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.

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.

3 Things That Woke Me Up Before My Alarm

Fun fact: The earliest call to prayer happens before sunrise and is the only one of the five that includes the words “Prayer is better than sleep.”

5:40 AM. Call to prayer.

Much like how church bells signal the beginning of a service, Islam has a call to prayer called adhan. A muezzin recites the adhan – often over loudspeakers – five times a day from the minaret of the mosque. The logic behind this is that minarets are typically one of the tallest structures in a city or town, so everyone will hear it and be reminded to pray. The adhan itself is a brief summary of the Muslim faith; it includes the takbir (“God is great”) and the shahada (“there is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger”).

Of course, as in many religions, there is theory and there is practice. Though prayers are mandatory five times a day, I have never seen a Moroccan recite prayers immediately following every adhan, neither in public nor in private. It is possible that many men do visit the mosque each time as the koran demands, but clearly many are not doing so. That said, Islam permits people to skip prayers if they absolutely cannot perform them, as long as they make up for it later in the day.

I think I have only slept through this call to prayer once or twice in my first two months here, particularly because I can hear three calls to prayer from my room.


6:30 AM. My host brother’s alarm.

My host family lives in a two-story townhouse above a one-story apartment. My host mom and three host sisters sleep on the top floor as does my younger host brother. I sleep on the lower level in my own room, and my older brother sleeps in the salon next to my room. Because the entrance to both my room and the salon are curtains, I hear his alarm go off every morning at 6:30. Mine is set for 7:30.

The catch? He is a very heavy sleeper. I’m not. And I’m lazy in the mornings. So when his alarm goes off, I don’t go over to turn it off. I just deal with it for about 20 minutes until, without fail, my oldest host sister screams his name from above in order to wake him.
In conversations with other PC trainees, there seems to be a common theme in our host families. The men typically bring in the money while the women tend to spend the money. In this way, the women (in my family, my oldest sister) prioritize purchases and determine what is best for the family. My older sisters control meal times, they keep the house clean, and they make sure both my working brothers wake up in time for work.


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7:07 AM. Chickens.

There are two chickens in my house. My oldest sister calls them “monsieur” and “madame”, which we both find hilarious. What I don’t find as hilarious is how loud they get in the mornings. They stay in their cage (read: a box with a grill on top) at night, and they really want out as soon as the sun starts peeking under the front door. Their clucks echo up the stone-and-drywall-lined staircase, under the lower floor’s door, and through my bedroom curtain.

Chickens are relatively cheap (I hear you can buy one for 50 dirhams, roughly $5), and eggs can get relatively expensive, so it makes sense for families to own one or two. I don’t yet understand why my family owns a rooster and a hen, but at the very least we get a few eggs a week from “madame”. Perhaps my family sells chicks but it isn’t yet mating season. If any of my readers know anything about chicken breeding, feel free to weigh in on this topic in the comments section.