Yesterday, I visited a hamam. Hamams are native to Türkiye, but the tourism industry has popularized them here in Marrakech, where people will push you to the hamams that kick them referral fees. Like a typical modern traveler, I simply chose the highest rated one on TripAdvisor. I tried to be a hero and find this place on my own, but I failed and eventually called the place, which sent an English expatriate to guide me. It is common procedure for a riad, restaurant, or other establishment to send someone to meet you at an obvious landmark, such as Place Jamaa el Fna, and walk with you.
In particular, I wanted to try the traditional black soap scrub. Black soap conjures up images of a minstrel show, but the locals I spoke to said they go to a hamam weekly. This city is so filthy that I have skipped a few showers even in my riad because I think the net cleansing effect is so temporary and minimal! The hamams the natives patronize are much different than the one I went to, which is designed for tourists. They are more private and probably 10 times more expensive.
Including gratuity, the 40-minute scrub I opted for cost $29. It was awesome.
The hamam itself was a small steam room, although it was less intense than your typical American spa steam chamber. While hot, it was more tolerable than a sauna or steam room for long stretches. For example, I could never do 40 minutes in a normal steam room. The female attendant came in and applied this black soap all over my body. Then, she left the room for five minutes. Then, she returned and lathered and rinsed my whole body. Experienced and less lazy people can wash themselves, so this scrub was admittedly gratuitous. At one point, she took my hand to make sure I felt all the dirt and dead skin cells coming off of my chest. It was simultaneously enlightening and disgusting, but that is what I get for my lifelong resistance to soap.
The experience was so refreshing. In the same manner that the straight-razor shave made my face feel as virgin as a pre-teenager, this hamam scrub made me cleaner than I had ever been. Paradoxically, arguably the dirtiest city I have ever visited provided me with the two most refreshing personal care experiences in years.
Today, I returned for a 34-minute massage. Yes, I always time the masseuse–I paid $28 for 35 minutes. The massage was nowhere near as physically revelatory as the black soap scrub, but I was led into a shower to wash off the oil. This was actually the best part because I have only encountered terrible or no showers in Morocco, so this simple luxury was fantastic. Imagine the worst showers you have taken this year in the United States, and they will still be much better than what is normally available in Marrakech. Now imagine you take only those terrible showers every day! It’s so true-American complaints are laughable to the rest of the world.
This hamam is one piece of a successful business by this young lady. There were two young men who served as waiting lounge companions. I talked and practiced my languages with them.
I have been polling several Moroccans on various topics. There are loud calls for prayer five times per day. Morocco is more than 99% Sunni Muslim. Everyone I asked said they do not pray regularly. I did see one row of men prostrating themselves in the middle of an alley. I asked this kid how often he prays, and he joked (in English), “I’m Muslim-light.”
I also spoke to three people about the nettlesome aggressiveness of the touts. I asked them if they ever did it, and they confirmed it. In the hamam, these two young guys were extremely pleasant and polite, which is standard good business and manners. It dawned on me that none of these unsavory tactics should be viewed as a personal reflection. The older I get, the more I come to realize how little control we actually have over our health and wealth, despite the existence of free will. The way these kids become these aggressive touts is not too different from a young guy in New York City going to Columbia University and becoming a corporate attorney. In either case, both people don’t know any better and think they are doing the right thing. The viciously aggressive tout who is actually someone I can talk to is not that different from the financial salesperson by day who is a family man at night.
As a country of Sunni Islam, Morocco does not purvey alcohol as readily as the U.S. It is sold in certain hotels, supermarkets, and by drug dealers. There are only a few nightclubs or bars in Marrakech, and I did not visit any, but I did wander the streets after most of the shops have closed. Shady people will start asking, “Do you want hashish?” A beer on the street will cost nearly $3 for only 24 centiliters (68% of a standard American beer size). Hashish was €6 for 10 grams. Hashish is huge business in Morocco, although it is illegal. One night at 1 a.m., there was a super sketchy man who said he was a Pennsylvania convict for more than two decades. Bizarrely, he produced his facility identification card and urged me to take it.