Morocco Journal Part Three
In Expanse of Truth / Layers for Flesh and for Dust
There was light, flesh and pools of hair. It was a vision that shimmered somewhere between the sublime and the purest beauty. Inta el maghrebi? I shook my head and breathlessly said la. She had me in a considerably compromising position, half naked and wet, melting with exhaustion. Tonguing Arabic at that point seemed unreasonable. I seemed to be excused though, at least for the moment. I didn’t know her name and she didn’t know mine. She had brought me into the changing room by the hand and sat and watched me strip to my underwear. This usually takes a while with all the rings and earrings, but she never imparted any impatience. We have all afternoon to get you good and clean, maybe even next to godliness, I imagine she was thinking, Inshallah. She was right if she was thinking this way, it had been about a week since I had a proper shower sans bucket. It was not just the sand I had collected in my hair through the afternoons of driving through dusty mountains or the kohl caked around my eyes, the only cosmetic luxury I was allowing myself as of late, but the filth of confusion and exhaustion. Being the stranger in a strange land adds layers to you that also needed to be wiped and cleansed away at some point.
She led me out, through the hall to leave my belongings. I was surprised at the vastness of the space and everywhere on the floor was nakedness, being washed, touched, scrubbed, soaped. The voices and the flesh mixed and I didn’t know whether to look wider or listen closer. She gently pushed me under the hot showers, these waters being the reason people come to Moulay Yacoub and today was Friday, it was crowded. There were a group of women in the pool and they started to clap and sing and I opened my eyes to it and sighed with relax.
She tugged a long draw on my knickers and laid me out of a piece of plastic next to the pool lined with deceivingly blue clear water. The holes in the ceiling let light leak in and it illuminated spots on the swaying water. She started to scrub me and her mitten was course but I loved it and dissolved in her hands. She was going to take care of me and I needed someone to.
She grabbed me and forced her hands on my shoulders pushing me down onto a plastic stool. Taking my hair, she forcefully combed it out, tugging my head back and forth with it. I was pretty sure I would have no hair left at the end of this exercise, she was that rough and strands of dark were left on my soaked back. I was wondering the entire time what she was combing with but I kept my head down at her disposal. She had become rougher with me as the dirt melted away and my skin softened and rouged to pink. She set down what the comb was considered and I recognized it as a tool you might use to clean the rice bits from the bottom of a steel pot. I touched my hair in a bit of a terrified state, reminding me how I identified too closely with my long dark hair. It was vain and I knew it.
When I was naked and my hair was long and wet, it did not matter any more, I looked and could have been Moroccan. A dreamy sense of unity set into this moment and maybe I could belong in this place, among women and children, in a place immersed in filth but bathed in light. As bodies, we are always the same, as we are in hearts and souls, separated only by miles.
I admit, with no shame or discomfort, there are few things I love more in life than public bathing. It is the whole of it and it is the details and nuance. I believe this affection comes from my father. He used to sit in the Swedish sauna that he had built next to our pantry in our beautiful stone house in New York. Winters always brought countless feet of snow and every afternoon, Roubik would leave the office and go skiing for a couple hours and then come home and sit in the sauna. It seemed like therapy, he loved to be alone in their, glasses off, as the aroma of the cedar warmed. I heard after we had sold the house, someone had turned that part of the house into a spa.
The first time I was in Morocco, I went alone to a public hammam in the middle of tiny Essaouira. My mother insisted that I cash in the venturing for the day and head downstairs with her to the hotel hammam, but no, after lunch, I went around corners and through archways and found the sign made of falling paint that indicated the entrance, the women’s being more decrepit and much smaller than that of the men. But I had made a mistake and come at the wrong time, hoping to miss the crowd, the women were asleep in the changing room and I was embarrassed that I had interrupted them. One of them grumbled and sat up, motioning me to take off my clothes and do it quickly. This woke up a few people and caught the attention of some of the bathers that were finishing their session. Taking your clothing off in front of one person can certainly be daunting, either a lover or a doctor but it can be terrifying to undress in front of a group of people who are talking about you in a language you have yet to understand. Later, alone with my lady in the hammam, she seemed to forgive me for interrupting her nap when she saw how I responded to her scrub with gratitude.
The discovery of the Russian Bathhouse on Tenth Street in the East Village came as a revelation during my maiden visit. Consequently, this also included my mother. She thought there was no better way to recover from the red eye from San Francisco. Vladimer scrubbed and forced us into the cold pool. We gasped for air as we came up, a most beautiful invigorating gasp for life. Many visits after this one, Victor grabbed the pulse on my throat forcefully after a platza treatment and said you have strong eyes so you must have a strong heart.
I have a fantasy about being the hammam lady and working in the heat and water, touching and scrubbing people and seeing them ease back into life, the dead skin falling off of them. It appeared to be honest and delicate work and there is always strength in tasks with ones hands. To be able to take care of people and their skin. To teach them to take care of themselves and forgive them for not having done so.
AM /// June 2014