Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis
Modesty or Survival: a Moroccan Hammam Tale
Surely one of the most beautiful building complexes ever created by man to honor and worship his God is the stunning Hassan II Mosque located in Casablanca, Morocco. The mosque complex is one of the largest in the world and is referred to as the Lighthouse of Islam.
Set on the water’s edge, its dramatic location was inspired by a verse in the Koran that says “the throne of God is set on water” and indeed in the shimmering light of Morocco’s hot summer sun the entire complex does appear to glow (sic) out of the water. Worshipers can pray over the Atlantic Ocean, as the floor is made from glass and the roof is retractable, so worshipers can see the stars at night. One could spend days admiring its glories; the exquisite tile configurations, the arches and doorways of geometric complexity, the beauty of the angles and the pillars canted against each other and the crowning glory of the 690 foot high minaret as it pierces the startling blue sky, reaching towards Heaven.
The complex was completed in 1993 by the current King Hassan II, in honor of his father King Mohammed V. On my last visit to the mosque I was blown away by the massiveness and symmetry of the underground washing stations – a pre-requisite ritual required before entering into any mosque. On this trip, a different surprise awaited three members of our small group were treated to one of the mosque’s hidden sybaritic treasures... the Hammam. Although well known to locals it is not frequented by tourists. Our adventure was enhanced by the fact that only Arabic or French was spoken by the attendants so - not fluent in either language - sign language was the lingua franca of the evening. This is not a must-do for everyone visiting Casablanca but for the adventurous or culturally curious… having your hotel or tour guide arrange a visit could easily prove to be the highlight of your trip.
Our appointed time was 8 p.m. and we arrived early to catch the awesome sight of the setting sun over the water with the rising full moon equidistant and mirroring each other in the huge open courtyard.
Following our guide we descended into the bowels of the mosque passing a sign that stated “HOT ZONE” and was it ever! After checking in we were provided with a jar of the black gooey stuff we had seen in abundance in all the souks (markets) and couldn’t imagine what it was used for; a tube of Henna Shampoo; a red mitt: a large white towel and finally water-proof slippers. We descended down another short stairway even hotter and more humid than the preceding one, until we were led into a modern clean changing area with lounges for resting and secure lockers for our belongings. Once we modestly donned our bathing suits – no easy task in the hot sweaty environment - we were led through a massive double doorway into a blazingly hot room that could have been a stand in for Dante’s Inferno, and then through a second doorway which was hotter still and nearly took my breath away. I spied yet another doorway which I assumed was for the ultra inner sanctum of heat, thanks to Allah, we were spared that room.
The room that we did stop in was enormous with huge octagonal or circular marble low lying platforms in the center. Washing stations were located along the walls with marble build-in benches facing each washing sink. After seating us the Arabic-only speaking attendant pointed each of us to the jar of glop and indicated we were to rub it all over our body from chin to toes… and everywhere in between. After unceremoniously pulling our bathing suits off she gestured for us to begin and left us to our labors. Of course by that time we were hysterically laughing since the glop just lay on our skin and no amount of water made it dissolve. An English speaking customer took pity on us and explained that we were using too much product and to take small amounts that dissolved easier. We had also been given small plastic buckets to rinse off using the steaming hot water which filled the deep sinks in front of us. The excess glop now covered the marble floor beneath our feet which was wet and slippery, made more so by the gloplets (sic) of undissolved black goop. Once semi devoid of the black stuff and partially boiled by the hot water, we were led by our individual attendants over the treacherous floor, holding on for dear life, to private cubicles as opposed to being attended to on one of the large open platforms in the center of the room. On my previous traditional Hammam experience in the original 1741 Caĝaloĝlu Hamami in Istanbul, being attended to on a similar platform provided the highlight of my experience. In this case, I assume it was part of the program we had been signed up for although checking out the price list it is hard to determine what services you are buying.
My attendant Diani, motioned for me to lay flat on my back on the marble slab as she began to methodically scrub every part of me with the red mitt (similar in feel and discomfort to a loofah sponge). She stripped off layers of dead skin before turning me on one side, my front, and finally my other side before flipping me back on my back. Of course I could not stop laughing because there was nothing to hold on to… the marble was slippery… my body was slippery and I was desperately trying not to slide off the surface as I had in Caĝaloĝlu Hamami. At this point modesty was not in question… survival was!
Then with renewed vigor she began to wash my hair and massage my face and shoulders. With a hand held shower she washed me all over including in my face with little regard for the water she was pouring up my nose. She then wrapped me in a large bath towel and led me back towards the changing room past the showers which she invited me to enter. I indicated that I had had quite enough of water and could not get any cleaner so she motioned for me to relax on the chaise lounge before drying my hair and dressing.
Now totally invigorated, we three intrepid maidens having all experienced similar activities climbed back up to the courtyard, greeted by the chatter of locals and laughter of children enjoying the clean cool air of the blissful Casablanca night. The sky was a rich royal blue with a now silver full moor hanging from invisible silken threads. And as we slowly walked away from this forever-memorable adventure (which the average Moroccan woman will indulge in on a weekly basis) the Muezzin sang the fifth, of the daily calls to prayer.
As his haunting melody filled the air, all activity stopped and as one, every person in the courtyard turned towards the now lit up minaret where you could see clearly the display of three balls at the very top of the 690 foot high tower.
The first and largest ball represents the oldest of the Abrahamic religions: Judaism. The second ball represents Christianity, while the smallest ball at the top stands for Islam, the youngest of the three. The star and sickle on top of the three balls in many mosques represents Morocco but is missing from this monument which has instead a laser beam fitted at the top oriented towards Mecca.
What a magical ending to our visit to Casablanca – no play it again Sam for me, this night could not be repeated or beat.
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