The Pleasures of the Bathhouse
Morocco abounds with hammams - oriental steam baths - and over many months here I've tried a range of them: from inexpensive communal baths in the heart of an old medina, to uber-chic 'it's-all-for-me' boutique experiences in Marrakech. The one I describe here is centuries old in the heart of Fes.
It's a little creative response inspired by Delacroix's voluptuous etching from the 1830s, which I wrote during a Freefall Writing Retreat with Barbara -Turner Vesselago :
I feel so clean that I don’t want even want to breathe the air, let alone step outside.
Soaped, scrubbed, sluiced and sloshed, my steamy hammam, carvernous with echoing torrents gushing from the brass faucets is a world of delight to appease and challenge this thing I call ‘myself’.
Does everyone who experiences this ‘Middle Eastern’ moment feel a sense, as I do, of returning to an imagined infancy, where warmth and skin and water, coalesced by care, cosset one with a cleanliness which is closer to happiness than anything else?
Willingly I accede to instructions, take this off, take that off, lie there, put your leg here … in a way which is foreign to me in any other context beyond these tiled walls. And between us, two nearly-naked women sitting face to face upon the floor, a contract is made where one serves, and one receives, in an age-old exchange of ordinary intimacy.
When clothed, I would say that there is nothing as intriguing as a foreigner’s language, but nakedness demands its own, naked curiosity, and between the different colours of our skins, lie worlds so far apart that I wonder there is room for all of us on this intriguing planet.
I shut my eyes from modesty, not mine, but in deference to hers, as my foot is pulled upon her broad, dimpled thigh, my toes encountering...what it is? breast, belly … voluptuous folds-upon-folds of slippery, smooth skin, before my leg comes to rest, ankle tucked firmly in the crook of her armpit and my alertness eases into easy accession.
Black soap. Treacly. The residue of olive pressings, smeared and slathered, releasing a sweet tang of orange upon warmed skin. It’s so gorgeous, I want to scoop it up and feel it ooze between my fingers.
Knees, nipples and nose are scrubbed with the same deft determination, as the underside of the loofah is repeatedly inspected to ensure that I have indeed been relieved of most of my epidermis; if skin constitutes the largest organ of one’s body then I’m surely going to weigh less after all this polishing.
Left to marinate in the fragrant steam, reflection comes easily for there is no place beyond this whilst I am here. In the medina, however, where such commonplace luxuries cost only the price of a simple meal, solitude is not expected. Women gather for hours, resting, washing, eating, sleeping, and talking. Burhkas and abayas are left in crumpled piles on benches, and the voluptuous imaginings of 19th Century artists come to life as odalisques of every shape and hue perform the rituals of their grandmothers.
For the first time in my life I wish I was a man. Not for the first time do I wish I might live in such a way. The distinction between private and public, in life, and reflected in the spaces where life is lived, creates a differential more pronounced than the increasing homogeneity I sense ‘at home’. I love this difference. I love the sequestering of self behind walls, where filtered light seeps through small, deep windows, slanting sharply to gain entry into cool, dark rooms. The differential is the light perhaps. Penumbral spaces inside, the glare of external light. Where I come from, artists never fail to talk about the ‘Australian light’. Once experienced, it is like no other; it leaves nothing unturned. It defies secrets, secrecy, forcing its way into everything. It is so insistent. So demanding! I've never been entirely comfortable beneath its glare.
In the world of hammams privacy can be bought. Marbled luxury, niched light and the private solicitations of one’s own attendant offer a degree of sheer deliciousness unequalled by any other domain I've ever experienced. Every ministration is monitored for pressure, duration and temperature. Such queries may be intrusions on a mind already in a world of its own, but as one eases upon the steam-warmed smoothness of beautiful stone, all impurities, stress and soreness seem effortlessly absorbed, and then, with only the heat for company, one’s mind too is quickly quelled.
Sybarite or sloth, the hammam embodies what I love about the ‘Middle East’ – what used to be called ‘the Orient’ – and gives the most visceral of realities to this anonymous adage from the Maghreb:
“How beautiful it is to do nothing, and then relax afterwards”