The Art of Public Bathing

Over the past month, the weather has been strange. Rain, wind, lightning, hot sun, humidity, dust, all in one day? Check.

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As you can see, the 7mmam is a necessary place in my site. I live on the edge of the desert and, for a few weeks each year, my city sees ajej. I should say “my city fears ajej” because, as it turns out, sand pelting your face in 50mph wind gusts hurts.

Once the dust and wind settled down for this season, I craved the 7mmam. I hadn’t visited one since my training in Tiflet six months before, and, despite showering two or three times a week, I could feel the layers of dirt and dead skin covering my body. Sometimes, if I was sweaty enough, I could rub on my arm and pull off little shreds of dead skin, much like I do whenever I get sunburned.

And so I finally made it to a 7mmam with two of my best friends, Abdelghani and Adam.

Some 7mmams have two entrances that delineate two completely separate sections – one for men and one for women. The 7mmams with just one section have specific hours for each sex. Such 7mmams in my town are open for men for a few hours early in the morning and a few late in the evening; women claim it the rest of the day. The one Abdelghani, Adam, and I went to is the two-section kind, so the men’s side is open all day. I was surprised once we stepped inside that we were among the few men there, but after some thought, I reasoned why.

Though my site is big on agriculture, the city center is full of cafes, shops, banks, tailors, retailers, and government buildings. Men are much more likely to work in such places and so they must go to the 7mmam before or after business hours. It’s a probable explanation for why there were so few at our 7mmam.

Women, who tend to work in the home, have time throughout the day to wash. A symptom of their extended hours (though maybe it is the cause) is the ability to chat. The women’s 7mmam is perhaps the only purely female space. As such, they are free to talk about whatever they want, including things they might never say in front of men. They also have the ability to talk for extended periods of time unlike in the home. Naturally, they tend to stay inside the 7mmam much longer than men.

7mmam dressing room
A 7mmam dressing room.

My 7mmam experience this time was similar to that of six months ago, though with far fewer people. First we stepped into the changing room, a small space about half the size of the one in this photo. There were two long wooden benches lining the walls and shelf space above and below to store our bags. We stripped down to our underwear (nudity is shameful), stored our clothes, and took our shampoo, soap, 7mmam-owned buckets, and other necessary toiletries through the door to the 7mmam.

The first room we stepped into was about – and I am completely guessing here – 100 degrees Fahrenheit, about 15 degrees hotter than outside. There was one man sitting there, leaning against the tiled wall. We pushed aside a heavy mat hanging from the ceiling into the second room, about 20 degrees hotter than the first (maybe). Here we set up our base camp.

We filled our buckets from two faucets jutting out from the wall, one dispensing scalding hot water, the other freezing cold. While Adam tended to the buckets, making the water just the right temperature, Abdelghani and I ventured into the final room. It was a sweltering 140 degrees, I imagine. It was nearly impossible to breathe normally, and even more so when we took advantage of the heat to loosen up our muscles. We stretched for a few minutes and attempted to talk, but our voices echoed too much through the room the 10ft by 20ft room to understand one another.

I returned to room #2, sweat already pouring out of every pore, and helped Adam finish filling the buckets. We blocked off a corner using the buckets as a wall. Meanwhile, Abdelghani, armed with a bucket of water and a squeegee, washed away any remnants of whoever had been there before us. Then… we sat.

And sat.

And sweated.

Until it was time to get clean. There’s this scrubber thing called a “kees”. It looks a little like an oven mitt without the thumb part, but rather than padding to keep your hand safe from a burning pot, the kees is rough and scratchy and is designed to exfoliate.

Moroccan exfoliating glove, the kees
This picture makes the kees look WAY too elegant.

Most men scrub themselves with their keeses, removing layers upon layers of sweat, dust, skin, and anything else they may be covered in. Once they finish scrubbing their face, arms, legs, stomach, and neck, they employ someone else to scrub their back.

That was my intention. But then Abdelghani insisted on giving me the full 7mmam experience. With all my dead skin and dirt loosened from the heat, he took my kees and annihilated my arms. He liquidated my legs. He butchered my back. He wrecked my neck and beat my feet until I was like a tomato, red and raw. The only part of myself I got to clean was beneath my underwear, which I performed delicately in the bathroom.

That was just the first round, because after all the dead skin and dirt was removed, it was time to use soap and actually clean into the pores. So, using my kees, Abdelghani went to town again until I was like a soapy tomato. He also tried to stretch my leg and arm muscles, but half the time I didn’t understand what was happening and instead flexed instead of relaxed. I’m sure the man and his young son in another corner were laughing, but there was too much echo and I couldn’t see anything anyway since my glasses were a long way away in the changing room. The whole time I was confused, in pain, and blind, but fortunately I got to wash my hair myself, and used a rough rubber-bristled brush to exfoliate my scalp.

By this point we had been in the 7mmam for about two hours. More than enough. I escaped into the relatively cold changing room and gulped down liters of water, replacing quite literally all the water that had evacuated my pores. And then I sat on the wooden bench.

And sat.

And sweated.

Until Adam and Abdelghani exited room #1 and started to change back into street clothes. We dried off and pulled on track suits. Generally used for sport among young men our age, they protect slowly-closing pores from the environment as one walks back to one’s home.

Traditionally, once one returns from the 7mmam, it is time to nap. I welcomed such a treat because, let’s face it, I nap almost every day anyway, and at least this time I had an excuse. I turned on my new fan, turned it toward my face, and woke up four hours later.

Overall, just as I thought in Tiflet, the 7mmam was not a fun experience, but it was a necessary one. Thanks to Abdelghani’s determination, I have never been cleaner.