Immersion Journalism: More on the hidden and the open

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So, as it turned out, dropping trou at the Tel Aviv airport was nothing compared to what happened next. Yesterday we went to a women’s hammam, public bathhouse, with local Muslim women. Mounia, a relatively modern young lady—recently divorced, fluent in English, which she teaches to high school students—and two of her close friends brought three of us to a neighborhood place, nothing fancy, the real deal—that is, for Fes natives, not for tourists. I was grateful and honored for a peek inside this intimate space. Like the musician friends at the barbecue at Said’s house back in East Jerusalem (was that really only five days earlier? what is it about travel that both contracts and expands time, so that the trip flies by and it also feels as if we’ve been here forever?)—these women were doing what they’d do anyway on a Saturday afternoon, and we were lucky enough to be there for it. But no fly on the wall here: while I wasn’t impacting the situation around me much, I was fully participating. I was less obtrusive, in fact, than if I’d stood on the side, fully clothed, notebook in hand, and merely observed.

Mounia told me that women tend to go to the bathhouse once a week, for 10 dirham (a little over a dollar) a visit. Older women often go in the morning, to cleanse themselves before visiting the mosque. The hammam is a wild, playful (if with others) or businesslike (if alone) affair, not at all the serene, spa-like atmosphere you might expect. I myself went in with no expectations, eager for my beginner’s mind to be surprised. Mind-blowing was more like it.

What struck me most, of course, was the utter lack of self-consciousness among these women from such an extremely modest culture. Mounia and her cronies stripped off their many layers with impressive swiftness and assurance, their nudity frank, a non-issue; here, in this safe, all-female space, there was a complete physical freedom, a luxury they didn’t experience the outside. I, by contrast, am completely comfortable walking down the street in Brooklyn in the summertime wearing a tank top and shorts (even passing New York Muslim women in their full hijab and pitying them in the heat), but here, told to strip down to my underwear in front of women I’d just met, felt initially shy, accustomed as I am to private ablutions. But the women’s warmth and humor quickly put me at ease. In this hidden place, a woman could at last be open.

We sat on the floor in a large tiled room, buckets of hot water and plastic scoops lined up before us. I looked around at the other women there: young and old, toned and flabby, some with perky breast buds, others with pendulous bosoms swaying near their waists. One pregnant woman sat and shaved herself. Another woman brushed her teeth. Another had brought her little son (Mounia explained that the cut-off age for male children in hammams is around six) and daughter (who was totally nude), and another an infant, wailing as water was poured over him, his squirming body slippery pink. Mounia and friends proceded to wash us—again, not gentle Swedish-massage style but vigorously, like women cleaning the walls or windows, or clothing on a ribbed washboard. Slathered with a traditional soap called beldi, made from virgin black olive oil, to prepare the skin for exfoliation. Then scrubbed with a rough sandpapery mitten—arms, legs, stomach, face—and feet with a pumice stone. Shampooed and brushed roughly with a prickly comb, head yanked back from the force of it. Massaged all over with henna mud. And scoops upon scoops of hot water, the last round with flower petals—rose, bergamot—all coming suddenly, without warning, in a crazy cascade. A hammam is not for relaxation, it’s to get clean, and to embrace community. Through all the scrubbing, we chatted, laughed, connected in the most natural female way, the bizarre (to me) situation rapidly growing less so. It was intimate, but really in no way sensual, but rather matter-of-fact. And out of that lack of elusiveness, that straightforward revelation, that laid-bare-ness—external and internal, literal and figurative—came the freedom.

After patting ourselves dry, I dressed quickly in my jeans and shirt I’d bought that morning in the souk (my luggage still at large), and then watched Mounia dress more slowly, for all the layers. First her underwear and bra. Then white cotton leggings and a black and white striped long-sleeved t-shirt. Then her shalwar kameez, tunic top and matching pants. Then her hooded, ankle-length jalaba. Last, her head scarf; she went to the one mirror in the place and wrapped it carefully around her head. I’d seen this woman naked, her long black hair wet and unraveled as she expertly flicked the scoop of water to rinse out her shampoo, and now she was covered again, hair and body restored to their usual invisibility, ready to leave this women’s sanctuary and head back into the outer world.

The rest of the afternoon, my skin felt firm and supple, and softer than it ever had before. Internally, I felt great affection for Mounia, a perhaps inordinate closeness considering the short time we’d spent together. She seemed to feel the same. After gathering with many other female friends and relatives at one of their apartments for sweet mint tea, where her mother was making bergamot orange water from scratch, it was time to say goodbye. “Please return. You are always welcome here,” she said after we’d exchanged e-mails, both of us getting teary-eyed (as I am now again, writing this, so touched by her warmhearted generosity, opening her hidden world to us, sharing with us in this way). “Please know that you always have a sister here.”

This morning, my bath alone in my private bathroom in the riad, despite the Argan oil I added to the water, was very uninteresting and a bit lonely by comparison.


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5 Responses to “Immersion Journalism: More on the hidden and the open”

  1. Tracey Says:

    Wow, your experience was very much like one I read about in a magazine years ago! I wish I could remember who wrote the article and where I saw it, now.

  2. BK Says:

    Not sure how to respond to this one. It’s hard to come back to the computer after these vivid descriptions. The beautiful scene you created honestly swept me away. Talk about putting a reader THERE. Wow. That was so great to read! I experienced the smallest, smallest element of something like this once. I taught a class of all women writers, one of whom was Muslim. Near the end of the course she asked me if we were “safe” here. Her implication was clear: is there a chance a man would enter the room? I said, yes, we were safe–no men on the horizon. And she took off her hijab and her beautiful black hair fell over her shoulders and everyone, not just the young woman, but all of us, were subtly but certainly transformed. With just that tiny taste in my memory, I entered your writing, and I felt completely swept away, into the moment. I flattered myself, believing I could imagine it. But your writing privileged me. I didn’t have to imagine it: there it was–vividly. Indelibly. Thank you.

  3. Lauren Says:

    “‘Wow.’ That was about all she could say. ‘Wow.'” (Kevin Henkes, “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse”)

    Beautiful rendering of the exotic-to-ordinary, or is it ordinary-to-exotic?
    Love your eloquent posts.

  4. Gill Winograd Says:

    I agree with BK’s comments. It’s a great blog entry. I’d add that I saw a movie recently, le chant des mariees, set in Tunisia in 1942 with many scenes in the women’s hammam. So I was comparing the visuals from Sarah’s words with those from the movie as I remember it. There was a lot in common. Here is the link to Netflix on the movie.
    http://www.netflix.com/Movie/The_Wedding_Song/70127023?strackid=75a377cbd772b29_0_srl&strkid=540549176_0_0&trkid=222336

  5. Raina Says:

    Thank you for sharing such a beautiful and tender hearted experience. The loving insight that you shared enriched my imagination and ensured that this is something worth experiencing. thank you again

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