I am naked. I am standing in Africa naked. I am standing in Morocco naked. I am in a bathhouse on a poor side of Casablanca, naked.
But, I’m not alone. The other women in the hammam are naked too.
Morocco is an Islamic Country. Here, men crowd the streets and fill the cafes. Women are rarely seen. If women are seen, usually their eyes are the only piece of them that is visible underneath all of their clothing. A veil covers their head almost completely and their clothing reaches to their feet. They are modest from head to toe.
After reading Laura Fraser’s article Under the Veils in Casablanca on Salon.com this summer, I promised myself that I would become more daring when trying to understand a new culture. I would sacrifice my pride, my manners and maybe my clothes if it meant I would learn how a culture operates in an intimate way. After all, I’m not a tourist, I’m a student, and I travel to learn. So, if learning means searching sketchy, poor side streets of Casablanca in order to participate in a ritual cleansing with naked Muslims, I’m all for it.
I had second thoughts about my methods of learning after a stocky Muslim woman ripped off my underwear and laid me naked across a marble slab.
I am in a large marble room lined with low sinks. Marble bleachers are on my right. I have no idea what I am supposed to do. A woman with long brown hair, a pear-shaped figure and a kind smile is in charge of me. She pours water over my body, hands soap to me and I realize that I am involved — involved in a serious, yet awesome cleansing experience.
Naked women walk casually around the hammam. They wash and socialize. Their bodies are much different than what an American woman is used to seeing. Their olive skin is soft. Their stomachs are big like a Crockpot full of soup supported by wide hips. Their breasts fall to their belly, as if they were never propped up quite right. And, these bodies walk with a relaxed stride from the steam room to the sinks.
I am the skinniest woman in the hammam and, for the first time in my life, I am concerned that my stomach is too flat and my shape isn’t curvy enough. Still, I am treated the same as every French-speaking Muslim there. Women lead me from room to room and my body endures treatments, scrubs and massages.
And there is slime involved: hot green goo that is massaged and pasted all over my body. The pear-shaped woman wraps me up like a plastic taco that keeps the green goo inside, with me. As I lay there, covered in green goo and plastic in Morocco with naked Muslim women walking, talking and bathing all around me, I realize that I feel comfortable. If I were in America, this would be the salon and I would be getting my hair cut.
But, this is better. This is bonding. This is strength. These are Muslim women revealed and casual. These are women in the bath. They are not wrapped pieces of cloth walking behind their husbands through the market. They were not keeping their home and praying.
I visit more than three rooms of the hammam, each with it’s own treatment and its own batch of women. I let myself be vulnerable to a cultural experience far out of my comfort zone. And, I take part it a ritual that is sacred and special to the women of Morocco.
Then, I walk back out to the polluted city streets filled with men, lower my head, clutch my purse and pray a taxi will get me back to the my room safely — all the time, smiling because I know the secrets that lay under the Muslim veil.