When surrounded by naked women in a bathhouse while having my body vigorously scrubbed by a stranger, I realized my view of the Moroccan culture was like nothing I had read about online.
Rabat, Morocco is the city I will call home for the next three months. It’s here I will learn how to eat tagine and couscous without utensils, meet renowned journalists and professors whose works fight cultural standards and discover how to communicate with someone without a shared language. It’s here I will learn about another culture hands on; An opportunity I could never have sitting in a classroom in rural Keene, New Hampshire.
When I first arrived in Rabat, I didn’t know what to expect. What would my meals look like and when would they be eaten? Should I address men differently than women? How big would my host family be? Are there any gestures or tones considered rude? What was the climate going to be like?
Of course, I had done research prior to departing, but what’s written on the Internet does not compare to what one discovers in person. Take, for example, the hammam or bathhouse. No trip to Morocco is complete without a visit to the local Hamman. An Islamic bathhouse vital to hygiene and perfect skin, a Hammam resembles a large changing room with tile floors, water spigot and naked people. Once inside the changing area, I saw the women around me undress, then I followed suit.
A woman donned in only a pink hairnet and black shorts — ostensibly an employee, a professional scrubber — must have noticed my confusion and ushered me into the bathing area.
The room, separated into three smaller sections, was hotter than the outside temperature. Each section rose in temperature too, leading me to question the life choices that brought me here. This lady — perhaps my guardian? — sat me in the middle room against a wall, then motioned for me to stay while she filled up two buckets: One warm, one freezing. I was about one of 15 women in the room — some workers, some women from the neighborhood and a few of my friends — all stripped down to just underwear.
Within a culture where women dress modestly and refrain from exposing so much as their shoulders, I was not prepared to see an abundance of breasts, let alone so much nudity.
When the lady returned with two buckets in tote, she grabbed my soap and began scrubbing me voraciously. Then, with a red exfoliating glove, she vigorously cleaned me, consensually invading what dignity I had left. She held my arm against her body, continually ridding my body of every dead skin cell.
As I sat there, my skin shedding from my body, I wondered how the other women felt. They appeared comfortable; some sat on the ground washing themselves, others kissed each other on the cheek as they walked in.
Outside of the Hammams in Rabat, women dressed conservatively. They kept their shoulders and knees covered, at the very least. They traveled in pairs or groups, typically only the young ones walked with males.
This is how I was first introduced to the culture, what I first learned from research.
To see women bathing openly and freely with strangers was something I did not expect, but it’s something I’ll never be able to forget.
This is something I would not have been able to learn in a textbook. It’s something I had to experience hands on, literally.
Besides learning more about the Moroccan culture, studying abroad gives me the opportunity to sightsee. Two weeks of my time here is devoted to traveling, under direction of the directors.
During the last week of September, my nine classmates and I ventured from Rabat to Marrakesh, Agadir and Ouarzazate, a trip totaling over 24 hours of driving. Each city brings a special characteristic we got to visit, like Marrakesh’s massive marketplace, Agadir’s breathtaking beaches and Ourazazate’s film studios.
These places are more than a Hollywood movie; they’re real life. These places have a culture, traditions, stories — all of which can’t be taught unless you’re in it.
Alexandria Saurman can be contacted at