The Turkish Bath


The Blue Mosque in the snow, Istanbul, Turkey.

I., the witty, dry Ukranian I was supposed to travel to Burma with, was helping someone order a cup of coffee at lunch. “You see, everything here is ‘Turkish’. Unless you want to drink the Turkish coffee, you need to ask for ‘Turkish Nescafe’ and for ‘Turkish milk’. Do you take ‘Turkish sugar’?”

Obsessive nationalism aside, the Turks have a point. Turkish coffee is something entirely different from what I drink every morning. And Turkish baths are a phenomenon unto themselves.

I decided that I was going to be a good tourist this trip, taking whatever spare moments I could to expore the sights, ignoring incoming email and finishing the trip with a 24-hour vacation. In that spirit, I decided I had to explore the Turkish baths. So I put together a posse – T., a Danish hacker who’s become a good friends, J., my closest colleague at the Foundation, who is rapidly becoming a close friend, and D., the administrator of the Foundation program I advise. Ditching the planned dinner – yet another tourist restaurant for the eighty conference attendees – we piled into taxi and headed to Cagaloglu Baths.

Cagaloglu advertises itself as “the oldest taxpayer in Turkey”. They’ve been in operation for three hundred years. The phenomenon of the baths, though, is hundreds of years older. Both D. and J. live in Budapest, roughly as far as the Ottoman empire made it to the north, and they report the city has several baths, products of the conquest hundreds of years before.

Somewhere in the last half millenium, the baths metamorphosed from a way from someone witout running water in the home to get clean to a complex, strange, wonderful ritual. Cagaloglu is well configured for those unfamiliar with the ceremony, as you’re guided through every step of the process. Arriving through a nondescript door, down a marble hallway, we found ourselves in a large room filled with low tables. At one, women demurely sipped tea and read magazines. At another, muscular Turkish men wearing towels around their waists and tracksuit tops smoked foul cigarettes. The menu of services was in English and Turkish, and after some contemplation, T. chose a bath and scrubbing, no massage, to protect his bad knee and back. J., citing sensitive skin, chose a bath and massage, no scrubbing, and D. and I went for the $20 complete service – a massage, bath, scrubbing and shampoo.

J. was led to the side entrance for women, and the rest of us checked into rooms 7,8 and 9, wooden cubicles, where we traded our clothing for a red and white-striped cloth, wrapped around the waist, and a pair of profoundly akward wood and leather sandals. We teetered into the back room, through a hallway filled with benches and racks of towels, into the main room.

Dimly lit, it looked a bit like some of the mosques I’ve been visiting – an octagonal room with a domed roof, pierced with dozens of small, circular windows. We were led past the central dais, a huge, octagonal slab of marble, into a sauna. Three by two meters, it was cooler that most saunas I’ve been in, though much wetter. Water was probably pumped under the floor – I couldn’t rest my feet against it without the wooden sandals. After fifteen minutes of discussion about the comparative merits of Hungarian, Russian, Scandanavian and American sauna experiences, a large figure appeared in the sauna doorway.

He was a Turkish guy, perhaps forty, roughly my size and shape (which is to say, quite large). He beckoned to me, and I followed him to the marble slab, where he put down a vinyl cushion, gestured for me to lie down and proceeded to rub the living hell out of me. My first thought was, “This guy’s really strong.” My next was, “This guy’s really good.” And my next was something roughly like, “Hmmmmmmmmmm….”

I remember when I was about nine years old, I was obsessed with horses, in no small part because two of my older, female cousins were obsessed with horses. Jen had a horse, and I remember her teaching me how to comb and brush it. “They’re really big, so what feels hard to you feels good to them. If you comb them too lightly, it tickles.” And that’s exactly my experience with most massage – either it’s entirely ineffectual but pleasant, or it tickles.

This didn’t tickle. It hurt, in wonderful and positive ways. Somewhere in the process, he grabbed my elbows and crossed them across my chest in a way that cracked my spine in two directions. Some time later, he gestured that I should move over to the side of the room, where marble half walls surrounded a washbasin. Before I figured out what was going on, I was assailed with bowls full of scalding water, thrown strategically at different areas of my body. My masseur used his one phrase of English – “sit tight” – to get me to the floor where he began scrubbing me thoroughly with a loofah-like mitt.

At this point, I was somewhere in a state of animal bliss – warm and happy, though deeply disoriented. My guide leaned down and began some sort of negotiation with me. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was agreeing to, but would have agreed to almost anything at that point. In retrospect, and in consultation with with my male companions, it appears that I agreed to pay 20 million Turkish lira – around $15 – for the “special service”. (I’m guessing the special service was pretty standard, as my two companions were talked into similar deals.)

So then I was laid on my back near the marble tap and swabbed with an enormous, soapy brush that resembled a horse’s tail. This led into an extended version of the previous massage, this time more focused on pressure points in my calves, armpits and other surprisingly painful places. This proceeded to a shampoo where my masseur rubbed soap into my hair, face and neck, rubbing with fingers and thumbs all the way.

More than once in the process did I find myself thinking, “I’m nearly naked, coated with soap suds, lying on the marble floor in the dark basement of a building in Turkey, with my foot extremely near the groin of a nearly naked man who doesn’t speak my language, and he’s rubbing my thighs with abandon.” And for those of you reading this and thinking, “Well, that’s rather homoerotic,” my only response is, “Well, yeah.”

But the truth is, the experience was much more like a reversion to childhood. From the lack of knowledge of what was going on, to the absence of common language, to the sheer strength and competence of my masseur, my overwhelming sense what that of happy incapacity. As more buckets of hot water washed the shampoo and soap off me, I thought of my mother bathing me as a child with a pink plastic bucket in the gold bathroom tub, pouring warm water over my head, washing off the baby shampoo.

Almost to remind me that we hadn’t just shared an oddly intimate experience – which we had – my masseur helped me to my feet, allowed me to refasted my towel and then gave me a firm, hearty handshake. He led me to the interchamber where he wrapped me with several dry towels, then led me to cell #8, where he waited for me to produce the promised lira. I did, dressed myself (do I really have to dress myself, mommy?) and floated over to a couch for a cold beer.

T. reported the same transcendent experience I’d had, minus (thankfully) a back cracking that would have totalled his slipped disc. D., a massage afficianado, was more critical, feeling he’d gotten half-hearted service until he’d agreed to the special treatment. But J. floated in a few minutes later, perhaps the happiest of us all.

We pressed for details and she deadpanned, “Well, you know, it’s different from the men’s side – we sat around and talked about our feelings.” She relented, and told us that she’d gotten the best of the deal – not only did she get massaged and scrubbed, “but it was by a doe-eyed, Rubenesque Turkish girl.”

Evidently, the clothing rules on the women’s side were different as well. On the men’s side, there was all sorts of complex manuevering with a towel to ensure genital coverage – J. reported that no towels were issued for bathers on the female side. “But the masseurs didn’t really seem to have a dress code. One was in a bathing suit, some were in house dresses, and one older women was naked. My masseuse came over to me in a housedress, told me to start washing myself with a bucket and returned naked. Then she gasped, apologized, pulled a pair of purple panties out of her bucket and made herself ‘decent’.”

We agreed that, somewhere, there’d probably been a bad experience with a tourist who’d been shocked by the nudity – probably Cameron Diaz, prominently featured in a newspaper article in the entrance. “Somewhere there’s a manual,” J. speculated, “that says ‘If the chick is white, put your panties back on.'”

And then we piled into another cab – more fluidly this time – and sped off to a Turkish restaurant where we stuffed ourselves with Turkish kebab, drank a good-sized bottle of Raki (Turkish ouzo) and headed home to our Turkish hotel. And if you ever have the chance to treat yourself to a Turkish bath, I recommend that you Turkish jump at the Turkish chance.

My Turkey photos live here.

6 Responses to The Turkish Bath

  1. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Travel Writing

  2. Nat says:

    Hi
    Yeah i had oneto totaly agree wiv everthing u say but it woz bloody lovely x

  3. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Large man versus Mr. Wiry - 1-0

  4. Subject: A proposal to build a South Asian Union (SAU) like European Union by expanding SAARC states.
    His Excellencies,
    Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings, Head of Governments & States, Political & Religious Leaders, Intellectuals, Educationists, Economists, Welfare Organizations, Mass People of South Asian region.
    Peace be upon all of you, history is repeating from the creation of human life till now and will be repeated until the last final judgment of Creator. Actually, Creator created us as his best creation of life but we divided it into different nations, religions, cultures, languages, ideologies, etc in several thousands of years since the appearance of 1st human Adam (PBUH). We don’t know when the human life on earth will be finished for ever on dooms day, but some think that human life never stop repeating it’s wrongs. Now we have seen that the days of the human being are becoming more critical, insecure, divided among our selves in different ideas, increasing of poverty, and destruction of economy of some nations in comparison with the economy of some rich countries of the west. So the time for South Asian nations to unite as a strong body which is most caring for the inhabitants of this region has come, and in this way, we can develop ourselves. I have no right to waste your valuable time, but my heart is pressing me to place this proposal or advice to the holy hearts of our great rulers of the people of SAARC countries.

    Proposal for future South Asian Union (SAU)

    1. The mass people of this region want to abolish visa system for them selves in order to enjoy traveling facility freely and free trade among the regional countries like EU states. We can include Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Cyprus, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, China, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, Japan & Philippine. The Afghan president his Excellency Mr. Hamid Karzai and his Government also shows interest for entering into SAARC.

    2. If we can include thirty seven more countries (Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Cyprus, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, China, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, Japan & Philippine) with the seven countries of SAARC (Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives), then this organization or union will be one of the strongest unions. Then we can establish a powerful single currency like EURO as, for example SACU (South Asian Currency), dollar, or any other selected by the forum. And currency value can be fixed by averaging the currency values of the nations concerned.

    3. All states will keep there own national flags as state flag and one common union flag, like that of EU.

    4. We can establish joint military command council for the defense of the whole region like EU. That means we can unite in a union to ensure human life security along with a strong economy like European Union.
    I do not know when the people of this region of South Asia will start to feel love and affection for each other, and will be united. But we should try to establish a golden future for ourselves. If successful, then generation after generation of this region will remember you for your kindness. God bless us with eternal & external peace.

    Yours,
    Saulat Kamran
    E-Mail Address: saulat@dhaka.net
    Website: http://www.southasianunion.net
    House No -28, Road No-4, Dhanmandi R/A.
    Dhaka, Bangladesh.

    Proposal for Future South Asian Union (SAU)
    The Proposed countries are Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Cyprus Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, China, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, Japan and Philippine.

    South Asia (Political Map) 1999

    Proposed Road Map of SAU

    . Marching a step ahead to form South Asian Union (SAU) is good sign for the people of the region. We may be of different cultures, religions, languages etc but we all are human and descendents or genealogy of first parents-Adam and Eve (p.b.u.t.).
    We all have to come closer and make ourselves ambitious to lay down the foundation of the Union. Proposed 44 countries are mentioned below:
    Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Cyprus, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan,

    Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, , Brunei, China, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, Japan and Philippine.

    Process of South Asian Union (SAU) Implementation

    1. Forming union by including 44 countries as mentioned above.
    2. The Nations of the region can form South Asian Parliament by approving the appointment of Presidents, Kings, Prime ministers, Foreign ministers, Home ministers, Defense ministers & ministers for trade & commerce as members of the SAU parliament.
    3. Establishing a powerful single currency like EURO, for example South Asian Currency (SACU) or dollar or any other selected by the forum. And valuation can be fixed by averaging the currency values of the nations concerned.
    4. Abolishing visa system in order to promote traveling freely, and adopting free trade among the regional countries.
    5. Forming a joint military council to establish security of state, countries of the union & for common people.
    6. Paving ways for the people of the Union to seek jobs according to their capabilities.
    7. Making good uses of cultural and sports organizations through which the participating nations can establish their identity to understand each other.
    8. Funding should be made by member nations to establish Research Centers for medicines, incurable diseases, and science & technology for the benefit of general people.
    9. Establishing Bank such as Union Bank of South Asia to educate mass population, provide fund for natural disaster. Also making ways to drive homeless and astray people into employment through cottage industries to make their livelihood better so as to stop them from becoming smugglers, miscreants, or terrorists.
    10. Regarding child labor, concrete steps should be taken by providing free education established by the Union in the form of NGO. Orphans to be included in this establishment.
    11. Each state should be responsible to stop smuggler from drug/ arms trafficking. Also find ways to stop women & children trafficking.
    12. State to State disputes should be resolved for the best interest of the people. If necessary, the SAU may be called in the process of settlement.

    Yours,
    Saulat Kamran
    E-Mail Address: Saulat@dhaka.net
    Website: http://www.southasianunion.net
    House No -28, Road No-4, Dhanmandi R/A.
    Dhaka, Bangladesh.

  5. I am from Dhaka Bangladesh Congratulating to Mr. Barack Obama President elect of United States of America and his family and all his associates those were sacrificed their times to win him. Now the time reach in America and in the world to implement haven like peace & smell of roses in universal society. I expect from rose?s heart that rose will spread its smell in all over the universe. The games of war & terrorism, arms, poverty, barbarism, political violence, massacre, harmful activity will go into the museum for ever. And I also expect that his Excellency Mr. Barack Obama President elect of United States of America will succeed to give us haven like peace in the world. The universe will feel comfort again after years; always we will pray for his good initiatives to succeed.
    With Best Regards

    Saulat Kamran
    Saulat@dhaka.net
    http://www.southasianunion.net

  6. jayant says:

    I was going through what Mr. Saulat Kamran has written. Why is he not considering poverty, flesh trade, terrorism, smuggling, poaching endangeored species,lack of education, criminals, corruption in Bangladesh & not to mention infiltration of illegal immigrants into India,who in turn become terrorists & call themselves islamic militants. I am an indian citizen from Mumbai & I see thousands of illegally migrated bangladeshis in Mumbai who are ready to do any crime for their daily bread & who are lead there after to support terrorist activities. We feel very unsafe here in mumbai due to their existance.
    Why talk of a common currency for the forum? If bangladeshi currency was stronger as Indian currency, would Mr. Saulat devalue it & accept a common currency?

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