Before heading to a Synagogue in the New City of Fez for Rosh Hashanah services, Andrew and I visited the public bathhouse for a serious scrub down. My father and grandfather always described the hamam in Iran with smiles, sighs, and nostalgia. Now I can relate. I also now understand why they always frowned upon loofas as inferior scrubbing devices.
In the States, you soap, lather, and then rinse off under a shower. In the hamam you sit cross-legged on a tile floor as a mustachioed gentlemen in his 50’s pours scalding buckets of water on you and then proceeds to rub you down with saboon beldi (traditional old-fashioned soap that looks like black petroleum jelly). After a second rinse, he then slips his hand into a kis, which I would describe as an abrasive mitten that you would only use to clean the rust off of an old bike chain. While the purpose of the loofa is to lather soap all over your body, the kis is meant to remove your first (and sometimes second) layer of skin. As I held back tears, the man peeling off my summer tan asked if I was a student of karate. Apparently anyone in Morocco with well-defined pectorals is considered a fighter. I laughed. He then rocked my world.
The special massage began without my knowledge. I can only describe it as a blur of borderline Kama Sutra-like acrobatics. His right leg locked into my left, I grabbed his extended left foot, thus creating a human X. He then rolled back onto his shoulder blades, hoisted me off the ground, slapped my ribcage, told me my heart was where it should be, and then cracked my hip. I did not know my hips could crack. He then squeezed the blood from my arms and legs into my chest cavity, which he slapped again to make sure my heart was where he left it. Andrew did not see what happened next because he had shampoo in his eyes. For this I am grateful.
I sat in my masseur’s lap, facing him with my legs around his torso. I noticed he had a glass eye. He put his hands behind my neck, rolled back, and I did a front flip and landed it perfectly on a soapy, wet, tile floor. As I reenacted these maneuvers to my host family later that day, they nonchalantly mentioned that the last person subjected to a special massage became paralyzed from the waist down. It’s a good thing I’m learning how to play the hand drum.