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.
“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.