Originally written and published for ETHOS magazine, “Welcome to the Steamhouse” is a story about my trek to Marrakech, Morocco, in the spring of 2007. What started off as an innocent everyman journey into a foreign land transpired just like you think it would: disturbingly awkward and underwear-less. Since its publication I’ve cleaned up the text and made some clarifications. You can now read it in its entirety below.
“Sleeping, sleeping…” softly cooed a middle-aged and mustachioed Arab man into my ear, deep inside a labyrinth of tile along the outskirts of Marrakech, Morocco. I was far away from home and painfully, unapologetically white.
It was the sort of thing they warn you about in the study abroad pre-departure material, illustrated with clunky stick figures that narrowly avoid being raped or murdered. My gut feeling and masterful grasp of D.A.R.E. principles determined I was en route toward one of those outcomes, the latter seeming like a welcome respite. If you can believe it, though, I didn’t thrust myself into what became one of the most awkward, surreal experiences of my young adult life. You could say I just invited it in for a cup of tea. And a back rub.
One of the most attractive reasons to study abroad in Swansea, Wales, isn’t the cuisine of gravy, curry and mayonnaise mixed in with things that can be legally regarded as sustenance. No, the month-long spring break is your one opportunity in life to stick your flag in the footsteps of where countless other obese, fanny-packed Americans traveled before you. You can see the leaning tower, jam a cannoli down your gullet and make it back to the hostel to drink your bodyweight in Birra Moretti before sundown.
And while wandering about Europe through the screen of your digital camera is all well and good, there was something in me that needed to feel uncomfortable. I wasn’t content with a tourism board’s revisionist view of history. I found no joy spinning stacks of colorful postcards that looked better than their real-life counterparts or perusing chachkas whose primary function is to collect dust on an end table in a living room. I wanted more. I wanted something to move me. I wanted National Geographic, E!’s Wild On and a splash of Fear Factor blended into a delicious travel smoothie.
The clear-cut answer was to get the hell out of Europe and take the next camel caravan headed towards Africa. Looking back, arriving at this decision gave me the opportunity to tell my grandkids a heartwarming tale of friendship, cultural differences and homoeroticism. Thanks, Morocco.
My travel buddy and personal hostel locator, Eric, assisted me in my journey around Europe’s hilltop vistas and tentative nights on scabies-filled cots. Near the end of our third week of roughing it Oregon Trail-style, sans dysentery or buffalo hunting, we were left at a crossroads as to where our metaphorical hot air balloon would descend to next. For me, it was a no-brainer: Morocco’s capital city, Marrakech.
I knew as much about Morocco as the typical guy. Casablanca, fez’s, and that’s about it. A movie and a hat. I felt that was enough to justify my visit. But beyond Bogart and bogarts, we conducted preliminary research that only stoked my apprehension; such gems as discovering it’s rude to do business with your left hand, as it is the hand the locals prefer to wipe with. And, interestingly, that hand is not wiping with the cumbersome aide of toilet paper. The truth is, I was willing to put up with fecal fingers if only for an opportunity to get back and tell someone ‘Nope, that’s not dirt under my fingernails, I just back from Morocco!’ and let out a hearty laugh as they run away screaming. Streptococcus be damned, I was Africa-bound.
Eric, however, had to journey back to France for a few days of classes before camelbacking across the desert with me like Lawrence of Arabia. I would arrive to Marrakech on my own. It was exactly what I asked for, even if in actuality it filled me with silent dread.
As my rickety plane prepared for landing, I peered out the porthole only to notice the curious lack of lights of any kind. No runway lights, no sprawling metropolis of yellows and reds, no tiny blips of traffic whizzing by. Just darkness. I let out a sigh, squinted hard at my Arabic in-flight magazine, and braced for landing.
I stumbled out onto the tarmac of the Marrakech airport, my steps only illuminated by the flickering neon haphazardly attached to the building. The man who was to take me to my riad held a sign by the entrance.
Either my magician doppelganger had followed me to Morocco or this was my wheelman.
“Hello, that’s me! Are we ready to go?” I said, perhaps a little too cheery. The man let out a big grin and nodded. We both held eye contact for a moment, chuckled, then understood we didn’t understand each other. Finally, a moment when I couldn’t be directed to an English speaker standing a pace away. I had arrived.
Although my journey into the dark heart of Marrakech was quite frankly ridiculous in its own right, the confining nature of magazines limits the amount of nightmarish anecdotes I can tell at one time. But if I were to sum up my night in a sentence, it consisted of being lost and distraught along narrow streets that had no names and no illumination and culminating with a six-and-a-half-foot African man trying to woo me into an even darker alley to look at his owl in a cage. The owl didn’t look happy, and either was I.
The next day I exited my hotel grizzled and prepared. Daylight provided solace and I assumed nothing could be worse than the night before. Like any good story I was wrong, of course.
My first task of the blindingly bright day was to move from one hotel to another, as I was only able to book one night at my original location. I heaved my monstrous bag onto my back and weaved in and out of the vibrant colors and smells of the Marrakech souks hoping to end in the general area of my new hotel. Nothing was marked, streets or hotels or otherwise, so I banked on luck.
As I drew closer, sweaty and unsure, I was approached by a man. “Anglais? Françoise?” The man brokenly assured me he lived in the area and could lead me to my hotel. I would later find out his name was Omar, a 50-something balding Arab man that was capable of unspeakable things.
Omar lead me to an unmarked door in an unmarked alley. He told me the best he could that the local mosque was open to the public for the day, which only happens once a month. I thanked him and headed inside. I thought it would be the last I would see of Omar, the 50-something balding Arab man.
I put my things down and got ready for a day of aimlessly stumbling around town. As I picked a direction and started walking, I heard a shout from behind me. It was Omar, who informed me I was going the wrong way if I wanted to see the mosque. “I show you around, yes?” My mother-induced inordinate mistrust of strangers would’ve told me to decline, but he looked like a friendly enough older guy and we were in broad daylight in a busy, extremely confusing city. What’s the worst that could happen?
As we walked he trudged his motorbike alongside, telling me about the city and the different cultures that inhabit it. We ducked into a soot-covered building with an enormous wood furnace where the Berber people make bread for the neighborhood. I attempted rolling dough with friendly locals, and we had fun playing communication charades with each other. Following suit the rest of the day, Omar showed me countless other highlights of Moroccan culture. People weaving gelobas, carpet makers, craftsmen. It was an experience that no Barnes and Noble had an itinerary of. I had jumped over the velvet rope and made a run for it.
After a long day, dusk finally started to roll in with buildings of red earth seemingly coming aglow. I arranged a shuttle for Eric back at the hotel, who was arriving later that night. Omar sat at the café next door waiting for everything to get situated.
He was laying in wait.
At the nondescript neighborhood café, Omar and I sat staring at a football match for a minute or two. Then, he leaned in close.
“Hey, you want to drink beers?”
He said it in a fashion that felt like secret police could crash through the ceiling at any moment. I guess he had reason, as drinking is not thought of highly in Muslim culture.
“Like three, I guess?”
Omar gestured to a man – a man whose apparent sole purpose is to sit ominously in Moroccan cafes as the black market beer hookup – and whispered into his ear. Fifteen minutes later the man came back with a paper sack full of sin. “Alright, let’s go,” he said purposefully, getting up and heading out of the door. I ploddingly followed.
Omar and I stumbled into a dirty parking lot, squatting behind cars like teenagers. He rattled off, in very broken English, about deep metaphysical things. About life. About how people pray to Allah everyday, but don’t practice what they preach. He only paused in his diatribe when he saw the flash of headlights or the voices of people nearby, which made him hide his sack of unmentionables under a car and stand up to glance around like a suspicious meerkat.
As I took it all in, only understanding a quarter of what he was trying so hard to convey, I drank four, five, six beers without even realizing it. I became light-headed, and squatting for so long left my legs sore. Then I made the mistake of telling him.
“We should go to massage,” he said.
While wandering to my hotel I saw signs for massages, all coupled with pictures of scantily-clad women giving backrubs and everything outside of fanning their clients with palms. After six beers, it sounded like it would be my opportunity to be the Tony Montana of Morocco, watching television in a jacuzzi full of bubbles while smoking a cigar, if only for a day. My eyes lit up. “Is it expensive?” “No no, not expensive.”
alley to look at his owl in a cage.
Omar started his bike. And by bike, I mean bicycle with a lawnmower engine fashioned to it. He ran to start it as I scurried behind him, jumped on, and held on for dear life. We veered around streets, taking me into a part of the city I never saw before; the part of the city where you can hold a hand in front of your face and still not see it. I didn’t know where we were headed to, I just knew I needed to return by 11 o’clock to get on the shuttle to pick up Eric. Omar assured me it wouldn’t take that long.
We arrived at a dimly-lit side street somewhere along the outskirts of the city. A grungy building with two tile archways was the only thing visible on the block. Although in Arabic, I extrapolated that one said women, the other men. One thing was for certain: This was not the day spa at the Marriot. As I apprehensively entered the building, my mouth was agape at my soon-to-be terrible reality.
The entry room was a cramped tile box with bolted benches filled with barely clothed, impossibly hairy men that were overweight and underjoyed. Everyone glared as I attempted to hide behind Omar as some sort of human shield. A man with a mop shoveled dirt water into a drain in the middle of the room. This was the point where I clearly remember “What have I done? What have I done?” booming in my head. Omar told me to go sit when he talked to the chieftain of this ramshackle swamp village. So I sat, awkwardly, my eyes darting back and forth. A man with a snake tattoo from across the room gave me a fierce look. After much deliberation with the head of the village, Omar sauntered over.
“Okay, take off your clothes.”
I’d like to pause for a moment to explain something here. This is usually the point in the story where people exasperatedly say “Uh, hello? I would have run right out of there!” Let me just say I was in the Middle of Nowhere, Morocco, in a neighborhood with no streetlights and no mode of transportation, slightly drunk. Also, I felt obliged to adhere to what was customary. ‘Be a good sport,’ I thought. ‘This is what you wanted, and this is what you get, idiot,’ the other lobe reasoned.
So, like a snake tattoo mesmerized by a flute, I stripped down to my underwear and handed Omar my wad of clothes. He went out of my field of vision as I sat hunched over, adjusting my underwear, near-naked and highly freaked out. This is the definition of buzzkill.
Omar came back in nothing but tight, gray briefs. Omar also happens to be the hairiest man alive. The combination is somewhat remarkable. His underpants had a sizeable hole on one of the cheeks, and I wasn’t at all curious how that came to happen. “Come,” he said in some weird foreshadowy way that I’m still trying to purge from my memory.
We entered a steamy room that had about as much class as a 70’s couch. The first thing I saw – and the only thing to see – was an obese man sprawled across the floor getting the hell scrubbed out of his back from an equally obese man squatting behind him with a sponge. At that point I started laughing in such a way that my body shook and started to murmur “oh no, oh god” repeatedly under my breath. God was not present in that bathhouse that day. He must have already been sufficiently scrubbed.
Omar then lead me into another room that was steamier yet. The room was brown tile on all sides, with faucets and buckets along the walls that people were filling up and dumping on each other. It was reminiscent of that girl exiting the pool in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. But only with men. Hairy men.
Then Omar told me the bad news. “Sleeping, sleeping.” He said it like an anesthesiologist about to put the mask over my face. Yes, he meant for me to lie on my back, on the floor, near-naked in a steamy Turkish bathhouse in Morocco. And, against my better judgment, I obliged.
At that point my nervous laughing was uncontrollable. It’s as if I had overdosed on nitrous and started to spasm violently. As I stared at the tile ceiling, Omar bent over to fill up a bucket of water, his exposed buttcheek dangling dangerously over my face. The image is burnt into the back of my retinas, and when I close my eyes really tight I swear it’s still as clear as day.
Before I knew what was coming, a torrent of fire water was thrown over my head as I squinted and spat and every muscle in my body braced for the worse. He started scrubbing – hard – with a sponge that had the consistency of 40-grit sandpaper. My feet, armpits, my chest, my legs. He was very thorough, I’ll give him that. Then, he rolled up my boxers so he could abrade my inner thigh, bumping right into my business district. I let out a laugh, but it was not funny. Well, maybe a little.
Then he told me to roll over. This is usually the second point in the story where people tell me I’m a little bit crazy and a lot of bit gay. But yet again I raise the question: if you were in sopping wet underwear, clothes nowhere in sight, in the middle of nowhere, what would you do? Shut off your brain and take it like a man, that’s what.
My chin was pressed against tile as I attempted to look behind me to see what was being plotted next. Turns out it was another bucket of water and yet more scrubbing. He started off scrubbing my neck and back. Then, pulling my boxers up, he wax-on wax-off’ed my buttcheeks and went for the gold. He got in there. Like, I’m talking all up in my beanbag in there. At that point I let out a muffled gasp, and as soon as I was not going to take it any longer, my underwear’s elastic snapped back and it was all over. I was waiting for a “That’s not so bad, was it?” and a lollipop.
I sat up, looking at the hunks of gray skin that were scraped off me, all of it clinging to me for dear life. To add insult to injury, another bucket of water was poured over me, Omar shampooing my hair with the love and fortitude of Vidal Sassoon. I began to chart an escape route; this was especially true if he told me I needed to knead his Brillo-covered body. I’d tell him I wasn’t well-versed in man-rub or that I didn’t have hands. There was no way. And thankfully, he didn’t ask.
After instructing me to go back to the other steam room, I glanced through the doorway and saw Omar working himself over with steel wool, his chest sweater impervious to any earthly element. I was dazed. It felt like I got sent through a very flirtatious washing machine. Omar came back, telling me to go ‘sleeping’ once again. Oh hell, why not. I laid on my stomach like Omar was a bear and playing dead would make him disinterested. His Yeti-caliber chest hair, in fact, may classify him as such.
As I acted dead, Omar saddled up on me, bending my arms up and pulling as far back as his hairy man mitts could manage. It hurt. “Ow-ow-ow?” I meekly protested. “It is good for the muscles,” he assured me. He then took his elbow and jammed it into the small my back. This also hurt. Badly. Then he crossed my legs and sat on them. What started off as a stretch all of a sudden became a Mexican wrestling match. I’m sure he got some sort of sick pleasure out of contorting me like a Raggedy Andy doll. My only conclusion was that I was in some sort of awkward snuff film where they massage the victim lovingly before severing off his head with a piece of broken glass.
After my experience being a real-life Stretch Armstrong was complete, Omar motioned me back to the entry room where I despondantly sat on a bench in my waterlogged underwear. Mr. Snake Tattoo was still there, angry as ever. Now I finally knew why. At this point I didn’t care who was looking at me or what people thought. Then it made sense: all this time they were trying to warn me non-verbally — “All ye molested who enter here.” They were right.
Omar held out a towel in front of me as I awkwardly took off my underwear and wrung it out onto the floor. I put my clothes back on and dejectedly followed behind him, my underwear grasped firmly in hand. I figured this was the point where he takes me out back, puts a sack over my head and offers me as a disposable pleasure to his other buddies. And honestly, nothing says spring break like being thrown into the human sexploitation circuit.
I ran behind his bike and jumped on, my underwear flapping in the wind like a shoddily constructed windsock. He didn’t tell me where we were going, and I didn’t ask. By now I’m a shattered man, and a very pliable one at that. We drove to another nondescript street and towards a dimly lit doorway. Apparently Omar wanted to get me drunker, as we were headed down into an unmarked bar.
out back, puts a sack over my head and offers me as a disposable pleasure to his other buddies. And honestly, nothing says spring break like being thrown into the human sexploitation circuit.
I descended the stairs tentatively, hiding behind Omar with each step. The bar was a seedy basement bunker that had the look and feel of the Mos Eisley cantina and featured an intense soundtrack of a man wailing Arabic nothings with minimal musical accompaniment – think the Borat soundtrack blended with the sounds of a hospital’s gunshot ward. It was Morocco’s version of a townie biker bar, full of headwrapped men who shot fiery glances my way. I guess I can’t blame them. My molested locks were reminiscent of Nick Nolte’s mugshot and I was holding a pair of wet underwear. Something was obviously awry.
My first order of business after sitting down at the table was to place my underwear stealthily under it. If the owner of the bar is reading this, that sopping lump of blue-and-white-checker fabric that you found under the table a few months ago is mine, so don’t bother holding on to them, I don’t plan on coming back.
I sat down with Omar, trying to absorb everything that had happened thus far. He started to order beer after beer and I started to get exceptionally drunk, this time with gusto. As he talked to a woman with facial hair thicker than mine, I stared off into space and started what I can only describe as ‘trauma drink.’
When we were ready to leave, Omar started arguing with the door man about something or the other, and told me that the beers were expensive and it would be great if I paid for them. He lead me to an ATM, at which point mentioning how expensive the shampoo was. You know, Pert Plus would’ve been sufficient, Omar. I knew that he was likely shaking me down, but I reasoned that he provided me with the weirdest story of my life thus far and it was a small price to pay for it.
We got back on his bike and headed home, saying our goodbyes to one another. I never saw Omar again. As I entered my hotel, I checked the time – it was 11:45. The shuttle never came, and I figured Eric was probably lost or dead by now. By then, however, I was just too drunk to reason or care.
Eric somehow managed to get to the hotel after a harrowing experience of his own involving a hash dealer and the police several hours later. He shook me awake and I apologized to him in my delirium, told him I was drunk, underwear-less and was scrubbed down in a bathhouse by a middle-aged balding Arab man named Omar.
As he turned off the lights, he didn’t ask questions, and I didn’t elaborate.