Washing Away the West


None of us wanted to be the first to take our shirt off.  Five American girls in a traditional Moroccan bathhouse, we were obviously out of place.  A large Moroccan woman lounged naked, serenely and shamelessly, on the bench next to us.  As I unhooked my bra and stuffed it in my locker (quick, like ripping off a band-aid), I stepped into that woman’s world.  There is no vulnerability like being naked, and although we were nervously giggling and covering our chests, we were standing with our toes just inside this ancient sacred space of ritual cleansing.  Inside the domed, tiled room, thick with warm steam, we crouched in front of our buckets, coating our bodies with the gooey black soap, its earthy scent filling the air.  Touching, pampering my own body – every square inch – I began to step farther into the sacred space, into a place of self-acceptance.  Caressing our bodies with the black soap and rinsing it off with bucketfuls of warm water, it felt like we were symbolically bathing off the external expectations and perceptions of our bodies.  Washing off the first layer of dirt and anxiety, I began to relax.  All of a sudden, I was jolted out of my relaxed stupor by an ample nude woman grabbing my bucket and pushing my hair aside to wash the soap off my back, all the while jabbering away in Darija.  A mother figure, she sensed my obvious helplessness and accepted me as one of her own, helping me to further cleanse myself of anxiety and welcoming me into the circle of Moroccan womanhood.


Next: the scrubbing.  A woman with turbaned hair, unshaven legs, and a bold smile beckoned me over, signaling me to lay in front of her so she could scrub my skin with a sandpapery glove.  As I lay supine with my head resting on this woman’s thigh while she scrubbed clean every surface of my body, I thought of Dr. Segall’s advice: “Be the baby.”  And with that mindset, I stepped into the inner circle of the sacred Hammam.  As this woman arranged my limbs, scrubbing clean parts of my body few people touch – my breasts, my thighs, my neck, my armpits – I realized how much of a baby I am here in Morocco, constantly out of my comfort zone.  And I finally began to embrace it.  In this space of intimacy, both with ourselves and with each other, our Western perceptions of the “perfect body” were washed away and our freshly cleaned eyes could finally see ourselves as members of a beautiful, welcoming, diverse family.  There were women there larger and smaller than I.  Smoother, softer, stronger, fatter, thinner; a sixty year old woman and a four year old girl.  But in that blue-tiled steam room, we were sisters, all daughters of God – Allah – equalized and bonded in the Moroccan Hammam.


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