Wednesday, 18 January 2012

New Bee in Marrakech

Sundown from the roof terrace: Marrakech
I lay naked on wet concrete in a chamber of hot fog. The murk was broken only by a tiny skylight, way up on the half-arch ceiling. A thin beam of winter sun knifed through the mist and illuminated fleshy  bodies lined up on the floor. This is the Hammam, the public bath for women at Sidi bin Slimane, a working-class neighborhood of Marrakech, Morocco. I wondered if we maybe should have booked ourselves a deluxe Hammam and Aromatherapy session at one of the tourist spas, but I´d left this particular detail to my son Philip to handle. He´d opted for "taking a chance, going native, and saving 60 bucks apiece."

I am a woman of the world, well-traveled, confident in strange places, and this pushed my boundaries. I have been to public baths before, old Jewish schvitzes, in New York City and Detroit and Baden-Baden. In Madrid I´d taken Philip before to the deluxe faux-Moorish Hammam, great pools of hot and cold water, mint tea in misty rooms, everyone modestly attired in swimsuits, speaking in languages we understood, following a carefully-timed routine.

This was another country. Here in Sidi Bin Slimane, big women whispered to one another in a  strange language, trying not to stare at the winter-white carcass old Fatima was handling, over by the entryway -- the carcass was me, a stranger in their weekly ladies-only. There were no limpid pools or hydrotherapy showers or rose-petals. There was concrete, worn smooth by years of water. There were great pipes and faucets, and dozens of plastic buckets. Fatima folded me down to the floor before a lineup of buckets, and poured the tingling hot water from several over my head and shoulders, back and legs.

The old woman worked naked, wet and bulbous and black-skinned. She squeezed oily black soap from a plastic baggie and spread it across a mitt of scratchy cloth, which she rasped across every square inch of my skin. She moved my body and limbs up and aside as if I was a doll, across her lap and much too near to her rolls of skin and hair. Flecks of dark waxy stuff appeared on my surfaces -- I thought the scratchy mitt was shedding lint, or the soap was curdling in the heat. I saw a woman sitting near, peppered the same way, rubbing and rubbing, and I realized the spots were skin, peeled off and rolled-up the same way it did when I was six, in summertime, out on the curb scratching mosquito bites. Fatima was removing my outer layer.

I let myself relax there, face-down on the floor, my body stretched across the old woman´s knees. The only sound was the scrape and scratch of many hands moving, washing skin, exfoliating arms or ankles or the back of the person adjacent. The splash of many gallons striking cement, a groan of shock or release or pain, the feel of those waxy speckles vanishing into the liquid heat. Fatima´s powerful fingers found a knot in my neck. She leaned into it, rolled it under her knuckles, I and felt the ache and the air-miles, the language barrier and a chest-cold flow from my body and roll away across the concrete.

Finished, Fatima patted my knee and smiled the beatific smile of a midwife. I sat sprawled on the concrete for a little while, glowing white in the darkness, feeling myself the newest-born bee in this misty, humming hive beneath the street of the Medina. I am sure I have never been so clean, not since I was first born.  
Phil in our courtyard


Morocco -- or Marrakech at least --  was delicious and awful. Philip and I stayed at a "Riad," a done-over old courtyard-style house in the old Medina. Riad Dar Zaman is owned by an Englishman with a House-And-Garden decorating style, and the servants, mint tea, babbling fountain, and roof terrace overlooking the neighborhood would usually be outside our price-range but for a very positive currency exchange rate. The city reminded me very much of my three years of childhood in Turkey, what with donkey-carts and caleche carriages, trundling vendors´ carts, a souk and spice markets, dancing monkeys and a spectacular chorus of muzzeins singing live from the city´s many minarets five times every day. The old part of the city is a living museum of architecture, with even the corner shops somehow adorned in plasterwork or tiles or lacquer. Children are treated with great affection. Mosques are well-attended, but you can get usually get a beer with your sandwich if you want one. I bought a splendid wool and over-embroidered carpet for a very fair price. (I brought one of the Riad boys with me to help with the haggling business. Philip now repeats to me, at suitable moments, "Madame! You bargain like a Berber!") (I know, they say that to all the tourists.)

I could not have stayed longer than about four days, however. I was shouted-at by men, until I began walking with a hand on Philip´s elbow. Many women go about fully covered, in veils all the way over the eyes. I kept wondering which of those phantoms might be my hammam-sisters. The tiny streets are overrun with venomously smoky motorbikes, a noise level approaching "jackhammer," and more hustlers and cons and come-ons than a Damon Runyon story.

It is a city, and cities are noisy and polluted. I am a villager. I like my quiet. I was glad to come home.
Philip went home, back to New Hampshire and law school.
Kim came back, and is moving into the little "guitar house" in Carrion de los Condes as the first Artist in Residence of 2012. She is already making movies. She made up a new lot of blog-headers for me!
The first full read of the Zaida novel got a rather glowing review. At least the second half of it did.
Rosie dog has a terrible cut on her behind, we know not from where. Six stitches, and the hood in the photo above to keep her from messing with the wound.
Paddy still has a cold/flu. It is becoming tiresome. He looks done-in.
And so goes the first half of January.

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