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Rachel Lagunoff
Argentine Tangos
Istanbul, OT (Turkey)

The Hamam

by Rachel Lagunoff
August 11, 2003
Istanbul, OT (Turkey)

The Hamam

by Rachel Lagunoff
August 3, 2003

After three nights of dancing, two days of workshops, and one day of touring the city, we were ready for a bath. Dancers of Argentine tango visiting Istanbul, we were off to experience a Turkish bath, or hamam. The one we chose to visit was a three-hundred-year-old bath in the historical district of the city, named Cagaloglu, which C., who had been to Turkey before, wrote down on a piece of paper for the taxi driver.

To get to the entrance, we walked down a long hallway decorated with engravings of the bath interior: marble columns supporting high arches; exotic bathers reclining under shafts of sunlight beaming through star and circle patterns cut into the domed ceiling. Above the doorway, over a set of gold-on-black Arabic inscriptions, was a helpful sign in English, indicating that we were about to enter a REAL TURKISH BATH.

Once inside the main hall, we stood in front of a table where a woman who spoke English showed us the list of services and prices. We all chose the full-service option: scrubbing, soaping, massage, and shampoo. The men then walked into the impressive central room, which featured a balcony of private dressing rooms around a marble fountain, under a high domed ceiling. The women were instructed to follow an attendant back out the front door, around the building, and down a narrow side street to a small doorway leading to the women's section.

No balcony, no central fountain. But already the air was warm, humid, and white with marble dust. The bath attendants spoke very little English, and we spoke very little Turkish, so the attendants, after handing us each a thin cotton red-and-yellow plaid cloth, gestured and led us to the small dressing rooms, ordering us to "Change!" Inside was a narrow bed with a bedside table, a nice place for a nap.

I took off all my clothes, wrapped the cloth around me, stepped outside, and locked the door. My companions all came out of their cubicles wearing bathing suits. I had to laugh. This is a bath! You're going to get a full-body massage! I quickly managed to convince my fellow bathers to shed their attire and experience the freedom of complete nudity.

The attendants then directed us towards a shoe rack where we had to pick a pair of clogs to wear inside the bath, where running water and soap makes the marble floor slippery. In the olden days, the wooden bath clogs were beautifully sculpted, and inlaid with mother of pearl decorations. Today, you get a slab of wood with a thick leather strap. So we put these on and clomped on in.

The main room was not as grand as the men's bath looked in the pictures, but it was still striking: shafts of sunlight fell through star and circle patterns cut into the domed ceiling, filtered through the hot, steamy air, and reflected off the white marble on the walls, columns, and central stone. Our masseuses had to direct us at every moment, as we had no idea what we were supposed to do. In addition to "change," their key English vocabulary included "sit" and "wash." We had to take off our covering cloths and sit down next to marble sinks with hot and cold water taps turned on to run continuously-it didn't seem to matter that the water was overflowing the sinks, running down the steps and into the shallow moat in the floor. That was the "sit" part. Then, to show us how to "wash," the masseuses would take a metal bowl, fill it with water, and splash us. Ah, wash! So we sat there splashing water over ourselves for a while.

Then, one by one, the masseuses would come and lead us by the hand to the central hot stone for the first part of our massage service, the body scrub. This is when I learned that the masseuses had another English vocabulary word: "Good?" My masseuse would smile when it was obvious that her work was indeed good. Our masseuses were women of quite ample proportions, wearing very little clothing themselves. They seemed to enjoy their work, spending their days making sure their clients were relaxed, clean and happy.

After we each had our turn being scrubbed, and returned back to our sink to recover, we were led by the hand again to lie down to have our wash: wet blobs of soap suds squeezed from a cloth onto our skin, followed by another, lighter scrubbing over the whole body. Then came the massage. My masseuse understood when I told her we were in Istanbul for dancing, and she paid special attention to my feet and legs. I'd had various kinds of massage before, but nothing compares to the sensation of lying on a hot, smooth slab of marble while your muscles are kneaded into deep relaxation.

The final service, the shampoo, took place at our initial seats next to the sinks. My masseuse came over and sat behind me, and then poured what felt like a full bucket of water over my head, so that for several seconds I couldn't breathe-just as I thought I was surely going to drown here in the real Turkish bath, she ran her hand down the front of my face, clearing my nose and mouth. And I had paid for this? Then came the shampoo, with what C. said must be Lemon Joy, followed by a rinse with more suffocating buckets of water.

After relaxing for a while longer, we were finally ready to make our way halfway out, to slowly start to cool down. We went into a side room which was warm, but not as hot and humid as the main room, and sat on a marble bench around a marble table. We ordered apple tea, and sat wrapped in towels, chatting and sipping our drinks. After a while, one of the attendants came in and announced, "Husbands outside!" We all burst out laughing-we were all single, divorced, or widowed. L. said she would have been quite shocked to see her husband outside, as he'd been dead for 17 years.

We went back to our dressing rooms, and then back out into the street, into the dry and dusty air, surrounded again by the honking of cars and chattering of people. I felt calm, warm, light-headed, relaxed, and very, very clean.

Author's Note: This story is based on real experiences at two different Istanbul hamams on three separate occasions, mostly on my first time. For further information on Turkish baths, I recommend the book Turkish Baths: A Light onto a Tradition and Culture (A Guide to the Historic Turkish Baths of Istanbul), by Orhan Yilmazkaya, Citlembik Publications, 2003 (available at www.nettleberry.com).

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