The Hamam

This is a story about how I paid to get bathed by a large, hairy, shirtless Turkish man and the psychological ramifications I am still dealing with to this day.

Back in 2000-2001 when I lived in Brazil, it took me awhile to get networked in the city, find friends, and begin building a social life. Thirteen years later, now in Istanbul, I quickly remedied this situation by using a social network for traveling ex pats such as myself called Internations.org. There are several events a month that allow you to meet and network with like-minded people and there are also different groups you can join to ensure commonalities with the people you meet.

As a big fan of brunch, I joined the Internations Istanbul Brunch Meet and Greet group and attended the first brunch of 2013 at the Midpoint restaurant in Taksim, a major tourist and leisure district famed for its restaurants, shops, and hotels; considered the heart of modern Istanbul. You can read this on Wikipedia, but Taksim Square was originally the point where the main water lines from the north of Istanbul were collected and branched off to other parts of the city (hence the name.) This use for the area was established by Sultan Mahmud I. The square takes its name from the Ottoman era stone reservoir which is located in this area. Additionally, the word "Taksim" can refer to a special improvisational musical form in Turkish classical music that is guided by the Makam system.

To me, Taksim is defined by the long avenue, Istiklal (Turkish for Independence), that runs its length. There is a trolly line that tourists can use to ride up and down the street, and there are endless shops, restaurants, bars, and clubs along the way. Istiklal street is much like a river with numerous tributaries jutting off here and there where one can discover even more delights of the Turkish nightlife. It's a bit like a labyrinth, and definitely a place I looked forward to exploring in more depth.

It was a cold January afternoon when the taxi dropped me off at the entrance to Istiklal Avenue right by historic Taksim Square. Having just moved to Istanbul, I didn't necessarily have the right jacket for the weather, but I made the best of it as I waded into the crowd, iPhone in hand open to Google Maps directing me to the restaurant. Despite the weather, the street was fairly packed, mostly with young Turkish folks who gazed at me curiously as I made my way toward the restaurant (upon learning I was moving to Istanbul, a friend remarked that I was increasing the black population by 25% lol).

I entered Midpoint restaurant to see two tables of Internations folks eagerly digging in. I joined the second, less crowded table and soon found myself the only man surrounded by 6 women.5 of the 6 were Turkish and 1 older woman was English. Their English was good and we had a nice afternoon getting to know each other, eating delicious Turkish brunch, and exchanging business cards and contact information.

I wasn't ready to go home after brunch and one of the younger ladies had mentioned she was going to a famous Hamam, or Turkish bath. I'd heard that if you were in Turkey, you just HAD to go to a Hamam, so I asked if she minded if I tagged along, and she said it was fine. We trecked back out into the cold and made our way from Taksim to Sultanhamet, or the old city, where the famed Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia rest. We took an above ground train to get there, and along the way, the young woman explained to me how Hamam's worked. Basically, you could get bathed or massaged or both. The Hamam was completely segregated by sex with the women's area on one side and the men's area on the other.

After a short trip, we arrived at the door of the Sultanahmet Hamami, built in the 17th century. For some reason, I felt an Asian influence to the room we walked into and checked in with the woman at the counter. My new friend ordered a bath and massage, so I did the same (for around TL 150 or roughly US$75), and we went our separate ways. I was guided upstairs to a private changing room where I completely disrobed, wrapped a towel around my waist, put on some flip flops and descended back downstairs. There was a group of Turkish guys standing around wearing t-shirts and towels and I wondered if I wasn't following the proper protocol but having taken off my shirt. I began to wonder what the hell had I gotten myself into.

A moment later, I was introduced to a large hot marble room with a domed ceiling with skylights poked into it. I was expecting something more akin to a steam room, but there was no steam in sight. Just unadulterated heat, a large marble centerpiece where several guys were laying and soaking up the temperature, and a series of marble sinks built right into the walls of the pentagonal room. So this was a Turkish bath, I thought.

All around the world they're known as Turkish baths, but that's really a misnomer. The Cultured Traveler says that, "Either they are copied from early Greek and Roman examples, or else they are renovated Byzantine hamams. But we should give the Ottomans credit for transforming them from places simply for washing into an indispensable part of daily social life. Hamams functioned as places of entertainment in a closed society where Islamic rules governed social life. We could even say that they eventually evolved into the equivalent of the bars and cafes of modern times. Hamams are an intriguing subject, as their history reflects the history of the synthesis between the East and West. Through the history of the hamam, an institution that formed an important part of the daily lives of millions, not only can you trace the developments and changes in the arts, architecture, traditions and inclinations over the centuries, it is also possible to track the rise and fall of nations and empires."

I didn't know all this at the time, but I was enjoying the ornate architecture of the room, even as I sweated profusely. Seated on extremely warm marble, I looked around to get a sense of how this was going to work. Soon, one of the Turkish guys I'd seen outside, entered sans t-shirt, and commenced to give the man next to me his bath. I had learned from my friend that the point of the heat was to make it easier to exfoliate the skin, which the washer proceeded to do via a large black mit that covered much of his forearm. First, he scrubbed the man from head to toe and then he washed him until he wore a layer of soap suds. He told the man to sit up and he carried a small bucket over to one of the marble sinks and filled it with water which he used to douse the man and clear away the suds.

I was filled with growing trepidation because the last time a man gave me a bath, I was a baby and that man was my father. But I was already there and therefore would have to endure. Just then, my washer, twice the size of the other one, and quite hairy, sauntered toward me. He epitomized what I thought a stereotypical Turkish man looks like, huge pot-belly, bearded, and complete with a handlebar mustache. He spoke very broken rudimentary English, consisting of the phrases, "What is your name?" "Where you from?" and "I wash you good, you give good tip."

I was told to lay on my stomach and the man rearranged my towel so that even the sides of my buttocks were exposed. I was quite uncomfortable as he began the vigorous scrubbing. He would stop every now and a gain to show me the ropes of my skin coming off like skinny leaches. The scrubbing didn't hurt, just produced a warm buzzing sensation in my skin. I felt like a pot after Thanksgiving. He then washed me and doused me with the water. That was the best part. The water was warm and nicely fragrant.

While all this was happening, more and more men filled in the space, chatting happily as they absorbed the heat. It reminded me of an American barbershop, a private place where men could speak openly about any subject. In a culture as restrictive as the Islamic culture is known to be, I could understand the appeal. But it wasn't for me.

Having survived the bathing experience, I was given a dry towel and then directed to the massage room where three other men were getting massaged. My masseuse proceeded to tenderize me like a tenderloin for the better part of 45 minutes until my muscled ached. After the massage, I went back to my dressing room, got dressed and came back downstairs to deliver my tip to the Turkish bather. He actually looked disappointed when I handed him the 15% tip!

There was a stand selling fresh juice and although I was parched, I couldn't wait to get out of there. I felt more tense leaving than I had before arriving, which I attribute to a lack of experience in this type of situation. My friend finished at the same time and we left the Hamam - her, skin glowing, and clearly relaxed; me, needing to put as much distance between myself and the establishment as possible. I vowed that this would be my first and last Hamam experience.

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