Unchain my bra

Pico Pal gets more than she bargained for when she visits a hammam in Morocco

Aaliyah’s chant echoes off the high vaulted ceiling.  It’s a chance to enjoy a sublime outer–cultural experience, but all I can think about is Aaliyah’s bare chest jiggling up and down. No– not chest. Breasts. I may not have bared all myself, but the vision is unavoidable: Breasts. I giggle. And to think that one hour ago, I was wandering the streets of Fez, fully clothed. A simpler time.

When customs stamps your passport at an airport, something magical happens (besides escaping deportation).  You get a free pass to break free of the shackles of your passport identity.  We Australians are prudish about public nudity. And yet, on a six-month exchange in Europe, you can leave these inhibitions behind. So I pounce on the opportunity to visit a hammam in Morocco. Well, almost. I follow our guide, thinking that we’re going to a masseuse. We only cotton onto what lies ahead when he buys me and my friend Moroccan oil and exfoliating pads. Yep, we’re going to a hammam.  The language barrier strikes again. I turn to my friend. Neither of us wants to be the chicken. And that’s how I end up walking through a small door into a change room where BAM. Breasts everywhere.

At this stage, I am desperate for my friend to throw me a lifeline. I am happy to be the squawking chicken, but she gets down to business. We settle for staying in our underwear. We tell each other it’s like being at the beach.  It’s not. Across the room, a lady gestures for us to yank off our bras. She cups her own breasts and jiggles them. They bounce magnificently, but my bra stays on.

We escape the change room, our dignity barely intact. The hammam is cavernous and steamy. Women and young girls sit along the wall with buckets. They splash each other down, wash their hair, and scrub themselves raw with the exfoliating pads. Aaliyah deposits us in a corner and leaves us to our fate. We tentatively splash the water across our bodies. I tell myself it’s not so bad.

As luck would have it, I am beside an ‘Authentic Moroccan Woman’. She has beautiful, smooth skin and her kohl runs down her face in a black waterfall. She flicks my bra strap and addresses me in French. “Why don’t you take it off? Look, everyone has”. I explain that stripping in public makes me extremely uncomfortable, but it’s like trying to describe the moon to someone who has only lived in daylight. She shrugs and demonstrates the correct washing procedure. Exfoliation means something different here. You’ve got to scrub like you’re getting the last bit of burnt grit out of a saucepan. I’m concentrating so hard on removing layers of my epidermis that I barely notice someone unhooking my bra. It would’ve been a good moment to reflect on the irony of being pressured to undress in a Muslim country. But instead I screech and protect my nips. “No, no, no, no, no!” This is what comes from a constitutional inability to be rude. Authentic Moroccan Woman takes my smiles to mean I am easily persuaded. No. When it comes to bodily decency, I won’t budge.

Fortunately, Aaliyah arrives and the bra barrage halts. My exfoliation does not impress her.  She pulls my arm out and scours my skin. She exclaims at the amount of dead skin peeling off my body. Well, that’s what happens when someone scrubs a cheese grater against your skin.

The situation is tense until she begins to sing. A few seconds later, the entire hammam joins in. The singing is a harsh, guttural sound that comes from back of their throats, but it reminds me of a Hindu chant my mother used to sing, and in that moment I think of how beautiful it is that these women have accepted peculiar half dressed strangers into their private ritual, and that perhaps, really, when stripped bare, we’re all the same.

Finally. Enlightenment. Across the room, a lady looks at me and points to her chest. Yeah, not that enlightened.