close my eyes. This old woman I had never met in my life had access to all the secrets and scars on my body. Then, for the next ten or fifteen minutes, she methodically pulled at my skin with a scrubbing mitt, silently, turning me over and over, cleaning every inch of my skin. I had to trust her, and I did. When she was done, I felt indebted to her. It was intimate, it was physical and it bound me to her as if she were my mother, and I her child.

In Morocco, everyone is family. When you give your body up to someone else you are connected. To my surprise, those eyes and hands I entrusted myself to never betrayed me. There was a certain sense of intimacy and trust that I had never known before. When a Moroccan reaches for my elbow to lead me across a busy street, I could close my eyes and walk. I would go wherever they wanted to lead me. Honest.

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