"Leaning In" by Lane Fisher
The tile ceiling is sweating. Fat drops slide down the walls and drip onto the prone forms below. Voices bounce around the small space, absorbing into the water pouring from the taps around the room, temperatures perfectly tested, water unceremoniously dumped over bowed heads.
Water gushes around our feet as it makes a mad dash for the drain in the center of the room. The heat emanating from every corner envelopes us immediately, our pores open and dripping. We wade through women to our small corner in the hottest room to the slicked down mats awaiting us, two mostly naked foreigners and their equally unclothed Moroccan mother.
Mixing the henna and black soap before covering every inch of our bodies has now become an almost automatic choreography. My host mother motions to her face, looking pointedly at me, and I feel my skin sear slightly as the henna and soap settles into my open pores. Dirty before clean, a not-so-oxymoronic oxymoron.
The woman who douses me in water to remove the last of the henna residue takes my hand and pulls my arm toward her. She does not smile. Her hair is pulled back in a parody of a shower cap, a red net, and the uniform of black spandex underwear. She slaps my skin with another layer of black soap and raises the glove, almost threateningly, to my arm.
At first, my skin simply turns red. And then my skin begins to roll off of me, fleeing my body in spaghetti-like rolls, disgusting but fascinating. It drops onto the floor, brown and dirty, accumulating on her crossed legs. The first few times at hammams I guiltily tried to brush the offending remnants away.
The glove hurts against my skin, but I have learned the power of leaning in. I don’t cringe away as she scrubs my neck and collarbone, don’t inch backward when the glove scrapes the sensitive skin on my stomach and chest. Instead, I try to move closer to her, push back against the glove, breathe deep into the discomfort-becoming-comfort. I ask her her name in my limited darija and tell her it tickles, and she smiles.
In a country where I have been asked, silently, to cover my arms and legs, it feels odd to be completely vulnerable, naked, surrounded by women. Rather, it felt odd. At first. But we lean in, allowing ourselves to become accustomed, used-to, aware. It is the most comfortable I have ever been in Morocco. Where I have felt uncomfortable in jeans, where I have hidden inside because of taxis following me, where I have bought long sleeves to go under my short ones, I also learn how to exist without even my skin. Taken care of, shiny, new, protected.
Leaning in in Morocco is breathing into the discomfort. It’s allowing the stress to fall from our shoulders before we race, head-first, into the unknowns and the new. It means that we don’t shudder and cling to the comfortable, but acquaint ourselves with differences, greeting them in our new language and style, adapt to what we never knew before.
The hammam attendant tells me her name and smiles, my skin means nothing to her, and I do not try to brush it away anymore. I leave the warmth and cover my new skin, the layer I have never seen before, with cloth that goes past my wrists and ankles. And, as the door of the hammam swings closed behind me, I begin to lean again.