The only sound I could hear was the steady drip of the faucet somewhere behind me. I could no longer hear muffled voices outside the door. I was alone, lying on a moist bench in a steam-filled hammam room in Agadir, Morocco. Beads of water formed on the ceiling above me, at the corners of the light blue tiles. I prayed one would fall on my arm or my shoulder, so that I might feel its coolness for a moment. I was melting into the pool of steam and sweat under my body. It felt like I was disappearing.
Maybe that’s what was supposed to happen. I was supposed to disappear - to be come invisible. I closed my eyes and breathed in the heat and silence, thinking about the last few hours.
Since I’d landed in Agadir, my impression was that women were meant to be covered up – not quite invisible, just somehow “less visible.” The men walked down the street, rode mopeds, played soccer in local parks, and gathered in local cafes. Some wore robes, but many wore tshirts and shorts. The women walked alone or in pairs, wearing djellabas (long, loose robes) and headscarves. Some wore all black. Others donned bright colors as they floated quietly through an sea of men. They didn’t linger on the sidewalk or meet at local restaurants to socialize.
I’d known Morocco would be different, but didn’t expect to feel this out of place. After checking into my hotel, I watched from the window for forty minutes. I saw a few couples who looked like tourists, but didn’t see ANY women walking by themselves except those who wore the long robes. I didn't feel comfortable venturing out alone, so I went downstairs and ate inside at the hotel restaurant. I didn't make eye contact with the men who ate outside on the terrace.
For my forty-eighth birthday, I’d booked a massage & hammam package at a local “wellness center.” The driver they sent to pick me up spoke no English. Neither did the woman who guided me to the hammam room. The man at the front desk spoke enough English to confirm my treatment and make sure that I paid.
A woman about my age guided me by the hand through a small waiting room to an alcove with several small lockers. She was dressed simply in a white t-shirt with a blue floral print, black yoga pants, and grey canvas shoes. Her hair was pulled up, but strands of it stuck to her face which glistened with a perspiration. Initially, she tried to talk to me in French, but stopped trying to speak to me at all after it became clear that I only spoke English. Using hand gestures, she indicated that I should undress and put my clothes in the locker.
She walked away for a couple of minutes and then returned to lead me through an adjacent door into a small, square room covered in blue-grey tile and heavy with steam. She gestured for me to lie down on a bench at the far side of the room. We didn’t speak as she coated the front side of my body with a black oily substance (olive oil soap), and then turned me over to rub the oily soap on my back, butt, and legs. She left the room. I lay on my stomach, feeling alone and noticing tension in my low back. Steam warmed my nose and throat. I tried, unsuccessfully, to relax.
Usually, I find it easy to connect with other women, but I felt separate here. It felt different. I wanted to relax into my body and enjoy the treatment, but I was too busy thinking. Hammam was something Moroccan women did to be with each other, so maybe it seemed absurd to them that tourists pay to come alone, to be massaged and bathed by strangers. I wondered if they viewed me as a spoiled, white woman who spent money on frivolous things and traveled alone in a country where I didn’t fit in. They may not have been thinking any of this, but I felt ashamed and awkward.
I felt guilty about the freedom I enjoy - about my choice to walk away from my family and my job to wander. It didn’t seem like a choice that the women here could make. Their quietness and deference to men (or what I perceived as such) was difficult for me to understand, but I judged that my own culture would feel as foreign and incomprehensible to them.
After about twenty minutes (which felt like hours), the door creaked open. Another woman came in. Her clothes stuck to her in the damp air; her hair was pulled back into a bright red bandanna. She filled a bucket with cool water and rinsed my body. Then she scrubbed me. It was rough and abrasive, but she was skilled and quick about removing a layer of dead skin from every inch of my body. I remembered the scars from my surgery this year and the lingering hardness in my right breast. I felt self conscious. Part of me wanted her not to notice them. Another part of me wanted to beg her to scrub until the scars were gone and my breast felt soft to touch again. She said nothing as she moved the rough sponge over my incision marks, but her scrubbing felt less vigorous now, more tender. Or maybe I only imagined it to be that way.
Then I was alone again. I’d been coated with a thick layer of fragrant clay (ghasshoul) and was melting into the tile. I listened to the faucet drip. I felt small and insignificant.
I thought about how often I'd chosen to hide myself, to be less visible in my own life and in my own culture. It was what was supposed to happen there too, just in different ways. I'd spent most of my life trying not to make others uncomfortable - playing by the "rules" that I'd learned at home, in school, in church, from friends, and from the media. I tried to be "good" and nice". I worked hard to be successful, but was careful not to be "bossy". I had permission to dress alluringly and express my sexuality, as long as I understood that doing so gave men implied permission to harass or violate me. I knew better than to play to rough or speak too loud or take up too much space. It's not that anyone gave me a rule book, but I knew what it felt like to be called names, joked about, or even shunned if I didn't play by the unspoken rules. It was better, or at least easier, to stay small and quiet and invisible (or at least less visible).
Until it became uncomfortable. Until I couldn't do it anymore.
This past few years, I'd been expanding, becoming more visible. It was invigorating. It was terrifying.
But here in Agadir, I was small again. I couldn't breathe. The air was heavy and moist. My throat felt tight. I swallowed, choking on screams that I’d never screamed. I felt like crying, but I kept my breath shallow and swallowed again.
I wasn’t sad, but something in me wanted to cry in gratitude for the adventure and the freedom, in anguish for the lack of self- expression, in sadness for all of those who ever felt totally alone, even for a moment. But it didn’t feel safe to cry here. Perhaps the women would come back in and scrub me without noticing my tears, but if they did notice, I had no way of communicating with them. I couldn’t assure them that I was alright, and I didn’t want them to feel like something was wrong with my hammam experience.
The door opened. Although it was quiet, I was startled by the break in the silence The woman with the red bandanna came in and pulled me to my feet to start washing the clay off my body. She wasn't gentle, but she wasn't rough either. She washed my hair. For a couple minutes, I felt like a five-year-old child being bathed by her mother. It wasn't a specific memory from my childhood, but a more primal memory.
I didn’t know these women. They didn’t know me, but they were caring for me in a way that was extremely intimate. I could no longer hold back the tears. I wasn’t sobbing, but I knew that it was no longer just steam that rolled down my cheeks and trickled down the front of my neck.
Then the hammam was done. The woman guided me gently by the hand out to the changing room and wrapped me in a robe. For one brief moment, her eyes met mine and it felt like we saw each other. Neither of us was invisible. Even if it was only in my imagination, I consciously let my eyes whisper to hers, "Thank you. I see you too."
She reached for both of my hands and squeezed them. I squeezed back and then moved in the direction she was pointing to wait for my massage.
It was my birthday. I was alone. I missed my daughters and wished I could be having dinner with them later at one of our favorite restaurants in Long Beach.
And I was in Morocco. Scared but okay. Brave enough to travel here on on my own. Grateful that I had the opportunity to do so. Aware of my freedom, and also aware of the ways that I'd been making myself smaller and less visible. Longing to be loud and self-expressed and visible in new ways.