The Naked Truth in Marrakech


The Naked Truth in Marrakech
Story and photos by Zora O'Neill

An overawed traveler gets to the heart of a culture by taking off her clothes.

travel in Marrakech

I'd been in Marrakech for the better part of a week, and the effect wasn't dissipating. If anything, it was growing stronger by the day. Everywhere I looked was astonishingly, unnervingly, unbelievably scenic.

There sauntered a man in a pristine pressed djellaba, his hood poking up like a garden gnome's hat. At the fruit stand, a woman ordered a glass of fresh orange juice that popped just so against her flawlessly coordinated hot-pink headscarf, robe and pointy-toed slippers. And here came some boys on a moped, aglow in the light slanting through the cane shades over the narrow street.

Shop man in Morocco

As each day produced more of these uncannily beautiful apparitions, I increasingly fought the urge to sidle up to people and whisper, "Come on, it's just me. You don't have to go to all this trouble."

How to explain this odd, occasional travelers' sensation that a whole city, a whole culture, is a piece of theater performed solely for your benefit? It sounds self-centered, but it's not exactly. It's just, I think, a way of processing a particular form of culture shock: the shock that all the stuff you've seen in pictures over the years actually exists, large as life, and now you're there in the middle of it. Or perhaps it's because iconic images of a place are so slickly packaged and linked with tourism that even the most physically tangible, amazing things—the Pyramids of Giza, say—exude a faint whiff of Epcot Center.

Then again, maybe years of image accretion aren't even necessary. I first had this sensation at age 12, in Hawaii. The leis and the tropical-print shirts, the "alohas" and the strange new-to-me fruits—they all conspired to make me feel as if my father had driven our rental car onto a giant movie set, with backdrops being pulled into place as we arrived, then dismantled behind us. As we drove on, I imagined people turning their backs, dusting off their hands and saying to one another, in distinctly un-Hawaiian accents, "So, right, where were we?"

But what's the alternative to this hyper-awareness of location? It might be simply to see everything as totally normal and unremarkable, to not notice each monk on the Bangkok subway or every camel by the highway in Dubai—and that seems a little dreary. Still, in overstimulating Marrakech, I was craving a bit of normal and unremarkable. I decided to do what's normal for many Moroccans, as well as a way of chilling out and switching off for a few hours: I went to a hammam.

The hammam was another aspect of Moroccan culture I couldn't believe existed, but more in an oh-my-gosh-I've-died-and-gone-to-heaven way. I'm most comfortable in a tropically humid environment, and I'm just enough of a nudist to love sitting around with no clothes on—as long as there's plenty of steam, and I can leave my glasses in the dressing room.

I'd been to hammams before, in Istanbul and pre-war Aleppo, but they were distinctly for tourists. (Not that this made the experience any less pleasurable—oh, to be flopped on a slab of marble and scrubbed from my toes to the tops of my ears until I glowed pink.) The workaday Moroccan hammam is a different scene. Public bathing is still routine for many who live in medinas, the traditional walled cities where modern showers and central heating have yet to be shoehorned into the centuries-old homes. A few times a week, people put all their toiletries in a plastic bucket and walk down the lane to the nearest bathhouse, for a good scrub and a chat with friends.

In the Marrakech hammam I'd found, near Bab Doukkala, a great dome soared over the main room, but any fancy marble or mosaic trim had been lost long ago. The floor and walls were rough concrete. This was for the best—I didn't want to be distracted by ornament. I squinted through the steam and was relieved to see not a single obvious trapping of postcard Morocco. I just saw women of all ages, shapes and sizes in nothing but their underpants.

An attendant steered me by the elbow to a spot on the edge of the room, then gave me a rubber mat to sit on. She brought me a giant plastic bucket filled with hot water and a smaller bowl, for dousing myself, then left me to soap up. Two older women near me, settled on their own mats with their own buckets, monitored me. "Don't forget your face," they pantomimed, and nodded in approval when I mimicked their gestures.

Morocco Mosaic

When I was fully lathered and had just begun to melt slightly in the steam, the attendant returned. She gestured for my bath mitt (I'd bought it in, of course, a picture-perfect spice shop, where the bath accessories hung above bright heaps of red pepper and turmeric) and set to work on my back, scrubbing and pummeling and pulling me this way and that. The two women nearby smiled, and I closed my eyes and let my mind go blank.

An hour later, when I walked out in the street, I slipped easily into the stream of late-afternoon foot traffic. A moped buzzed by, through the golden-hour sun, and women in impeccable djellabas were chatting in front of a store overflowing with ocher, brick-red and black spices.

The scene was just as beautiful as it had been the day before, but now I saw it differently. In the hammam, I had seen people truly in the flesh, sincere and un-costumed. And when I'd put my clothes back on, it was as if Marrakech was just another layer I'd added. For the first time, the city felt real. And, as a bonus, I was really clean.

Zora O'Neill is longtime traveler, interested particularly in languages and traditional foods. She has written or contributed to more than a dozen guidebooks, and co-authored a cookbook. Her latest book is All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World. She lives in Queens, New York.

Related Features:
Common Ground in the Kasbah by James Michael Dorsey
Clear and Prescient Danger in Morocco by Luke Armstrong
Extreme Eating in Morocco by Amy Rosen
Hot Times in the Riviera Maya by Zora O'Neill

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