If I am to be honest, when we left India, I felt like I needed a good scrub, so when we arrived in Abu Dhabi and my friend Caitlin suggested we go to a Moroccan Bath I was keen. I had absolutely no idea what a ‘Hammam Maghrabi’ was and I was a little apprehensive when Caitlin said I don’t need bikinis as everyone just goes naked, but curious to see what this traditional bathing method was. Off we went with me picturing a large communal spa bath, decoratively tiled and beautifully designed with lots of naked women soaking in a large steamy tub.
When we arrived at an old office building in the middle of the city my preconceived image started to change. As we stepped out of the lift onto level one of the Al Lulu Beauty Centre, my image had all but disappeared. The whole floor was a bustling salon full of Arabic women having treatments. It wasn’t the open, traditional, relaxing spa room I had originally visualised. It was a misty rabbit warren of little hallways leading off to rooms filled with women. I was in awe.
This place did everything from hair and nails, to Henna, make-up and hamman. It was surreal and a perfect place for someone like me who is curious about the Arab culture, in particular the illusive women. It was over the top. The women getting their make-up done were so heavily covered in foundation, eye shadow and lipstick, they resembled drag queens; and the hair, well it was big! The fake nails were long and adorned with pops of colour and diamonds (fake) of course.
Caitlin and I were shown to a small room and given robes to get changed into before we were taken to an even smaller, tiled wet room no bigger than 2x3m, a far cry from the lavish Moroccan bathing room I’d envisaged. It was space with a single black bench, a plastic stool and a couple of shower heads at either end. Our practitioner came in dressed in a black bra and leggings, with us standing there dressed in nothing but a G-string. You would have thought the scene might be slightly erotic. Let me tell you, it was anything but. The woman, who spoke only a little English, proceeded to spray us down with the shower, washing our bodies from head to toe with a black soap I later learnt was a natural vegetable paste. This soap, which has been used for centuries, is a mixture of black olives, rich in vitamin E and oil, soaked in salt and potash. It deeply cleans the skin, removing toxins and dead skin cells. Ladies, this is not the time to be self conscious about your body as the woman hand washes over every bump and roll you may or may not have!
Once we were soaped up (I know, sounds erotic right?) we were instructed to sit down and relax while steam filled the room to open up our pores and soften our skin. Caitlin and I were sitting less than 1m apart chatting and quickly I lost sight of her as the steam got thicker. About 10mins later, just before I started to feel claustrophobic, the steam was switched off and I was instructed to lay on the bench on my stomach to commence the hammam. With an exfoliation glove that resembled sandpaper on one hand, the woman began scrubbing my skin removing what looked like the top layer and some. I was in shock and slightly embarrassed as I was seeing bits of my skin peel off everywhere. Caitlin and I were laughing mostly at my reaction and the woman was laughing at us.
The woman’s movements were fast, but thorough and with a slap on my behind, I was instructed to roll over on my back for the scrubbing of my front. Again you have to lose any inhibitions here and just go with it as she vigorously scrubs your body from your head to your toes. The exfoliation not only removes the dead skin, it increases the blood and lymph circulation. It is also traditionally done to whiten and soften the skin. Once scrubbed raw, I stood up and was being washed down as I saw all the peels of dead skin run towards the drain and maybe my holiday tan with it! It was slightly disturbing, but I can not put into words how smooth my skin was. After travelling for more than four months, I knew I needed to exfoliate, but this was unbelievable! Whilst Caitlin had her turn of being scrubbed down to the bone, I was shown the shampoo to wash my hair while sitting on the little plastic stool.
The hamman dates back to the Roman empire and the Greeks were known to make weekly visits to the local bathhouses to cleanse. It was soon adopted into Arabic culture and was commonly undertaken before prayer. Now, it is quite a social ritual, with women and men (yes, it’s not only a ladies thing guys) enjoying a good scrub, in separate salons of course! The woman kept asking if I wanted a ‘special’. Was this the Arab version of a ‘happy ending’? Looking blankly at Caitlin, who suggested I go for it, I hesitantly took up the woman’s offer of a ‘special’. Before Caitlin was flipped over, the woman covered me all over with a thick, rose cream. It smelt amazing and the colour was an intense pink. I sat on the little plastic stool leaving the cream to soak in while Caitlin was undergoing her hammam.
Afterwards, the woman came and gave me another good wash down. I was left a little pink from the cream, or was it from the removal of my top layers of skin I wondered? Either way I had survived my first hammam experience and was left feeling totally clean and even a few years younger. I can see why many Arab women come here weekly for a good scrub and would highly recommend you try it for yourself.
Note: The lack of images is due to the fact I was unable to take photos in the beauty center. All the women were with out their Hijabs and it would have been entirely inappropriate to photograph them without being covered.