Cleansing Judgment


Stepping into the hammam, I was immediately overcome by the heat that seemed to hang in the air. Benches lined the first room we entered, with correlating shelves above them. We stripped down to our underwear, packed our clothes above our heads, wrapped towels around our shoulders, and followed Souad into the next room. One woman remained in the room behind us who smiled at me reassuringly as we wandered uncertainly into the bathing rooms.


Pine green stars lay in the center of each tile on the floor, like stepping stones into an alternate, cleansing realm. Women sat with their backs to us as we walked to the last room, which we found to be empty. A light bulb flickered above us but remained dark most of the time, giving the heat of the room a heavier, yet kinder, weight. Two pipes ran along the floor, one for hot water, one for cold water. We all sat at our separate spigots, filled our buckets, and began to rinse ourselves. I immediately forgot about the heat of the room and enjoyed the water rolling from my hair down to my shoulders, and from my shoulders to my breasts, the sensation different than any normal shower I had ever taken. There was a control over my bath and body that I did not have in Western showers and a methodical purpose to every rinse. I scooped up a small handful of Moroccan black soap and began to scrub any exposed skin with it until I was covered in soap and oil from my face to toes.

When it was my turn to be scrubbed, I picked up my bucket and awkwardly waddled into the room next to us, where a woman sat with a pad laid out in front of her. She pointed, and I sat. Immediately, she gently pushed my torso to the ground and began to scrub my neck and chest. I wanted to cry out at first from the rough pain of the scrubbing glove, but after a minute, I let myself fall into the rhythm of the process and the pain became beautifully therapeutic. I thought to myself, how vulnerable it is to let myself be scrubbed new by a stranger and have my naked body be handled in this way, how much trust must I have in another woman to let her touch my inner thighs so harshly. A bath like this would never happen in America; either one or both of us would feel too uncomfortable and exposed.

And yet, in the hammam, in that stranger’s lap, I experienced a new kind of sensuality without any aspect of sexuality. I had never had someone touch me so deliberately unless it was romantic. We were unveiled for each other, and in doing do, judgment disappeared. Through the process of unveiling, we were willing to see each other as women in our full beauty, without any shame. My body wasn’t a taboo object to be shown off at the beach on occasion, where I had to be afraid of my stomach sticking out too much or my breasts not filling out my swimsuit enough. Here, we were together, and we were nude, and we were free.


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