Jamilah and the Hammam
by Miriam Magsi

via @sister_hood_mag | 10th July 2018

I flew to Morocco while studying Interdisciplinary Art, Media & Design at OCAD University in Toronto, Canada. Moroccan feminist, Fatima Mernissi, described Morocco as ‘a beautiful place. It’s incredibly beautiful. And also it is a captivating place because for a writer, you feel that you make impact.’ I was hoping, as a visual artist, to feel the same.

I could write pages on my experiences in Casablanca, Fez and Chefcaouen. The sunsets are glorious. I thoroughly enjoyed mosque-hopping against cacophonous azaan (call to prayer). The vibrant colours of the architecture and the interior design, the flavours and aromas emerging from the chaotic bazaars, the sweetness of the people, the sweetness of ‘Moroccan whiskey’ (mint tea), and the sweetness of Moroccan hashish all made for a whirlwind of a trip.

I was strolling through the blue and white painted streets when I bumped into a friend I had made at a restaurant in the medina. Chefcaouen is small. If you’re there for more than three days, the locals consider you family. Don’t be surprised if someone takes you home for tagine. The hospitality is exceptionally warm and generous.

‘Salaam, Ahmad.’

‘Salaam, Mariam!’

‘Today, can you recommend a hammam for me? I would love to get a Moroccan scrub and a massage.’

‘Of course, Mariam! Follow me!’

We walked through several streets, stopping every five minutes so I could take photographs and buy souvenirs from storekeepers with unmatchable salesmanship. Eventually, Ahmad brought me to a hammam with a sign outside that dated back to the 12th century. Local women were walking in, with children on one hip and plastic baskets filled with toiletries on the other. I prepared myself for an authentic experience, satisfied with Ahmad’s obvious local expertise.

Ahmad banged loudly on the door and yelled out a thunderous ‘SALAM ULAIKUM!’

After a few moments, out came an old, rather hefty, Moroccan woman, wrapping her hijab tightly around her head, sweat running down her forehead and cheeks. Her figure was large, round and robust. We cowered as she walked toward us.

Ahmad introduced us, and then held a conversation with her in Arabic, which I did not understand. I knew several prayers in Arabic because I received customary Quranic recitation and Islamiat lessons growing up. These always come handy in Muslim majority countries. After chatting with the woman for a few minutes, his smile turned into disappointment.

He said, ‘She won’t allow you in there because she thinks you’re not Muslim.’

‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Is it written on my forehead or something?’

‘Well, no. It is because your hair isn’t covered. Muslim women here wear hijab.’

I couldn’t help but let out a giggle. The woman was not pleased and glared at me.

‘Maybe if you recite something from the Quran, she’ll believe you.’ Ahmad looked at me rather matter-of-factly.

Utterly dismayed at this requirement, and yet not wanting to deprive myself of the hammam experience, I reluctantly recited the Surah Fatiha, a prayer my mother and the neighbourhood maulvi had helped me memorize from the Quran.

Suddenly the woman’s face broke into a smile, and she held out her hand.

‘Give her some money and she’ll take you in.’

I scrambled to find some Moroccan dirhams in my bag, took out a handful, and gave them to her. She took the notes with her rather large, chubby fingers and stuffed them into her bra.

‘My name…Jamilah.’

‘My name is Mariam’ I responded. Trust was established.

I had no idea what I was about to encounter. I bid Ahmad and goodbye and walked into the hammam with Jamilah.

I was greeted by square cubicles. I had to leave my phone and journal in the cubicle along with my clothing and handbag. I did as I was told, pretty certain that I would be scolded endlessly if I didn’t adhere to Jamilah’s rules and regulations.

She gestured at my body and threw a rough, white towel at me. I neatly folded all my clothes. Just as I was about to reach for my underwear, I heard a loud, screeching ‘Laaaaaaaaaaa!’ from Jamila.

‘Ok! Ok! I’m sorry! I didn’t know. It looked like you wanted everything off!’ I laughed nervously, clutching the towel tightly.

Jamilah made an annoyed ticking sound with her tongue and grabbed a wet, pink basket, throwing in shampoo, a bar of soap, two plastic bags with powdered substances in them, a jar filled with golden argan oil and a wooden comb. I had never experienced a massage with all these ingredients before. I was especially mesmerised by the wooden comb. I imagined that Jamilah would be scraping my back with it? How naïve of me!

I followed Jamila, watching other women who had just emerged from within the hammam. To say that they were glowing is an understatement. These women were emanating light. I felt like I needed sunglasses just to look at them.

Suddenly the hallway opened up into a large, slippery hammam with gorgeous sunlight allowing dancing rays into the steam. This was unlike anything I had ever seen in my life. There were loud, chattering Moroccan women bathing themselves along the entire circumference of the hammam. Many of these women were also bathing their children.

I was very confused. I hadn’t figured out what was going on. Jamila pushed me onto the floor in a corner, walked toward the centre of the hammam and pulled out a bucket of cold water from a well. She then walked toward a wall and filled a bucket with hot water from a large tap. Both buckets were placed loudly in front of me. I sat there cross-legged, anxiously awaiting a Moroccan scrub and massage from Jamilah, but also petrified for my life.

A curvaceous, fair-skinned Moroccan woman approached Jamila angrily. Her hair was wet, stamped to her forehead; she had a large pair of what looked like boxer briefs on. Her body was heaving. She was panting dramatically.

Jamilaaaaaaa!’ she yelled, following this with a string of angry Arabic. Jamila turned toward her and grabbed her by the neck, yelling back into her face. The women lining the wall continued to bathe, insouciant.

A woman to my left took the two packets out of the basket in front of me. She reached into the packets and rubbed the mixtures into my forearm. Through the organic scents I recognised that the mixtures were ubtan and henna. Even though we did not speak the same language, the woman was guiding me through the bathing rituals.

I looked around and then it dawned on me that this was not a spa at all. This was a historic, ancient, Moroccan public bath. These women were bathing in the ways of their ancestors in an open, unabashed and social, communal manner. They were scrubbing their bodies and their faces, rubbing mixtures, powders, pastes and concoctions into their skin and combing out their conditioned, argan oil-soaked hair. There were rough mitts provided with each basket and the women were aggressively scrubbing layers and layers of dead skin which sloughed off like confessed sins. Dirty water splashed along the floors toward the drains, under beams of sunlight. The loud echoing chatter of brawls, salacious gossip, and mothers scolding and scrubbing their whining children provided the soundscape.

I reached for the mitt and Jamilah appeared in front of me. She lifted a bucket and dumped the now warm water on my head, completely taking me by surprise. She then squeezed shampoo and conditioner into her henna-stained palms and began to rub the mixture into my hair. Eventually she reached for the comb and tugged it through my tangles, muttering away angrily under her breath. I tried to stop her, so I could continue bathing myself in peace, but she was an unleashed monster; impatient, angry and on a mission. She was going to see to it that I was bathed.

So, here I was, a 31-year-old woman, on the floor of a communal, public hammam in the Riff Mountains of Chefcaouen, being bathed by Jamilah. I couldn’t help but burst out laughing. The louder I laughed, the more other women joined me, until all that could be heard was our loud laughs rippling through the steamy air. Jamilah eventually cracked, and laughed in my face, her crooked, tobacco stained teeth dancing away in her large mouth.

Jamila gestured at me to shut my eyes. Just when I thought the experience was coming to a soothing end, Jamilah dumped the entire bucket of cold water over my head, shaking me out of my wits. Gasping for air, I scrambled to push my wet hair away from my forehead, looking at Jamilah, feeling utterly betrayed. She bent over, put everything back into the basket, threw a towel in my face and walked away.

I looked around the hammam one more time. The women smiled at me for a short while, and then carried on their bathing business for the day. Jamilah walked me back to the entrance and handed me all my belongings. As I was changing she held out her palm, gesturing toward my handbag. I took out another fistful of notes and popped them into her hands, watching her stuff them into her bra again.

As I was leaving she came over, grabbed my face and kissed both my cheeks like an overprotective mother. I walked out in a daze, I was greeted by Ahmad at the entrance of the hammam, exactly where I had left him.

His face broke into a smile.

‘How are you doing, sister Mariam? How was your spa?’

‘Oh, it was perfect, Ahmad.’

The next day I looked up popular Chefcaouen spas on Tripadvisor and made reservations at one frequented by foreign travellers.

The property was as beautiful: sprawling pools, Eucalyptus infused steam rooms and Moroccan tea flowing flowing from of gold and red containers. The staff were running back and forth with plush towels, lemon-zested water and credit card machines. I was guided into a quiet hammam where I lay on a cold, marble bench while two young Moroccan women scrubbed me with world renowned beauty products whose names I could not even pronounce. Candles were lit along the walls. The aromas emitting from the incense holders were nothing short of divine.

Yet, for all this luxury, I couldn’t help but feel a little bored. After all, the situation was predictable. I knew the attendants would first scrub me and then rub some oil into my skin, and eventually deposit me near a pool or a green lawn with a variety of organic health foods, smoothies and teas.

My experience at the local hammam the day before was perhaps not as pleasant or as relaxing but it was an experience I will never forget. You can’t put a price on that.


The Price of a Pakistani Bride: The Female Artist Challenging the Dowry

Pakistani-Canadian multidisciplinary artist, Mariam Magsi, is refusing to accept the century old practice of dowry, and is confronting this custom head-on with her latest exhibition, Jahez | Dowry.

Dowry, or Jahez (in the Urdu language), is defined as the paraphernalia and money brought by a bride to her marital home. A bride price. A compensation totaling a woman’s worth through her migrating to a man with more than just herself.

Pakistani-Canadian multidisciplinary artist, Mariam Magsi, is refusing to accept the century old practice, and is confronting this custom head-on with her latest exhibition, Jahez | Dowry.

Magsi was born and raised in Karachi, moving to Toronto in 2004 to do her Masters in Interdisciplinary Art, Media, and Design at OCAD university. She dabbles in myriad mediums with her work from photography and performance art, to poetry and documentary and its focus often revolves around sexuality, gender, Islam, migration, feminism.

Burqa in the City, 2014

As a Pakistani, Magsi is no stranger to the implications and the impact of dowry – from deciding a women’s role in society to the debt and violence caused by the greed of material things that come with it.

Although Magsi was raised in a progressive and open-minded household with several feminist women, she says it was “impossible to escape gender roles and expectations.” In one instance at home in Pakistan, Magsi recalls a domestic worker saying, “What is a woman who can’t even make Roti (bread) for her husband?” She says she would be shocked to hear things like these, and adds, “Many of them continue to uphold very purist and rigid views when it comes to marriage and performances that ought to be played out by husband and wife […] reinforcing heteronormativity.”

What is a woman who can’t even make Roti (bread) for her husband?

In her work, besides just the idea of dowry, Magsi is particularly disputing the artifacts of dowry that have been forced upon women, dictated by a global structure intoxicated with misogyny, sexism, and gender roles.

For Magsi, this specially hit home when she found herself being pressed by family to marry her partner. She noticed the “presents” given to her at her wedding were domestic and gendered. These included, a rolling pin, serving trays, tea sets, cutlery, gold plated crockery, pots, pans, veils, etc. Thus, ultimately boxing her into the gender role that is expected of women; which is to manage the household in order to make life easier for a husband who is credited and assumed to be the sole hard-working provider of the family.

Although generally associated with South Asian culture, dowry, in fact, is a practice that finds its roots in the Roman Empire, and is actively seen throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. This misconception of women subjected to this kind of sexism only in the East is another matter Magsi strives to bring attention to through her work.

“There is a timer,” she says, “As you get closer to 30, everyone expects you to start being a certain way.” This burden of expectation hanging over her head became the reason for her critical exploration of the items associated with dowry. In a series of performative self-portraits, Magsi displays these domestic items not for their intended purpose, but to communicate a rebellion against them. In contest, she expresses, “these objects also connect me to my history, my ancestors, to narratives of my family, to my culture and to the women in my family, so it becomes even more complicated to critique and problematise.”

Dowry, 2018 | In the piece shown above, a universal kitchen staple, the rolling pin, is struggling to balance itself on Magsi’s head without adhesion, thus, not inhibiting it too much from unravelling and rolling off. The artist then has to place the rolling pin back on her head repeatedly in a balancing act that becomes evocative of the traditions that continue to resurface and stifle women with societal expectations.

Dowry, 2018 | Another rather gripping image is of decorative Jhumkas (earrings) placed over the eyes in what the artist calls a “surrealist chaos” robbing the earrings of their purpose; of trading a woman’s future for opulent objects.

Dowry, 2018 | A cooking pan is used as a shield in this piece, masking herself of cultural expectations.

Magsi’s work is like thunder in dark clouds, creating space in the darkness of traditions and misconceptions with a bolt of lightning, striving to color the sky with the celestial teachings of Bulleh Shah, and with the conviction, tenacity, and forwardness of Khadija.

Magsi understands that the struggle for women to be known for societal contributions, other than just those domestic in nature, is not restricted to only a few coordinates around the globe.

Magsi understands that the struggle for women to be known for societal contributions, other than just those domestic in nature, is not restricted to only a few coordinates around the globe. She is often approached by women from a variety of backgrounds different from her own that have encountered similar burdens. One in particular, a European woman, brought Magsi’s attention to the ‘Hope Chest’ a box arranged by parents in order to accumulate various domestic items for their daughter, to prepare for her future as a wife. Thus, deciding that she will marry a man, and also, fundamentally establishing her place in society.

Although generally associated with South Asian culture, dowry, in fact, is a practice that finds its roots in the Roman Empire, and is actively seen throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. This misconception of women subjected to this kind of sexism only in the East is another matter Magsi strives to bring attention to through her work.

Contemporary Life, 2017

As an artist, Magsi seeks to elucidate the gender struggle she knows all too well through her own intimate experience of both East and West. Her work is imperative in the criticism of cultural and social institutions established to confine women to gender specific roles, including women’s portrayal in both eastern and western societies. With her sedulous artistic efforts accompanied by her bold and magnetic complexion, Magsi’s perspective of such patriarchal partialities represents an important critique of the world we live in – and her work, Jahez | Dowry remains especially urgent in capacitating women to let go of this weight of tradition.

You can check out Mariam Magsi’s Facebook page here or follow her on Instagram @mariam_magsi.