I am greeted by a well-built man in a white djellaba, the traditional Moroccan robe. ”Massage?” He ushers me from the hallway into a central chamber. ”Yes please. If that’s OK.” I am on guard, as I do not wish to offend and have not visited anywhere remotely comparable to this public hammam since a Leningrad sauna in the early 1980s.
”It’s 70 dirhams for the massage, another 10 to get in.”
I signal my assent and am led to an open changing area where I leave my clothes in a cubbyhole superintended by a dozing caretaker.
This was my attempt to catch a glimpse of the ”real” Morocco. I had noticed the slightly shabby pink building, with a dome like a lemon-juicer, on my first walk into town to change money the previous day. Now, emboldened by an informative article in my Fodor’s guidebook, I am steeled for an authentic local experience. ”There is nothing like it to make you feel you are truly in Morocco,” says the guide. With a recommendation like that, how could I not pay a visit?
The two cigarette vendors, who smile good-naturedly at me as I go in, have already eased my concerns: clearly, curious tourists are not unwelcome here. By the time the well-built man, who is called Falaja, hands me a pair of white plastic flip-flops and leads me through a low door hung with flaps of canvas and into the hammam proper, the tension has largely ebbed away.
He leads me to the furthest of three dimly-lit rooms and motions me to lie down on the slippery white-tiled floor. ”Fifteen minutes,” he says, retreating back towards the central chamber.
The room is crowded and the only space is in the far corner, but I am quickly tapped on the shoulder and offered a place near the centre. The air is hot and filled with a light steam, and I soon realise I am sweating profusely. Having agonised in the hotel between swimming trunks or Y-fronts (I chose the latter), I now realise that either would have done. Indeed the hammam garment of choice among the younger set, of whom there are plenty, appears to be football shorts. I switch off as all around me, male Marrakeshis of all ages go industriously about the ritual of their morning ablutions.
When Falaja reappears, he has taken off his djellaba, exposing a comfortable pot belly. He slops water from a pail to rinse off the patch of floor where I have been lying and sets to work.
The massage that follows is short but incredibly vigorous and pitched right on the cusp between pleasure and pain. As he presses down hard on each limb in turn splayed out on the slab-like tiling, I wonder if he is making a forceful point to his effete English customer. It reminds me of the Russian sauna-goer who, all those years ago, cranked up the temperature in the steam-room, and muttered: ”Can you take that you smug capitalist git?”
When he gathers my two arms in one of his and my two legs in the other and rams his foot hard into the small of my back, I momentarily fear I will snap in two. But as my muscles relax and it becomes clear that the worst is over, I am flooded with what I can only describe as a deep sense of physical well-being.
The next phase involves an equally vigorous scrub with a coarse flannel. Dead skin comes off me in sheets, much to the amusement of Falaja who periodically breaks off from his work to point it out to me with great good humour. This is followed in turn by a thorough wash-down with a rich-lathering soap.
We repair to the middle room, where I sit on the floor as he tips a succession of buckets of water over my head, the first warm, the second hot, the rest quite cold. Then it is back out to the central chamber, where he suggests that I relax in one of the alcoves until I am ready to get dressed. I notice that he does likewise.
It is time to settle up and it is clear that Falaja has taken a fancy to my pen, the second time this has happened in less than 24 hours in Marrakesh. It commemorates the International Olympic Committee session in Singapore at which London won the right to host the 2012 Olympic Games, but this is not why I am reluctant to give it to him; at that moment, before I have jotted down the particulars of my latest experience, it is simply an indispensable tool of my trade.
I eventually relent, necessitating a detour to stock up with some ballpoint pens before stopping at a nondescript local cafe to quench my thirst. At first I cannot understand why all the customers appear quite so gripped by a large television tuned to Equidia, a French satellite channel about horses. Then I look at what I had taken to be the bill neatly tucked into the handle of my tea glass. In fact, it is the race-card for the Prix des Grandes Ecuries at Chantilly that afternoon and I had been expected to place a bet. It is one of the charms of Marrakesh that it is constantly surprising.
A few days later, I felt still more privileged to have had this small window onto day-to-day life in Morocco after coming across a passage by Joseph Thomson, the 19th-century explorer after whom Thomson’s gazelle is named. ”In pursuance of our design to `do’ Morocco as thoroughly as possible,” he wrote, ”we resolved to have `a wash and brush up’ in the native fashion. The hammum [sic] in Morocco, as in all Mohammedan countries, is an institution.
”There was one great obstacle to our carrying out our wishes. The hammum was sacred to the faithful, and no Christian had ever been known to desecrate the hallowed precincts.”
Oh, and when I bumped into Falaja on the street a few hours after my massage, he greeted me like an old chum.