Lonely as a Cloud of Vapour

by Laura Olcelli

A traveler in Morocco attempts to enjoy the pain and pleasure of an ancient exfoliation practice at a hammam.

Bien, euh?” the ṭayyaba asked me in French, a little breathless.

That was a full-blown rhetorical question. I could tell by the wink in her Coca-Cola coloured eyes; they said it all. She already knew she was a pro and that she was dealing with a newbie, so in reality her question was pure courtesy, or perhaps self-praise. Her perception, however, was completely at odds with mine.

Oui! But a bit softer, please,” I replied, wanting to be appreciative.  

To paraphrase an Arabic proverb, our eyes can serve as a substitute for language. Despite what I said, my eyes were probably telling the truth. The rest of my face was contorted in an expression of total pain: teeth clenched, nose and forehead wrinkled, hardly breathing.

I wish someone had warned me this is so uncomfortable, I thought. At what point does it get relaxing? Wait … is that a rash on my chest?

After trying to exchange a few words in French, Kabira said she was more familiar with Arabic. I nodded, realising that my vocabulary wouldn’t allow for any other pauses anytime soon. Inshallah she takes it easy on me.

Tourne!” she ordered gently, gesturing with her hand. I did, and laid prone on the mosaic of white, green and beige tiles, warm and wet. Slippery.

She continued to rub her black kessa glove – as coarse as sandpaper – on my limbs, unrelentingly. Up and down one leg; up and down the other. Each time faster and faster, stronger and stronger, making my skin more and more glowing. Smoother. Silkier. Her forehead, framed by a headscarf, glistened with pearls of sweat from the intense physical effort.

With a hint of shame, I wondered if there would ever be a limit to the dead skin cells that multiplied at each round of scrubbing. If she would ever stop. Eventually she did, either satisfied or resigned to the result.

For a few instants afterwards, my body – soaped up, rinsed down and now thoroughly exfoliated – kept feeling as rigid as a red brick exposed to the harshest elements. The only difference was that everything around me was enveloped in immobile stillness. 

Then Kabira covered me with a stratum of clay that looked like watery concrete and had a pungent smell of orange flowers. I later learned it’s what Moroccans call ghassoul clay – originally from the Atlas Mountains – perfumed with drops of Neroli oil. That fragrant embrace finally forced me to surrender.

The dark steam room, hot and hazy, echoing with the plink plink of water dripping. The savon noir, melting on the skin like delicious chestnut jam on the tongue. The vigorous gommage. The scent of spring released by the clay mask, soaked in essential oils. Warmth deep in my bones. Toxins. Bubbles. Buckets full of water.

It was an all-encompassing, mindful experience for the five senses. A cleansing not just of the body, but of the mind and spirit.   

As I sat on the terracotta-tiled terrace of that traditional Moroccan house, sipping green tea and gazing at the roofs of Agadir, I cooled down. I reflected on the ritual I had just lived: its century-old history inspired by the Roman thermae, its meaning in Islam, its shifting role in today’s Arab world, where it survives in both its original form and five-star touristy adaptations (and everything in between).

In the past, I had passively observed it through the languid characters of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Orientalist paintings, set in the Moorish baths. I had encountered it in the travel letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who famously described the bathhouse she visited in Sofia in the early 1700s as “the women’s coffeehouse, where all the news of the town is told, scandal invented.”

This time though, I was actually there. I could have been a Muslim bride – purifying herself with the sacred and healing power of running water the day before her wedding. Or a Moroccan woman from the neighbourhood – cleaning herself from the inside out, praying, combing a friend’s hair, and socialising on her weekly ablution.

But the reality is that I was an outsider in that microcosm, a foreign traveller striving for a cultural experience as ‘authentic’ as possible. All of a sudden, I felt as lonely as a cloud of vapour. To this day, I nurture contrasting feelings about that hammam I had on my first day in Morocco. It was unpretentiously lavish; soothing yet invigorating; warming – as the Arabic word suggests – and cooling too; exotic, but at the same time intimate. It was an oxymoron, which made me feel vulnerable and alive.  

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