. . . and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth.
— Diving Into the Wreck
I was a forty-nine-year-old professor when I joined an international faculty seminar and travelled to Morocco. Along with modest long-sleeved linens, I planned to wrap myself in scholarly questions. Like Rich’s androgynous diver, I had “some sundry equipment”: a pen and a camera, a very rusty second language, a reading list, some questions about identity, and a desire to get out of my own skin. My forty-nine-year-old body, rounder than I would have liked, with two arthritic hips, was coming along for the ride because the thing about travel is that it has to come with you. My only daughter had left for college the year before and I was struggling at almost fifty to figure out what my story was independent of mother/daughter/wife. I had noticed that when people asked me about myself I answered with anecdotes about my daughter, my husband, my mother, anyone but myself. I was a functional wreck. When my mother called and asked me what I was going to do about it, I said, “Travel to Morocco.”
. . . skin is political. Otherwise why would the Imams order us to hide it?
— Dreams of Trespass
Some years ago, I trekked in the Himalayas wearing a mid-calf length skirt and leggings, my arms covered in a long-sleeved T-shirt. In part it is practical; when you are hiking at the snow line, at 15,000 feet so much closer to the sun, being covered is a shelter. It was also respectful. The Sherpa women wore long skirts, sometimes several, and long sleeved blouses of heavy fabric. In Morocco, I wear a skirt that comes to my ankles. Most of the women in our group carry or wear scarves so that we can cover our arms or our shoulders. Even in Europe, where one is always entering some church or other, I always wear a scarf to cover myself.
Still, the word hijab opens questions. On the one hand, it’s a folded square of cotton or silk or acetate no different than the scarves or stoles I have used to drape myself. On the other hand, it feels self-consciously religious and political, and speaks to me as a western feminist of repression more than modesty. Though Christian, I do not wear a cross. As an American, I wear the insignia of my nationality in a multitude of accessories and gestures that I don unconsciously for the most part. Now I wonder if it is I who live my life veiled. For reasons of safety and privacy, have I learned to disguise myself as much as possible: as a woman, an American, even as an essayist? What am I afraid of?
In Tangiers, our seminar group visits a center for women and children who would otherwise be on the streets, vulnerable to all manner of violence. I try on a headscarf that was woven by one of the residents who is receiving training in literacy and in a marketable skill. Asmae, a young university student in a floaty blue hijab that frames her lively face and calls attention to her eyes, who volunteers at the center and studies to be a lawyer, pleats the stiff, white damask across my brow, then twists and wraps the cloth once more around my head until all my hair, my neck, and shoulders are covered. Someone in our group takes a picture. I look like a novice in a wimple. It’s not uncomfortable. Without the softening lines of hair at the temples, along the cheeks, my features seem somehow magnified. I feel more exposed in the scarf than I do in my more familiar veil of hair. Later, in photographs, my look is startled and awkward, as if I have been caught out in something wrong.
When we returned to Kathmandu after trekking in the Himalayas, my mother, my sister and I went to a spa for a steam and a massage. Water in the Himalayas is precious. You see it often enough, but it is usually tumbling through a gorge thousands of feet below you while you bravely cross a narrow swinging bridge of slats and rope hoping that a yak doesn’t begin to cross towards you from the other side. When you asked for water in the tea house perched on the side of a mountain where you stopped for the night you knew that some little boy or girl with bare feet had walked those thousands of feet and carried the water back on his or her head. All this is to say we really needed a good cleansing. At the spa in Kathmandu, we paid something like fifteen dollars to lie naked on a table in a square room. Three women attended to each body, one on each side and one at the head. Our muscles were pummeled and stretched, the skin on our faces was cleansed, the women used their fingernails to dig out blackheads and other dirt beneath the skin. There were no towels or drapes. The room was filled with their conversation as they worked over us. The back wall of the massage room opened into a garden where old men sat in the sun smoking. We could smell the musk of their tobacco and hear the buzz of their voices, separated only by the screen, a kind of gauzy scrim that shielded us from view, but let in air and light.
I remember, too, in Kathmandu, walking home from the bead market where men sit in softly canopied tents of gauze surrounded by strings of glass beads reflecting every color in the spectrum. The light in the sky is lowering and I am hurrying to meet my family. All around me people are returning home for the evening, crossing beneath low doorways into open courtyards surrounded by apartments. I catch glimpses of children playing, of women setting out supper, or taking in laundry, but because I am tall they are only brief images. The narrow doorways are a kind of veil, sheltering the families inside from my outsider’s gaze. To see more I would have to stop and bend down and look in with intent, as though fitting my eye to a doll’s house that turns out to have real people. I can hear people laughing and calling to one another in a language I don’t understand. I am separate; almost ghostlike in my not belonging, as though the boundary of my skin no longer distinguishes what is me from the night air around me. The ancient buildings, the dusty street, even the small parcel of beads in my hand have more substance than I. A young girl hurries toward me in the half light. She looks up and at first appears startled. I am a tall, very white, stranger. Then she smiles and reaches out to touch my arm — just a quick brush of the hand . She laughs, once, as if delighted and runs on. I, too, continue on, but feel the contours of my skin restored as though her light touch has recalled me into being. There are no photographs of these moments.
In Morocco, in the medina, the doors to the houses open into narrow unlit hallways. This way the door can be open for air and the house and the people in it are still veiled from view. We have been told conflicting stories about the hijab: our student hosts and seminar speakers assure us that we are too interested in the veil; it doesn’t mean, they tell us, what we think it means. It is variously: a choice, a visa, a curtain. It is mandated by the Qur’an, or not, it is political or religious. It signifies modesty and marriageability. It makes people focus on the mind and not the body. It means your parents don’t ask you where you’re going. It means everything; it means nothing. The university students, young men and women who are our guides, some veiled, most not, say earnestly, repeatedly: “In Morocco you can do anything.” That afternoon, at the Kasbah, we stop to admire the view from the ramparts. Far below us, in the sea, boys are swimming between the breakers, diving from the rocks. The sun shimmers hot on my shoulders and the water looks cool and green. Below, to my left, three girls the age of my own daughter stand leaning out over the old wall of the fort watching the swimmers below. They wear scarves, long tunics, and long pants. No girls are swimming. I take a photograph.
This is the place, /and I am here.
— Diving Into the Wreck
In Morocco, our group wanders from the Kasbah and the old medina with its two-toned, blue-washed, crooked streets into the market where the storefronts are shallow doorways into sensory opulence: here is a shop the size of a closet selling soft, nutty leather purses from Fez, and here, beside it a shop with gauzy scarves that almost seem to waft the perfume of their eventual wearers, and next to that a shop with backless flat soled shoes with pointy toes just like the shoes worn by the man who was our guide yesterday. Down this alley, there is silver jewelry sold by weight, and fragrant rose petals laid out like a bride upon a sheet with a scale at either end. Here are musky rugs of densely woven wool, and hand-embroidered caftans stiff with gold thread. Spices and olives are pyramided landscapes; their briny, bright smells remind us of every meal we came all this way to eat.
We split into smaller groups, each one anchored by a university student who has volunteered to translate and bargain for us. We are like children on a school trip: not responsible for finding our way home or for remembering which way to turn to find one of the gates out of the old city. We don’t even have to count our money. We are friends in the manner of people who travel together as strangers in an unfamiliar place. There is no hierarchy between us, no “in” group. We converge and re-divide, free-wheeling through the market, confident not that we can’t get lost — in fact, we are lost most of the time — but we aren’t worried about it. Someone will find us. Some of our guides begin to seem a little frazzled. Where is Jackie, Fatima asks me? Where is Mr. George? Stay here, we are told, while I find Jackie. Or Michael. Or Sharon. In the souk, I am not someone’s mother or wife or teacher. This is the good part of travel when we are saturated with impressions, our skin sticky with the heat of the day and it doesn’t matter. At home, I would be getting ready for bed having walked the dog and put the garbage out. I’d be rubbing night cream into the skin around my eyes, sipping tea or wine to help me sleep, hoping for a peaceful night, wishing that everyone I love would wake in the morning feeling fine.
Nothing could be expected of a person who neglected his or her skin, since it was through the skin that we felt the whole world.
— Dreams of Trespass
The hammam is down a narrow street that isn’t especially clean or inviting. These baths have a men’s section and a women’s section. We are excited, feeling that we are about to partake in the “real Morocco.” We will immerse ourselves. Fatima, plump, giggly, and newly married, will take the women, and her young husband, Amine, will take the men to the men’s side. As we depart the van, women appear in the doorway of the women’s side of the bath. They are dressed in pink djellabas and their hair is covered. Fatima shoos us to go on. Just inside the doorway there is a tiny booth where a woman is selling ghasoul, a scrubbing clay, and kiis, the glove shaped mitt for scrubbing. Each of us buys soap and a mitt, and pays for entrance and for the services of a tayeba, a bath lady, who will “massage” us, we are told. Then Fatima herds us into the changing room of the baths.
We stand on clean wooden pallets above a damp, stone floor, the world around us cloaked in Arabic and unfamiliar customs. Fatima hasn’t exactly explained what we are to do next. A woman who has finished her bath is putting on her shoes, sitting on the wooden bench that lines the wall, already dressed in a djellaba and scarf. In the room adjacent, we can see women bathing themselves from buckets of water. They are unclothed. We hover, clumped like shy ponies in a new pasture. The bath ladies who had been fully clothed in the doorway now sport only black bikini bottoms with pink numbers appliquéd to the backs. I take a deep breath and begin to undress. Just as I am about to remove my panties, noting that everyone in my group has followed suit, Fatima notices us and says, no, no. I am foolishly aware of every stretch mark and bruise, of every extra pound and every inch of flesh I would usually dress in such a way as to disguise its contours. So, I put the underwear back on.
A bath lady with the # 22 appliquéd on her bikini takes me by the arm and leads me into the first room of the baths. We are in a kind of stone cavern that opens onto another stone cavern and beyond that another. I will learn that each is hotter than the last. She parks me on a corner of the stone floor and stalks off to get buckets of water: two. One hot and one cold. Against the opposite wall three women are speaking animatedly while scrubbing each other’s backs. In the corner, a mother is bathing her eight year old daughter. They move through the ablutions with the rounded, formal gestures of familiarity. The mother cradles her daughter’s head and tilts it back and pours water gently over her hair. I remember bathing my own daughter when she was very young, sharing a deep tub, letting her “swim” above my body in the warm water, her father standing by to fish her out when the water cooled. My eyes prickle with tears. I miss her, my daughter, who is now unexpectedly home from college struggling with anxiety she probably inherited from me. Hips, anxieties: we can’t escape heredity. Nearly every night, I phone home just to hear my husband and daughter, and once my mother, say sleepily back through the receiver that they are fine, happy, and I have misgauged the time again and awakened them.
Just then Fatima appears and throws an entire bucket of water over me. I’m not sure how to take it, but she is smiling, so this is a good thing. I smile, too. My bath lady stalks back. She motions for me to lie down and I stretch out meekly on the wet, ancient, stone floor. I have asked for this. Lauren, the youngest from our group, is lead in and pushed to the floor beside me. We have been mistaken all day for mother and daughter, probably because we both have fair skin, and wavy brown hair. Now, lying on the cold floor side-by-side, we catch each other’s eyes and begin to laugh. It’s not about anything, this laughter: we are wet, naked, and in over our heads. Any lingering concept we may have had of the baths as an exotic, sensualized, romp on the wild side has been sluiced down the drain. Any vain worries about how our bodies look is swirling there, too. Somewhere in the room, two bath ladies are fighting over Jackie.
My bath lady moves me into the second room, splashes the floor with water from her bucket, and motions me down. She takes out the ghasoul, the clay, and massages it into my legs, my arms, my back, my feet, my belly, my hair. Soon I am green all over, including the underwear which now it is clear I am to remove. My bath lady communicates by smacking me on the part of the body she wants me to move. I have become large and slow, a rolling porpoise on a stone floor half in, half out of water. In the third room, the heat is intense. She takes out the mitt. My bath lady is skinny with stork-like legs: knobby at the knees. She has the belly of someone who has born children, round and pouchy, and her breasts hang in double pendulums to her navel. Her skin is chai and soft. She doesn’t smile — possibly because I am a disappointment: the student who understands nothing. Never-the-less, she bends me across her lap and begins scrubbing.
The gommage, French for scrubbing or scouring, is not a massage in the way I had imagined it. Number 22 is serious with the mitt. Now that my skin has been heated and softened, it’s ready to be pummeled, shaped, scraped, and shredded. For long moments I lose myself in the purely physical sensations. I am reminded of birth labor; this is painful, intimate, mundane and interesting all at once — as I did in the hospital when giving birth to my daughter, I relinquish fear. The world is damp heat and touch in a language I do and don’t understand. Later, after I have returned home, I look up gommage. It does mean a scrub, yes, but it also means erasure.
Fewer people are bathing in the third room, this apex of wombs. Behind me to the left there is a woman in her twenties who is possibly the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. She is bathing herself, sitting with her legs crossed on her mat in such a way that no part of her body spills into the public space. Her long curtain of hair is bound to the top of her head; her concentration is complete. Diagonally to my right, another young woman, also beautiful, is stretched across the lap of an enormous bath lady who is scrubbing her. They seem choreographed in the way they move. The young woman’s limbs are as malleable as a cat’s. She is draped and pushed and pulled at and she seems to be dreaming her way through it, her eyes half closed as if she hears music inside her head.
Meanwhile, my bath lady has loosened layers of skin that roll from my chest down my belly and flake off on the floor as if I have been dressed all along in a graying, antique veil and we are taking it off. I would be appalled if it didn’t hurt so much. If we are gentle with things that are sacred, then no part of the body is sacred: not the head, not the hands, not breast, not sex. Everything is scoured, everything is erased. And yet, I feel cared for and strangely comforted. My bath lady pulls me into a sitting position and bends my rag doll body into hers, across her arm, and supports me as she scrubs my back. I am lying in the arms of a woman I do not know, with whom I cannot speak. Her skin is soft; her grasp is strong. I am aware of nothing and of no one else. She taps my shoulder, telling me to move a different way, and as I stretch up in the direction I think she means, our eyes meet briefly and she smiles. It is not the smile of friendship, nor a grimace, nor approval for my finally having gotten something right. I will never see her again in my life; I don’t even know her name. For a brief moment I think we see each other as we really are, but even as I imagine it, I know I could be wrong.
When I have been doused one final time there is no ceremony to mark the occasion of my cleanliness. There is no indolent, lolling moment for reflection or for savoring. Rather, my bath lady, #22, of whom I have become quite fond, grabs me by the wrist as if to lead me firmly from this hottest chamber back through the crucible of the bath to the front room where I will begin to cool and dry. But the heat has loosened my joints and my hips, those souvenirs of heredity and maternity, just won’t lock into place beneath me. I reflect that being in a middle-aged body is a little like being in a country where you don’t speak the language: it was brave of you to come, we applaud your effort to communicate, but you really don’t belong here. Number 22 pulls me upright as far as my knees, saying something in Arabic, and begins to tow me across the stone floor. She is implacable and I am naked, hobbling on my knees across a stone floor like a penitent. As we pass through the second room I see some of my friends. Jackie is sitting on the floor with her legs straight in front of her and her lush graying hair wild on the top of her head. She is laughing. Across the room, Jane is bending gracefully over a bucket of water, splashing her arms and her chest, smiling shyly. They are beautiful.
In the first room again we chat and slowly dress, touching ourselves gently as if our skin is unfamiliar and brand new. Fatima counts out our dirhams, instructing us in a pleasantly harassed way, how to pay the bath ladies for leading us through this ritual. We are sharing combs and towels and hand mirrors, speaking softly, almost tenderly with one another. I have just combed my hair and arranged it with my fingers to curl around my face as it dries. At the mirror in the center of the room, a Moroccan woman, someone our age, is smoothing the contours of her hijab around her face. Our eyes meet in the mirror. Hers are large, heavy-lidded, and warmly brown; mine are smaller, hazel, parenthesized with fine lines. Neither of us wears make-up. When she is finished, she turns and says to me in English, you are welcome any time. She means all of us, and again, I feel a fleeting but very real connection that has nothing to do with friendship but everything to do with possibility.
On the street as we wait for the men, we sip mint tea from communal glasses handed round by one of the bath ladies now fully covered in her pink djellaba. We fill each other in: the fight for Jackie, a mix-up over buckets, gratitude to Fatima for sharing her shampoo, laughter at our awkwardness, and as we talk we keep reaching out and touching one another, on the elbow or the shoulder, as if we could reach past the veil of clothing to the person beneath. The men come out of their side of the bath onto the skinny, nondescript street looking fresh and damp and a little stunned. We all smile at each other, passing glasses of mint tea between us. The sun drops and we are all cloaked in the gray of night in the old city.
Without our noticing the lady with the tea has gone in and we are alone on the street though the smell of mint lingers in the air. In the distance, above the souk, the muezzin sounds the call to prayer. It is a sharp, raw, all-encompassing sound. Cool air pushes at my tender shoulders. I have been flayed, scrubbed, rinsed, berated, cleaned, and erased. I pull the scarf carefully around me. I have never been more naked. There are no photographs for this. I look around at these travelers who have become my friends through experience. We all are wrapped, as if having been prepared by the bath to live life through our skin, there is suddenly so much more to take in.
Susan Morehouse’s essays and fiction have appeared in New Ohio Review, New South, The Southern Review, and Literal Latte, with new essays forthcoming in New Ohio Review and Apalachee Review this spring. She teaches creative writing at Alfred University in western New York, where she also directs the Young Writers Institute. In answer to the question most asked at readings: yes, she’d go back to the baths in an instant.