The Furnace Man

Among all the sights, smells, and sounds we encountered in Marrakech, one of my favorite was our visit to see the hammam furnace man.

Tired from the morning heat, I wasn’t really enjoying our tour of Marrakech when our guide brought us through an old door along a wall in the medina into a cramped space. It was dark inside, with the only light coming through some openings in the ceiling. To my left, I could see broken slats of wood and other bits and pieces through a door that was slightly ajar. I had no idea where he had taken us or what we were in for.

“You may be wondering where we are. This is the back of a hammam – the furnace room.” Our guide said. Looking over a ledge I realized there was someone else in the space.

 Furnace man stoking the fire Furnace man stoking the fire

Our guide introduced us to the furnace man. He explained that as a hammam needs to be heated, the furnace man’s job is to stay behind the hammam in the furnace room, stoking the fire from early morning until late at night. The furnace man can also help cook tagines (delicious slow-cooked savory stews, usually including meat). In Marrakech they have a specialty called a “tangia”, which is a tagine cooked above the furnace of a hammam. It takes more than ten hours to cook. So if, for example, you wanted to have tangia for dinner one night, you would have to bring it in to the furnace man early that morning. We had had tangia for dinner at a restaurant the night before, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn how much time and care is required to prepare this dish!

Our guide then gestured towards the living space of the furnace man, right next to the entrance. It was a humble, cozy space, where he slept, drank tea, ate, and generally spent time when not tending to the fire. I paused for a while to take in the care with which he had decorated his space.

Our guide pointed towards the instrument resting against the wall, and asked the furnace man if he would kindly play for us. The furnace man got up, slowly walked to his mat, changed his ensemble, and sat down. He picked up the instrument and started to play.

His smile lit up the room as he started singing what I could only imagine to be a traditional Moroccan song. Twirling around the tassel on his cap, his performance mesmerized me. We tipped him the little we could afterwards, for which he was very thankful. I don’t know how to quite put it into words, but the humility and openness of this man, who let us into his space and shared his musical gift with us, moved me to tears.

To not have much, yet to sing so joyfully and with such exuberance. Without knowing it, he had taught us all, strangers to his country and to his world, a lesson in the short fifteen or so minutes we spent with him. He taught us to appreciate and find joy in the little things. Thank you, Mashallah, furnace man.

xo

J

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