The first time I was in Morocco three years ago, I was repeatedly told to hit up a hammam. More commonly known as "Turkish baths," there are many different takes on what exactly constitutes a hammam. Friends suggested finding a “real” one in Fes’s medina. A few attempts ended poorly. Every time I showed up, I was told that it was the women’s hour, to come back in 15 minutes. No, an hour. Wait, try midnight. Better yet, tomorrow.
My trio of confused and slightly irritated journalists ended up taking a two-hour drive through the desert to a new super hammam on a mountainside. For roughly $40, I sat in a “whirlpool” for 15 minutes (a large bathtub with jet streams), was at the receiving end of a powerful fire hose for my “massage,” went into a “steam room” that was carved out of cave, and ended the session by soaking in a sulfur pool. It was a pretty amazing experience; I was buzzing for two days after. Still, I knew that it was not what I was looking for.
I’ve been to incredible baths in Budapest and frightening dungeons in Brooklyn, but like any good traveler I wanted what my friends had had. Better still, I wanted something my own. Three turned out to be a charm, however, as my last journey to North Africa brought with it a jackpot.
I could have paid $150 to get a complete spa service at a luxury hammam near my Casablanca hotel earlier this month. Then a friend suggested we head to her local hammam, Aya. After dropping us off, my (different) trio paid 60 dirhams apiece ($7.52) for 45 incredible minutes—if roots was what we wanted, roots we got. After our gracious hosts dealt with the fact that I couldn’t communicate in French, much less Arabic, we were led into a sauna before being brought to a marble table. The lithe masseuse put a scrub pad over his hand, doused us with argan oil soap, and rubbed six layers of what I thought was necessary skin from my surface. In between scrubs he would throw in a quick yoga-type assisted stretch, my muscles softening as he deeply rotated my joints. After the assault on my dead skin cells was over, he dumped industrial-size buckets of lukewarm water over my entire body. The River Jordan had nothing on this guy.
Argan oil. I was told to find a hammam that used this crucial ingredient. The argan tree is endemic to Morocco, nearly decimated until a few years ago when Moroccans realized that a burgeoning industry was dependent on it. Unesco put the species on its list and today argan trees are protected while happy consumers are shelling out moolah for the imported oil in the States. My friend and acupuncturist Bianca Beldini had a similar revelation regarding argan oil after a hop over from Spain lead to a life-altering discovery. Soon afterwards she co-founded Arganica alongside fellow healer Jodie Tassello.
Purchasing their argan oil from a women’s cooperative (video below), Beldini was amazed by the medicinal properties of this nut. Not only is the edible version said to help lower cholesterol and keep the circulatory system flowing—and, I must add, it is delicious—cosmetic grade argan oil is touted as “anti-aging.” While I’m always suspicious of that term for a number of reasons, I’ve been using the oil since I returned home, and my skin feels wonderful.
For Beldini, the magic addition is squalene. “One unique property of Arganica is that the composition of our argan oil is high in botanically sourced squalene. Squalene has a chemical similarity to human skin sebum. So, it is essentially ‘like feeding like.’ Our skin is our armor against a world of environmental pollution, food degradation and stress and it needs to be nourished in order to stay healthy.” As an acupuncturist, she has also found the oil’s anti-inflammatory effects beneficial, and says it “works wonders on softening scar tissue.”
I’m personally inclined to have some science in my branding, making Tassello’s role in Arganica key. A research scientist whose resume includes impressive institutions, The Rockefeller University and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute, she has specialized in anti-cancer and anti-viral properties. Both argan oil and frankincense are said to exhibit these qualities, comprising the bulk of the Arganica blend. So while I’ll be returning to Hammam Aya at the next opportunity, it’s nice to know Americans are catching on to this skin science.