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Marrakech's hammam culture, by Tristan Rutherford

easyJet Magazine, April 2017

“Just as an American girl would go to Starbucks, we would spend an hour in the hammam,” explains psychology major Sara Boukourai. “The talk is the same – boys, parents, work – but we have to be careful what we say.” So ingrained is the traditional hammam into Marrakech culture that all of your school friends could be listening through the steaming fug, and quite possibly your neighbours and teachers too.

Like most grand Islamic cities, Marrakech grew around the cult of water. Underground qanat canals funnel snowmelt from the Atlas Mountains that ring the southern Moroccan city. These channels irrigate the palmeries and olive groves that gifted Marrakech its original wealth. The cooling wells that cleansed its people – an obligation in Islam – watered the camel trains that shipped Berber fabrics from Fes to the Atlantic, and carried Tuareg nomads to Timbuktu. In fact, the only scarce commodity was the olive wood used to heat each of the city’s steambaths to a blistering temperature. It’s why most hammams are built next to communal bakeries. Dough would be left to bake on one side while the customer bathed next door, both bakery and bath being fuelled by the same fiery furnace.

“Therefore every quartier has a traditional hammam,” continues Boukourai. “These are the places I would go with my grandma”. Entrance costs around €1 a visit. The first tepid changing room gives way to a warmer salon where hair and skin are washed with gloopy black beldi soap – often laced with eucalyptus oil – purchased from the medina old town. Female bathers are liberated in more ways than one. Firstly as they make a rare disrobement from head to toe. Secondly as they can natter for one, two or three hours outside the confines of the marital home. “In the red hot final room are ancient ladies who visit twice a week and can take the heat.” In granny’s youth, district marital options would be publically discussed and explicitly perused in this naked gallery, as Marrakchi matriarchs hunted down their prefect daughter-in-law.

Boukourai worries that social status could draw a slow veil over the traditional hammam. “Younger people are not as grounded as they used to be.” For the age-old experience she directs me to an unnamed steambath on rue de la Kasbah near El Mellah, the city’s former Jewish quarter.

My first visit results in a knockback. “Tu souhaites!” laughs the toothless reception lady – you wish! I have made the grave and apparently amusing error of entering a hammam during female-only visiting hours. Steambaths are strictly single sex, with men usually admitted in the afternoon. Local hammams are no-frills affairs so I have purchased my own plastic bucket, beldi soap and kiis exfoliating glove. As frontal nudity is considered offensive there is a protocol to undressing in male changing areas. Men slip into football shorts or boxers then cart themselves off to the tepid room. Clothing items are left on hangers under the eye of a hammami bath assistant. Theft from a public bath is considered a gross invasion of personal space.

Dried fruit magnate Ahmed Zoubairi details the unique etiquette as we recline in the hotter second room. “I can trust anyone in this salon because they all know everybody else.” Our pores gently open in the drip-drip humidity that softens the senses and suffocates stress. As we move into the blood-boiling third and final furnace Zoubairi douses himself with bowls of water. Although as he explains, chucking it around like a teenage waterfight will get you evicted. Towel whipping is a definite no-no.

Back in room two, I opt for a gommage, or scrub. It’s like being waxed with sandpaper, the only ‘light’ relief provided by the attendant who shows me the black ribbons of dirt that he’s peeled from my skin. Occidentals are far dirtier than Orientals, he claims. Zoubairi agrees and explains that the new breed of hammam-spas that proliferate across Marrakech offer a gentler, more soothing experience. “Nice but very expensive.” He also warns me against studios that offer ‘Thai’ massages. “They secretly massage the private area. I am discussing the ‘penis area’, you know?” For better or worse Zoubairi is happy with the traditional hammam. “There is no stress because you leave your phone in the shop. No WhatsApp. No other apps.” As a fiendish goodbye, he slings a bucket of ice water over me – all part of the traditional revitalising experience.

But not everyone remains thrilled by the conventional hammam story. When Marrakech burst out from the walled medina in the 1920s it sprouted rococo villas, hôtels modernes and art deco blocks – plus the contemporary ideas that went with them. Over the last decade Morocco’s female workforce has rocketed. Nearly 40% of service industries – which predominate in Marrakech – are run by women. In short, few members of either gender have time to spend three hours a week in the bath.

The new breed of boutique hammans around the French-built quartier of Guéliz or in the once palatial Kasbah teem with customers. These include Les Bains de Marrakech, a glorious oriental mansion that houses one of Marrakech’s first private hammams. The geometric plunge pool at Les Bains de Marrakech looks fit for a 21st-century sultan; the finely tiled Jacuzzi seems built for a Moroccan Snoop Dogg. The enterprise was founded by Kader Boufraine, a Frenchman of Moroccan origin, who realised that foreigners and Marrakchis alike might enjoy couples massages, steambaths with family and luxurious spa-style days in the city with friends. Boufraine’s rituals still shout tradition. A 45-minute hammam (€18) combines a beldi scrub with a ghassoul body mask, the latter a mineral clay mined deep in the Atlas Mountains, containing magnesium, iron and sodium.

Les Bain Bleus is similarly 21st century: a sophisticated retreat within the Marrakech souk, not an overwhelming voyage to the steamy east. The keyhole doors and brass hammam bowls are authentically oriental. Yet the turquoise plunge pool that draws eyes up to a carved ceiling is one part Alhambra Palace, one part Architectural Digest. Les Bain Bleus’ treatments are a similar vision of medina-meets-modernism. White clay facials. Brazilian depilation with a glass of mint tea to soothe the pain. Only the rooftop solarium would completely confuse traditional Marrakchi hammam fans: locals spend their time keeping out of the sun, not reclining in its full force.

The same ideals pervade the Riad Elisa spa which opened nearby in 2016. It's a finely sanitised version of 1001 Nights - exactly what many visitors expect in 2017. Fine gold tiles lead down into a communal lounging pool. Those to lazy to disembark from the cushions of their post-hammam lounger can gaze across the room like Orientalist potentate. The massage oils like rose, verbena and orange blossom are 100% natural. As is the argan oil, the elixir du jour beloved of chef Yotam Ottolenghi and actress Charlize Theron.

The elite tier of Marrakech’s steambath scene is also booming. The Oberoi Spa is a two square kilometre affair created by Indian luxury operator Oberoi Hotels. It’s slated to open this time next year. The whole affair will reside on a private island in a tranquil lake with views to the Atlas on the outskirts of town. Steambath rituals dominate the spa menu, with Ayurveda, a similarly elemental healing ethos, infiltrating the massage components. A cleanse of the mind, not just the pores. Yoga will supplement the occasionally scream-out-loud stretching performed in traditional hammams.

Several high-end options further distil that time-poor experience-rich ethos. “Some of our clients can only spend one hour a month in the hammam so they need that experience to be amazing,” says Stella de Bagneux, spa director of the Royal Mansour hotel. The establishment’s two vast hammams are royally appointed. Each combines natural plant fragranced air with heated marble recliners. You don’t get that in the medina.

In the name of research, de Bagneux has visited many of Marrakech’s hammams and sees a striking similarity between them. “As most Marrakchis have showers at home, the experience, at any budget, isn’t about getting clean anymore. It’s about indulgence, relaxation and rest.” (As one might imagine the Royal Mansour spa is reassuringly expensive, with 60-minute facials using hip brand marocMaroc starting at €150.) The ritual’s social traditions, claims de Bagneux, may have changed but the ideals thrive. “Many hammams were once taken on Thursdays as ablution before the Islamic holy day, and many relationships were matched by mothers in the mist, but taking time with friends is still just as important.”  

Following de Bagneux’s cue I head to Hammam Dar el-Bacha. One of the oldest steambaths in Marrakech, it’s a short walk from the snakecharmers and storytellers of Jemaa el-Fna Square. Workers from the nearby Pacha’s residence used to lather up and scrub down here. Ornate oriental touches like keyhole doors and star vents in the ceiling remain. Most importantly it’s jam-packed. Even more so after lunch when women receive the prestige evening slot. Marrakech’s steamy history seems indelible as ever.  

More hammam and spa stories from the Middle East can be read here.