Turkish Hamam – More Than a Bath

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The Turkish Bath (Le Bain Turc) painted in 1862 by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres when he was 82.

The following is an excerpt from my memoirs.

Once inside the hamam “we ducked through a low door and stepped into a marble lined area where there were toilets and through to an antechamber with low marble benches and a few basins around the walls. From there we ducked through another smaller, lower doorway into the internal room of the hamam. The main room was shaped like a cross, with a large hexagonal marble slab in the middle. It sat directly under a dome with a skylight at the very top, and here and there other holes let in light. Around the walls of each arm of the cross there were three basins, and in the space between the arms there were two sauna rooms. At first glance there didn’t seem to be any empty spaces, as every basin was occupied by women and children engaged in washing themselves and each other. Despite the camouflage of the steam and the noise I felt self-conscious standing there in my underpants, clutching my towel and plastic washbag, but as I gazed around feeling a little lost, two old women gestured to us. Next to them two little girls were clearing things away from a basin and everyone shifted a bit to make room. We trod carefully on the wet marble floor and set up under the gaze of the two women who had waved us over. The two were less than five feet tall, and short and squat like most of the local women. They were obviously sisters, with the same slim legs overhung by enormous bellies and long grey hair in single plaits, all the way down their backs. After seeing us safely seated and beginning to set up they went back to their own toilette.

There wasn’t much space for the three of us so I sat and looked around while Susan and Yuki got settled. Opposite us was a tiny old woman, laboriously struggling to get to her feet. She was naked but modestly held a silver washing bowl in front of her genitals. It wasn’t really necessary because she had such a large drooping stomach nothing was visible. She had enormous trouble walking and her legs were grotesquely bowed from years of carrying heavy loads. As I looked around I saw other women of similar stature, and judged from their noses and eyebrows that they were locals. My male students bemoaned the lack of pretty girls in Kayseri, what with their hook noses and mono-brows, and I couldn’t help but sympathise. In another corner a woman was washing her two young children. The girl was tiny and stood covered in soapy water screaming as loudly as she could. Her brother, who looked to be about five, was distinctly uncomfortable at the sight of so many nearly naked women and kept trying to sidle away. His mother just grabbed him by his underpants and threw bowls of water over him at regular intervals.

A huge family group had taken over the central slab. Some were in bikinis, others just in knickers, but a few of the teenage girls were wearing knee length slips. All of them were drenched in sweat and water, so every contour was visible. Back in our corner we discovered that we didn’t have a bowl for pouring water over ourselves. I walked carefully back to the change room and borrowed one from the cashier.

We heeded the cashier’s instructions and began to wash ourselves in preparation for the kese. As we sat and poured water over ourselves, our nervous chatter gave way to a lazy, dreamlike silence. Our reverie in the steamy, cloudy, warm air was suddenly interrupted when a young girl approached us and said something to me in Turkish. I said pardon and she repeated herself.

“She wants to meet you,” said Yuki.
“Oh, OK. Hello.”
“Hello. Where are you from?”
“I am from Australia.”
“Austria! Do you speak German?” she asked excitedly while calling some other women over.
“No, no, Australia. Sydney.” Seeing her incomprehension, I added, “Kangaroo.”

“Oh, that is very far. I am from Kayseri. This is my aunt and this is my mother-in-law.” I nodded to the two women who immediately started talking to me in German. I’d learnt German at school so I could follow what they were telling me. They had both lived in Germany for thirty years but had now come back to live in their hometown. The girl was a recent bride and they came to the hamam together all the time. Usually the bride’s mother came but she slipped on the ice last week and sprained her ankle. I wished her a speedy recovery and then the questions began.

“Where is she from” asked the mother-in-law, pointing at Susan, “Is she from Germany?”

I laughed and translated for Susan. She too laughed, because with her blonde hair people either thought she was German or Russian. The first meant they thought she was rich and the second meant they thought she was a prostitute.

“America” said Susan. “And you”, they asked Yuki, “Are you from Australia too? Are you sisters?”

“No, I’m from Japan,” Yuki replied. This wasn’t the first time people thought she was related to either Susan or me. A lot of the women came from isolated villages and knew little about the world. Then the women started questioning me more closely. Was I married? Oh good, it is good to be married. How many years have you been married? Do you have children? Whenever women ask me these questions I know I am doomed to tell the truth because I always do. In order to adhere to Turkish tradition though, my partner Kim and I tell everyone we are married. It is the only way people will accept us as a legitimate couple. When I introduce him as my husband I feel vaguely uneasy but far less uncomfortable than if I tried to explain why we aren’t married. Besides, according to the law in our country, we are as good as married.

“I’ve been married for 13 years. No, I don’t have children.” Before they can comment I continue. “I am the second wife. No, not two wives at the same time. My ‘husband’ had a wife before. One wife before but now they are divorced. They had two sons. The sons are men now. Children are very nice but they are a lot of work. They are a lot of trouble, we had many troubles with his children.” At this last comment their disbelief calms and they launch into a discussion about children, how they are a blessing and a curse. Some of the women seem more cursed than others judging by their expressions. The general consensus, at least to my face, is that I am a wise woman not to have children but I can see in their faces that they think I am rather strange.

They turn and grill Susan. She doesn’t understand their Turkish so Yuki and I translate. We embroider a bit and tell them Susan has a fiancé in America who is waiting for her. She is taking this year to see Turkey and then she will return to him and they will marry. She misses him very much and they speak to each other on the phone every day. Before they ask how many children she is planning to have Yuki gives her biography. The women say something to her in Turkish and they all laugh. She turns and says,

“I didn’t need to tell them I don’t have children. The aunt just told me she can tell from the shape of my nipples that I don’t.”

Once all the personal details have been supplied the conversation turns to our experiences in Kayseri and how we like Turkish food. We all say it is wonderful and the women offer us some of their food. They offer us hot pickles, which I love, so I eagerly take one. Susan looks at them with some disgust and asks what they are.

“They’re pickles, they’re called turşu. Take one. Oh, they’re usually hot, spicy, you don’t like hot food do you?” When she nodded in the negative I urged her to take it anyway. “Go on, just smile, put it in your mouth and when they’re not looking spit it out. There’s a bin over there. Just make them happy.” Despite her reluctance she did as I suggested. The pickles were really hot and just having it in her mouth was too much for her. Luckily the women didn’t see her spit it out, but when she said no to another one they didn’t insist. I loved them and ate what was offered.

Our friendship established, the three women went to join the rest of their family eating lunch on the central slab. They were really well prepared, with huge jars of homemade pickles, stacks of flat bread, olives and cheese. All of them sat or lay back on the marble, leaning companionably against one another looking for all the world as though they were at a picnic. However they weren’t in a park, but a hamam, and were taking up the space meant for kese and massage. When the masseuse came she tried to move them but they refused, so my first kese took place on a low marble slab by the wall. First she washed the area well and then indicated I should lie down. I lay on my stomach and she began to scrub my thighs. The pressure was strong and almost painful, but just as it became too much she softened her scrubbing. With an abrupt movement she spread my legs and scrubbed my inner thighs and I had to grit my teeth as she did so. Then she pulled my underpants up my buttocks and proceeded to scrub there. After she finished my legs she moved on to my back, pulling my pants down, making sure she didn’t miss anywhere. After a while, under the pressure of her hands and the rhythmic movements I was lulled into a trancelike state, punctuated by water dripping on my head from the walls above and the sounds of water elsewhere in the hamam.

A tap on my back was the signal to turn on my side so she could continue. She continued working around my thighs and calves, and then moved up to do my ribs and the sides of my breasts. These are areas I wash every day in the shower but having them scrubbed was different. It doesn’t exactly hurt but the feeling of the mitt on your ribs and breasts is odd. It’s not unpleasant, but it is something you want finished quickly. Soon enough it was over and I was lying on my back. I was pleasantly drowsy and not paying much attention to my surroundings. Suddenly the bride came over and before I could protest, popped a piece of pickled cucumber in my mouth. It was so unexpected that I started to laugh but the pickle was so hot I couldn’t. I swallowed it quickly and turned to nod my thanks. Catching my movement the masseuse followed my glance and commented about the group on the marble. She was annoyed with them for taking her workspace, but indulgently so.

By this time she’d finished my torso and was working her way down my body. My underpants were still pushed down at the back and wedged up my bottom, and now she pulled them down past my hip bones as low as was possible without being indecent. I didn’t have time to react to the discomfort because she was scrubbing away at my hips and lower belly and it was hard not to squirm. Then she plunged to my inner thighs again and I had to ask her to scrub more softly. It was excruciating but exhilarating as she scrubbed the dead skin off parts of my body, which rarely if ever saw the light of the sun.

Grabbing my arm and tapping my leg again I realised it was time for me to sit up. This was the first time in the whole experience that we’d actually looked each other in the eye…

Find out what happened next and why I originally decided to move to Turkey in Istanbul Dreams: Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom.

Indulge in your own Turkish bath experience at the Çemberlitaş Hamam near the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.

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