In the Hammam

Steam heat in Tangier

It was my first time. It had taken me thirty-three years, but finally, here I am: almost naked except for my underwear, which every woman keeps on as she enters the hammam. I felt awkward, and guilty, like a transgressor, and so did my mother, as if we were carrying centuries of taboos on our backs.

A dead cockroach, on the floor of this public bath for women in the kind of narrow vestibule where we got undressed, gave us a first pretext to hesitate. But my mother’s friends assured us that the place, although a modest neighborhood hammam in Dradeb, a rather not very opulent part of town, was clean. I believed her, knowing she was right: a cockroach in Tangier, Morocco, was not like a cockroach in New York. Besides, intense heat is often propitious for such insects. Nothing unusual, then. I proceeded, decisively this time. Yet I couldn’t help feeling like a young virgin ready to be sacrificed on the altar: Iphigenia at Aulis given as an offering to the gods for the sake of the Greek fleet before the Trojan War.

We first went through a kind of antechamber where the heat is less intense than in the second room, allowing us to get used to the steam rising from the floor. Outside, it was one of those glorious August days where the quality of the air is light and joyous, as if all impurities had been washed away by the sharqi, a very strong East wind, Tangier’s distinctive mark in the summer. It was Friday, the day when most Muslims go to the hammam because it’s their Sabbath, and the voices of the muezzins in the loudspeakers echoed one another, one starting its chanting when the other ended it, from all the mosques across town, like an Olympic flame being passed from runner to runner. Allahou Akbar, Ashhadou Anah Mohammada Rasoulou…! know the notes by heart. I know, also, I’d better be careful: in Islam, speaking these words automatically makes you a Muslim… Tangier’s biggest mosque towers above my parents’ house, thus my familiarity with every inflexion of the prayer: sometimes, when I was a little girl—and still now when I visit my family—the pervasive melody drew me from my sleep at 3 or 4 in the morning, time for the first prayer of the day.

Inside, the hammam was dark, spare and Spartan. A stark contrast with the effervescence of the streets. I felt as if I were entering a cavern. The walls of the steam rooms are customarily made from Hajar Habash, a black stone which holds the heat for a long time, heightening the sense of inwardness, and no sound from the outside reached me. A strange indifference reigned in this intimate space, as if nothing really mattered except for the heat rising from the floor and relaxing our muscles. Water smothered noises and voices. I was cut off from the world, like in a womb.

My mother, who has lived all her life in Morocco and would be heartbroken if she had to leave her beloved country, had never been in a hammam, because, as she put it, the heat was so intense she was afraid of passing out. One of my mother’s close friends, Jewish like us, had the same fear. Jewish women went to the mikveh, of course, not to the hammam. Hence, my mother and I felt like true pioneers, as though we were unlocking new dimensions of the hatred between Jews and Muslims; hence also my guilt, of the kind a deserter from the Soviet Union going West would feel. For I was crossing to the other side, the side of the majority, and I, the Jewish girl, was the minority. East and West reversed…

Soon realizing that our hearts were unaffected by the high temperatures, we proceeded to the second room under the firm guidance of Rabea, my mother’s Muslim friend, and Latifa, her sister. Rabea is married to Toni, a Spaniard who converted to Islam, a necessary step in order to become her husband. Although her story suggests her wariness towards religious orthodoxy—marrying outside of one’s religion is unusual for a woman in Morocco, though less so for a man since Islam, unlike Judaism, transmits religious identity through the father—Rabea is a devout Muslim. She does her prayers every day, fasts on Ramadan, and holds to her beliefs with a measured yet determined passion. In one of those mysterious and beautiful twists of destiny, Rabea is my mother’s closest friend, elective affinities for once successfully triumphing over blood allegiances. Latifa, strangely enough, also married a Roumi, the word for Christian in Arabic. She did so when she was 35, an unlikely age for a traditional Moroccan woman, after leaving Morocco and trying her luck as an emancipated woman making her own destiny in the West. Also that day Latifa’s daughter was with us. Sarah, eight years old, is a beautiful child with deep Oriental eyes from her mother and almost translucent skin from her Irish father. I couldn’t help meditating on her name, at the crossroads of cultures, equally used by Jews, Muslims and Christians.

The five of us were almost entirely naked, three religions united in the trivial experience of cleaning our bodies, like sharing a meal. Nudity was dazzling and natural at the same time. Latifa and Rabea had beautiful bodies, with full breasts and silky olive skin. I, on the other hand, felt awkward. I didn’t know the gestures and the ritual. A clumsy outsider, I was just standing there as if I was watching a movie in a foreign language. But the awkwardness didn’t just come from missing that understanding. Suddenly I knew: Jews and Arabs were sharing the proximity of their naked, defenseless bodies. The tension came from the sensuality of that kind of closeness. Jews and Arabs had been coexisting in Morocco for centuries without a sensual bond. It was dangerous to feel too close. Keeping that distance was the only way to avoid mixing with the enemy and thus keeping our distinct identities.

In the second room, Mennana and Fatima, two hammamis (women from the hammam who clean and exfoliate you) brought us two huge buckets filled with hot water. With small copper dippers, I poured it on myself I was then given a dark soap, called biladi, a kind of paste I used to scrub off “the first layer of dirt.” I didn’t feel the heat, just the pleasant touch of hot water on my skin. A softness was settling in. After that, Mennana, who was about 60, told me to lie on my stomach. She started giving me the best massage one could ever dream of at the fanciest spa in New York, rubbing every single part of my body, from toes to elbows. She was amazed I could speak Arabic. She thought I was a Roumi, and I didn’t say I was Jewish… Did I feel it was a stigma to be a Jew? Letting her think I was Christian seemed somehow less complicated. Of course, my silence spoke for centuries of tumultuous coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Morocco, with alternating cycles of peace and violence. Depending on the will of the ruling Sultan, Jews would be tolerated as dhimmis (a recognized legal minority status for religions of the Book) with special royal protection, while being used as scapegoats in precarious times. I chased those thoughts away and washed myself with cooler water. I couldn’t stop pouring buckets on my body. I felt renewed. We were all relaxed, sharing shampoos and beauty products. I got dressed with the only jellaba, the traditional Moroccan dress worn by women, that I own. I also covered my hair with a scarf, Muslim-style. For the first time in my life, I thought I could have been Muslim.

In Jewish Moroccan folklore, there is a tale of transgression I have always found haunting not just because I bear the name of its main protagonist. It’s the true story of a young Jewish girl in Tangier in 1832. She was called Sol Hachuel (my own full name is Sol Yaelle) and her tomb in Fez is still visited by Jews around the world. Sol, sun in Spanish, was a typical female Jewish name in Morocco, in a community still deeply steeped in its Spanish roots which trace back to the expulsion from Spain during the Inquisition. At home, our native language was Spanish, not Arabic; or rather Judeo- Spanish also called Haketia. (Haketia is the vernacular of Jews of Spanish origin in parts of North Africa. Often confused with Ladino or Judezmo, the language of Sephardic Jews settled in East Mediterranean countries, Haketia has Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew influences. In Northern Morocco, Sephardic Jews often enjoy using it as a vehicle for humor, self-deprecation and feelings of closeness, as Ashkenazi Jews use Yiddish.) The story reads like an Oriental Cinderella: barely 17, Sol is a young-girl-of-great-beauty-who-was-mistreated-by-her-evilstepmother. One day while she is mopping the floor, her Muslim neighbor Tahra invites her to her house, cajoling her with words and sweets. Tahra, who wants Sol to many her son, convinces Sol to proffer the Shahada, the sacred formula needed to convert to Islam. Here the versions diverge. In one of them, Sol agrees in a moment of weakness. Later regretting and recanting her conversion, Sol tries to reject the Muslim faith, but Tahra gets angry and goes to the Qadi (local judge) to denounce Sol: one is not allowed to renounce Islam, In another version, Sol obstinately refuses conversion, but Tahra spreads the rumor that she has already pronounced the words that make her a Muslim. Tahra’s words prevail… .Sol is a Muslim in the eyes of the law. Because she won’t recognize this, Sol is decapitated. In another retelling, she falls in love with her Muslim neighbor Taleb and converts, regretting it later.

The many versions of this story prove the fascination it has always held for the tellers of Jewish folktales. It is a cautionary tale about the enticements and fatalities of crossing religious borders, perhaps a rewriting of the Persephone and Hades myth. Like Persephone, Solika crosses the line to the other world—Persephone is taken to the Underworld (it is unclear whether it is voluntarily or not, exactly like in the Solika story) and after Hades makes her taste a pomegranate, she cannot return to her mother Demeter. Both stories are about the need to separate from the mother tongue to find one’s own path in life. But unlike Persephone, who eventually spends two-thirds of the year with her husband. Hades, and one third with her mother, Solika’s fate doesn’t allow for the luxury of compromise. But how could there be a compromise? It must be either Islam or Judaism.

Have things changed since Solika’s time? Surely, Morocco has been more protective of its Jews than any other Muslim country. Not only under King Mohammed V, who guarded Jews from Vichy rule during World War II, but also under King Hassan II, who was sincerely mourned by all Moroccan Jews. Since the terrorists attacks of May 16, 2004, in Casablanca, a nationwide campaign against terrorism has been launched by the new king, Mohammed VI, with the slogan: ‘We touche pas a mon pays”’ (“Stay away from my country”), a subtle echo of an anti-racist campaign launched in France by SOS Racisme, an anti-racist organization, in the 80’s—their slogan was: ‘We touche pas a mon pole‘ (“Leave my buddy alone”). Of course, the subliminal message is that attacking Jews is also an attack on Morocco. Since these attacks, Moroccan police have cracked down on Islamist extremists, especially in Tangier, a center for political Islamists in Morocco.

And yet…late in September two years ago, I traveled to Tangier to spend Rosh Hashanah with my family. I usually go there in the summer, and with the influx of T.M.E (“Travailleurs Marocains a L’Etranger”), as they are called, or Moroccan emigrant workers coming back from Belgium, France or Germany to spend their vacations and their euros in their native country, the urban landscape looks familiar to a Westerner: fancy European cars, women wearing mini-skirts and tight pants, a colorful and cheerful crowd having fun until late at night; overall, a relaxed atmosphere. But now, the vacationers were gone, and a less adulterated, more authentic picture emerged. Things had changed. More than half of the women on the streets were covered, either wearing the traditional jellaba or the new outfit imported from the Middle East for more modern religious women: loose pants with a long matching tunic and a scarf tied in the back to cover the hair. Occasionally, I saw women entirely covered in floating black niqabs, something I never saw when I was growing up.

One day, my mother and I went to a store selling caftans (traditional Moroccan dress for women), where my mother is a regular, and we were welcomed by two men enthralled by the sounds of Koranic chanting from a radio. It kept going as we were looking at the different fabrics. My mother has been going there for years, so they knew we were Jewish. All of a sudden, my wandering eye fell on a photocopied piece of paper under the glass counter: it was a leaflet calling in Arabic for a boycott of American products— Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Levi’s —and a crossed Magen David. I felt increasingly uncomfortable and told my mother I couldn’t find anything I liked. When I told her what I had seen, she replied in her usual optimistic manner that the same two guys would probably be sipping a Coke at the comer cafe right after closing time. I protested; she was blind to the true nature of her environment. A few weeks earlier, two Jews had been killed: one, on the anniversary of September 11 in 2003, was stabbed in Meknes (140 km east of Rabat) on his way to the synagogue, while the other one was shot in Casablanca two days earlier. Extremist imams have been preaching anti-Semitism in the last few years. For instance, Mohamed Fizazi, who publicly declared that “killing a Jew is not a sin.”

Moroccan Jews are worried. I asked my mother what further proof she needed to see that Jews were not welcome here anymore. But in fact, the real question was rather about the threshold of tolerance: since Solika’s times, that threshold had been subtly adjusted, making things at times better or worse for Jews. But were Moroccan Jews ever fully Moroccan? Did they feel that this was their country? My mother gave an enigmatic answer: “Sweetheart, have you ever heard of unrequited love?”

Yaelle Azagury teaches French Literature at Barnard College. She grew up in Tangier, Morocco, where her family – descendants from Spanish Jews who came to Morocco in the 16th Century, after the Inquisition – still lives among a Muslim population. Although the Jewish community in Morocco was once one of the most important in the Arab world, now Moroccan Jews, one of the last Jewish populations living in a Muslim country, number no more than 3,000. The majority live in Casablanca, and only about 100 in Tangier. She goes back to Tangier often to visit her parents and, most recently, for her wedding in June to an American.