Hammam حمام , meaning bathroom or bathhouse, comes from the root ح – م – م . This root also forms words associated with heating, charcoal, bathing and to have a fever. If you are travelling in the Arab world, it is well worth a visit to a traditional bathhouse during your stay!
Public bathhouses are no longer common in Western countries, but they still form an integral part of society in the Middle East and North Africa. Many families in this region do not have bathrooms in their homes and will visit the Hammam once or twice a week to wash and purify.
Visiting the Hammam
Hammams are located at regular intervals in cities and towns, accessible to the community. From the outside, they might look like any ordinary building.
Upon entering, you will pay a small fee to use the baths and then you will find yourself in a changing room. After tidying away your clothes, you will take a couple of very large buckets, your soap and ideally, a little stool, and proceed to the heart of the hammam. The second room can be a little cold, especially during the winter. You are likely to find few people in this room! As you move on into the third and fourth chambers, the rooms will become increasingly warmer and more steamy. Many people will be in these warm chambers, washing themselves and talking to each other. Finally, you will reach a very hot steamy room with a large basin of scalding water. Here you will fill your large buckets and then retreat into the other chambers.
There are taps of cold water all around the hammam in order to mix cold and hot water and wash yourself. Sitting on your little stool, you will use a small bucket to continually pour water over yourself to clean.
Visiting the hammam is both a ritual and a shared social experience with the community. Friends, mothers and daughters, cousins, will visit the hammam together and spend up to four hours chatting in the steamy rooms. It is not unusual for people to help each other with hard to reach areas and give each other massages.
Before visiting the hammam, it would be wise to ask a local about appropriate clothing. In some countries, it is considered very normal to wear nothing at all in the hammam. In others, such as Morocco, women are expected to wear briefs.
It is impolite to sit on the floor of the hammam and so most people bring their own mini stools from home.
You may be offered a massage by someone working in the hammam for which you would need to pay a fee.
Absolutely do not ever feel tempted to drink the water in the hammam. This can become appealing if you have been sitting in the steam for hours. Locals will also avoid drinking the water for risk of becoming ill. It is much better to take an orange with you to eat in case you get thirsty.
Men and women visit separate hammams or, sometimes, there will be different times of use for the same building. Female hammams are filled with the sounds of talking whereas male hammams are a bit quieter. Either way, both men and women enjoy a shared experience when they visit the bathhouse.
Visiting the hammam is an important aspect of everyday life for many people. It also becomes an important ritual for celebrations such as weddings. At these times, friends and family will spend longer in the hammam to purify themselves.
Winter Hammam in Fes
Whilst studying in Morocco, I regularly visited the hammam with my host sisters. On Wednesdays, we would leave the house, each carrying a bucket containing our soaps, stool, oranges and washcloths. Not forgetting a fresh change of pyjamas to put on when clean!
Winter in Morocco can seem really cold because all buildings are designed for hot weather. At times, I even slept in my coat! Whilst I could not keep myself warm during the day, going to the hammam was a wonderful experience.
If you have the opportunity to visit a hammam, either in your own country or abroad, you are certain to enjoy it. Never will your skin feel so clean and soft as after a couple of hours of steaming and scrubbing!
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