The Hammam from Hell

There are moments in everyone’s life where one muses: “How the hell did I end up here?” For me, lying naked face-down on a concrete floor in a dark North African dungeon being tortured by a scary toothless octogenarian, who - as it transpired - hadn’t forgiven me for waking her up, was one of them.

OK, so I may have embellished one or two minor details: it wasn't exactly a dungeon and my torturer- who bore an uncanny resemblance to Mother Teresa - wasn’t that terribly frightening either, but the crucial facts remain: it did still take place in North Africa - Morocco to be precise; I was still naked – inexplicably so was she - and - taken in the loosest form of the definition - according to CIA training manuals on the subject, it did still constitute a form of torture.

Yet I only had myself to blame. There I had been in Marrakesh's central square, batting away touters who fervently pushed fliers for fancy candlelit massages into the faces of passing westerners, determined to dodge the expensive tourist traps and experience a local hammam. Why pay $100 for an overpriced treatment I could get at home, when I could enjoy an authentic experience for a fraction of the price, I’d smugly thought to myself. My smugness-and quest for adventurous traveller status had led me to seek out a little, local, women’s only hammam tucked away in the midst of a maze of market stalls on one of the city’s backstreets. Undeterred by the uninviting exterior, and even perhaps a little enticed by a distinct lack of signs in English - practically guaranteeing its authenticity - I ventured in. The first room was again, unpromising. If anything, it looked more like a bookies than the entrance to the steamy Turkish style baths I had been envisaging. No-one was behind the dusky kiosk however as I looked round an old woman, who had been sleeping in rags on the floor behind the door, stirred. I offered a smile. She scowled back. With reluctant resignation she proceeded to stand, then shuffle towards the door to the kiosk, all the while muttering what I can only imagine to be wonderfully visceral curses in Arabic.

After a brief exchange of money for a bucket she led me inside a small changing room where two or three Moroccan women were busy chatting away. Anxious to be culturally sensitive, I presented my bikini to the room in search of approval. The room - and its occupants - had no initial qualms with my attire but once dressed, they gestured for me to remove the top half. Puzzled by this apparent desire to make me more - not less - naked than I’d deemed culturally appropriate I hesitated before joining the rest in semi-nakedness. Ms Mother Teresa lookalike 2009 by now entirely naked, carrying a bottle of soap in the one hand and a plastic stool in the other, beckoned me to follow her. As we walked through the dank, bare concrete rooms I was stuck by the contrast between the images I’d had in my mind, and had seen on fliers and the reality of what lay before me. I saw none of the brightly coloured rooms covered in tiles with intricate mosaics, none of the arches or candlelit steamy baths. Instead the room was dark, cold and bare - punctuated only by the occasional low level tap and lit dimly by high level windows. The old lady decamped at a spare tap and gestured for me to sit beside her. Dutifully I did as I was told but no sooner had I settled in my place than I was abruptly knocked back by a flood of water; cold. And another; this time warmer. “Really, lady, that was uncalled for!” I spluttered, clearing the hair from my eyes. A gleeful, toothless grin came across her face as she proceeded to viciously scrub my body in the manner of an over attentive grandmother at bath-time. Then, without warning in the midst of this virtual water boarding she yanked my pants down my legs. “Now, hold on a second! That space is reversed for particularly smooth lotharios and gynaecologists and you lady - unless you produce a surprise medical certificate in the next ten seconds - appear to be neither!” I protested. But the woman was relentless. Now utterly naked lying face down on a cold floor being intermittently half drowned by buckets of water, scrubbed red raw and occasionally violated by a debauched geriatric masseuse I regretted having earlier been so dismissive of the luxury spas. Still I laughed. You had to.

B Higgins

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