Like most little boys in the North African nation of Morocco, Kader Boufraine grew up paying a weekly visit with his mother to the neighborhood hammam in his native city of Marrakech.
That rite of passage—a must in the Islamic religion in order to ensure complete cleanliness prior to prayers—took place within the warm, steamy confines of the public bathhouse and entailed two hours of rubbing, scrubbing, oiling and massaging, all performed as per a formula that has remained unchanged for centuries, and that unfolded then as it unfolds now to the cadence of flowing water and womens’ chatter.
“They exchanged life stories, they gossiped and talked about the price of groceries,” Boufraine—founder of hammam/spa Les Bains de Marrakech—says. “I went with my mother to the hammam until the age of 9 or 10. Then, I became too old to go with the women so I went with my father.”
Which was not as much fun, he adds, since “men’s talk is not that interesting.” But for men as for women, the social aspect of the hammam was and remains extremely important, and cleanliness aside, it’s one of the main reasons why people in countries like Morocco, Turkey, Egypt and Syria still go to hammams.
“The hammam was the epicenter of a neighborhood,” says May Telmissany, associate professor and director of the Arab-Canadian Studies Research Group at the University of Ottawa, and author of “The Last Hammams of Cairo: A Disappearing Bathhouse Culture.” It was the perfect venue for men to conclude business deals, for women to arrange marriages and for family feuds, if they existed, to be laid to rest.
The hammam was also one of the first places in the orient where you found a kind of democracy that didn’t exist elsewhere.
Inside the hammam, “everyone was stripped of their clothing, you didn’t know who was rich, who was poor, but you all got the same services,” Telmissany says.
Most importantly, though, the hammam was and still is a place to relax and unwind, she says, a gentle haven of warm, misty, marble-floored rooms to regroup in and let go of the pressures of everyday life.
Keeping a disappearing tradition alive
Hammams, which date back to the middle ages when homes didn’t have running water, were also the places women went to for beauty treatments and rituals. Besides thoroughly cleaning and cleansing in a hammam, women would avail of skincare services, Telmissany says, they would have their hair oiled and washed and get their body parts waxed, too.
Visiting a traditional hammam today means going through a process that dates back to the 10th and 11th centuries. It involves proceeding through a series of rooms, each with a different temperature—warm, hot, regular—and along the way, getting rubbed, scrubbed, rinsed and oiled using the same traditional products that have been used for centuries. The hammam process and products used open up pores, strip off layers of dead skin, close the pores again and hydrate the new skin. The end result: a deep-seated clean and an incomparable shine and sparkle that lasts.
Unfortunately, though, finding the authentic hammam experience of yore is not easy anymore, because through the centuries, the traditional hammams have all but disappeared in many places including Egypt and Turkey, where more modern spas have increasingly become the order of the day.
Today, Telmissany says, the North African nations—Morocco and Algeria, in particular—are perhaps the only places to have preserved their original hammam structures and to continue to perpetuate the tradition as it has always been practiced.
“In Egypt, the government did not pay attention to the hammams as modernization took root and today, many of the old structures are sadly beyond repair, worn down with age and the passage of time,” she says. “In Morocco and Algeria, however, they have not only modernized the ancient hammams, but they have also built new ones. In these countries, too, the Kasbah or Medina—the commercial heart of a town—has survived through the centuries and despite modernization. The hammam is an integral part of the Medina and so it has also survived.”
Modern hammams, traditional treatments
Situated in the heart of Marrakech—arguably Morocco’s most colorful and vibrant city—and just a few feet from the Medina, Les Bains de Marrakech is an upscale version of Boufraine’s childhood hammam that brings together all the traditions he grew up with in a more sleek and modern setting.
“I wanted to recreate the experience that I grew up with in the traditional, neighborhood hammam and follow that same process,” he says.
That process begins with the application of the “Savon Noir,” a black, soap-like paste made from macerated olives that’s left on the body for three to five minutes and then scrubbed off with a “Gant de Kessa,” an exfoliating glove with loofah-like properties.
“This removes all the dead skin,” Boufraine says. “Then, you are rinsed and the skin is ready to receive the Rhassoul clay mask.”
Rhassoul, mined from deep in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, absorbs the skin’s impurities, leaving it clean and new. It’s mixed into a paste with warm water, Boufraine says, and sometimes enhanced with rose water, known for its anti-inflammatory and cleansing properties.
Once the Rhassoul has been rinsed off, the skin is rehydrated with Argan oil and massaged for an hour or so, Boufraine says.
“Our ancestors left us this method to scrub, clean, restructure and reoxygenate our skins,” he says, “and we have kept it going.”
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