The boy sitting next to me on the wooden bench stole furtive glances. As the only westerner in the room, I clearly stood out. The place was a hammam somewhere in the labyrinthine medina of Fez, Morocco. Not a five star hotel hammam, this was a public bath house frequented by regulars such as the tannery workers I photographed that morning.
The houseboy of my riad led me here through a dizzying warren of narrow streets and alleys. I hoped to experience Morocco as a local. Not knowing what to expect, I was far out of my comfort zone.
I quickly stripped off my clothes in the changing room (no private cubicles), and put on a swim suit. My personal scrubber, a rough hewn, muscular man, took me into a sultry, white-tiled, domed room. A single, naked light bulb dangled from a wire hanging from the ceiling.
Finding a space on the floor, my scrubber got to work, starting with pouring buckets of hot water over me. Several minutes ensued of torquing my body in ways I didn’t know were possible. Then, the scrubber used his knuckles to exfoliate my skin. More water, more pressing, more pulling.
Moving to another room, the scrubber poured buckets of gradually cooler water over my head. Rising off the floor, I moved next to the boy. Smiling, I whispered in broken Moroccan Arabic: “I am American...Friend.” Wide eyes and a bashful grin told me I had succeeded in making a special connection. I left the hammam feeling a glow in my heart, and a body turned a reddish hue.