"We are going to the hammam today," Janat said, "Bring a big towel."
I shared lodgings with Janat in Morocco. I had been looking forward to my first visit to the hammam, or steam bath, and hurried to pack. We drove to Aisha's near the old walled city, and found her loading a straw basket. We hugged and smiled and kissed each other repeatedly on both cheeks. "I can't wait to see the hammam," I enthused.
Aisha, the teacher, smiled at me and explained, "It's not a health club—and it's not a class thing," she added, anticipating one of my usual questions, "Everyone goes to the hammam."
We brought much more than towels. In fact, the preparations reminded me of going to the beach. Each of us carried a bright plastic pail filled with soaps, creams, homemade potions, pumice stones, and combs.
From the outside, the one-story building looked ordinary, just another arch off a narrow alley in the oldest part of town. We entered through two sets of swinging doors and found ourselves in a large dressing room where women were changing or, swathed in towels, sat cooling on benches that lined the walls. We paid the sixty-cent fee to a middle-aged woman staffing the counter, then removed all our clothes and left them folded on a bench with our shoes tucked underneath. This is it, I thought, and we skittled through a heavy wooden door.
The picture that greeted my eyes remains vivid. In a gray stone room with high, opaque windows, 100 nude women and children doused their bodies with bowls of water, washing hair and scrubbing skin. Vapor rose from stone walls and floors. Voices and clattering sounds echoed all around. Every size and shape of body, hue from cream to chocolate, swayed in the mist like reflections on a pool.
The hammam was a series of three progressively hotter rooms, the innermost of which held the flowing hot water supply. With our