A tale of the tape from a Turkish hamam.
The earliest public baths were found in the Indus Valley. The Greeks had thermae and the Romans—so quick to imitate, rename and claim authorship—balneae. Russians use a banya, the Japanese have sentō, and the English named a whole city after their bath. In each case the details are unique to the culture but the overall experience draws on a few common elements: hot water, steam, cold water, lotions, unguents, dermabrasion, sitting around for hours to prove you don’t have to be anywhere.
Sometimes violence is involved, such as getting hit with a branch or being “massaged” like it’s a Brooklyn beat-down. Bathhouse attendants often have a little aggression to work out. Probably because they work in bathhouses.
On my fifth trip to Istanbul, I harnessed enough courage to try a hamam. It was an incredibly painful and horrific relaxing and amazing experience. I didn’t know where to start so I adopted a method that was both scientific and efficient: I walked from my hotel near the Hippodrome, turned left, and entered the first bathhouse I saw.
“Hello, I’d like a Turkish bath.” Should I have just said bath?
Basak, the counterperson, did not speak a word of English. She asked me a series of questions in a rapid-fire, I’m guessing, Turkish. I explained that I didn’t understand. She kept asking, more quickly. I kept explaining—though that’s definitely the wrong verb—my lack of Turkish.
A tall gaunt young man walked in with a moustache so full and luxurious it made Stalin look like John Waters. He told me how much to pay and led me to a locker room.
I sat on a bench to untie my shoes, waiting for him to leave. He did not leave.
“Are you going to…?”
I was 42. He was approximately 17. I’m not sure why I sirred him. I did have the young man outfoxed, though. I took off my socks, shirt, watch and unzipped my pants to reveal pale-orange swimming trunks. He—his shirt said Doruk, but that could’ve been the name of a Turkish sportswear brand–looked at me as if I’d urinated in his grandmother’s Kafka’s Soup. It quickly became apparent that, in Turkey, I wasn’t considered a real man. Even the teenagers knew it.
I locked up my things while the putative Doruk, standing a few uncomfortable inches away, glowered. “I bring you to attendant. He will wash you.” It dawned on me that a Turkish bath wasn’t something you took. It was something that took you.
“I… want to bathe myself.”
“You pay for attendant before.” He head-nodded toward the front desk, a now-distant land.
“Well, I don’t want attendant.”
Doruk came closer. The distance between us could be measured in micro-units that only Austrian scientists had a name for. “You pay for attendant. Here.” Doruk handed me a pair of worn rubber flip-flops, which might’ve once belonged to Ataturk, and a small red towel. “Come.”
I followed him, stepping lightly on the slick, wet, marble floor. My flip-flops were designed specifically to avoid traction. I might as well have been wearing stilettoes or bags of marbles.
The hamam itself was dark. Dome ceiling, arches, marble columns, candles, intricate mosaics built into the walls. There was a star-shaped platform in the center of the room, surrounded by a pentagram design. Steam rose like dry ice. I wasn’t sure if I was having a bath or getting inducted into a druidic cult. Were the ancient Turks really into heavy metal?
There were men and women in various stages of undress. They basked on the platform, sat on benches, lounged in quiet alcoves. Some were completely naked, red towels cloistering their midsections. Ineffectively, for some. Like throwing a rain poncho over the Washington Monument. I was the only one fully burka-ed in American swimming trunks.
Doruk left while I took a seat on a slatted wooden bench. Time to sweat. Dirt, oils and toxins were flushed out of my pores.
I observed my fellow bathers. The main thing I noticed, aside from genitals drooping like ripe figs from beneath miniscule towels, were the unabashed noises of the human body. Vigorous phlegmy throat-clearing, hacking coughs, noses blown into one’s hand. The women gathered on the far side of the immense room, so perhaps the men felt free to let loose. Maybe this was an ancient method of purification—to allow bad humors to escape. Farting was also de rigueur, but public flatulence is a cultural practice I can’t embrace.
Except when I did. It was such a tiny release of air, like a toddler’s innocuous wind, that the others frowned and turned away, clearly thinking I had an underdeveloped sphincter or really small small intestines or didn’t eat enough five-meat kabobs or—I’m rusty on the science here—whatever anatomical or spiritual deficiency made me an unmanly flatusizer.
20 minutes later my attendant arrived. Dressed in nothing but a floor-length wrap skirt, he grabbed my arm and yanked me toward the platform. I didn’t catch his name, but he was a little older than God and slightly more ursine than your average Kodiak. He pointed to my trunks. “Sorry? What do you…?” He pointed again. “My trunks? What about them?”
He tugged on the baggy right leg. “Ovv.”
I took them ovv. Quickly. And just as quickly covered myself with the tea towel. I closed my eyes, lay back, tried some deep-breathing exercises. As the attendant bent down with his ancient bald head and reached for my thighs with forearms as thick and hairy as sheepdogs, I prayed to the Gods of water and steam that this wasn’t a happy-ending scenario.
The marble platform—a göbektaşı or belly-stone—was heated and quite soothing, but soon I was doused with warm water and assaulted with a kese, a coarse loofah-like mitt. It was like being dragged behind a car down a road of gravel, sand and barb-wire. When I opened my eyes there was a shroud of pinkish-gray—eraser rubbings? grated cheese?—all around me. What’s this? I wondered. Oh, it used to be my skin.
Next, soap & sponge. I was the Hyundai, my attendant was the sexy car-washer in Daisy Dukes, and his shockingly long chest hairs were those flappy things that slap your car windows. I was lathered for 15 minutes into a Michelin Man of soap suds. This was followed by a light massage, where light means slightly less violent than a mugging.
The attendant dragged me to a wall-mounted fountain, grabbed a plastic bucket, and drenched me with cold water. 40 bucketsful? 50? 75? I’m not sure. After this I was placed in a frigid pool, chest-high. After 10 minutes it was back to the steam room, back to the pool, back to the steam room…
Two hours in, I was given a final shower of soothing arctic water, wrapped in warm towels, and brought back through the steam room for a victory lap. The attendant handed me over to Doruk, who led me to a cozy sitting room. A tiny women brought a cup of mint tea.
After a few sips I was ready to go, but an old man hobbling by caught my arm, patted it, took the seat next to me.
“I’m kind of tired—” And possibly in need of medical attention. “—Think I’ll call it a day.”
I sank back into the chair, closed my eyes, took a deep breath. The tension began to recede. This part of the hamam wasn’t so bad. I felt pretty good, actually, even though my skin was several shades pinker, and about an inch thinner, than before. I was a hero for enduring so much torture without crying too often. I remembered biking up Jebel Hafeet, the UAE’s highest point. Temperatures in the mid-110’s. Seven miles each way. 4000 feet up. That was challenging, but the hamam was a real adventure.