Friday, August 24, 2012


When you’re on your back, in a seedy corner of Istanbul, being ravaged by a Turk, you ask yourself a few questions.  How did I get here?  Is my body supposed to bend that way?  And, when it’s over, do I tip?

I refer, of course, to the Turkish bath (“hamam”), a centuries-old tradition which combines personal hygiene with all the pleasures of the Fourth Crusade.  For Turkish masseurs take the brute force approach to ablution: they pummel you until you’re clean or dead, whichever comes first.  In my case, it was a tie.

The evening started out innocently enough.  My travelmate and I had just reached Turkey, and he suggested that we visit a hamam.  According to Lonely Planet, some hamami are expensive and pristine, others budget and bacterial, so we picked one that would require neither a second mortgage nor leptospirosis.

The Çemberlitaş Hamami occupy a nondescript building, across from a column that Constantine gave to Istanbul back when it was his -ople.  After paying the entrance fee, you duck down some stairs into a large atrium surrounded by three levels of what look like slutty phone booths—small cubicles with glass walls, cots, and bright lights.  These are the changing rooms, and they’re designed so that, as you strip, those in the atrium may gauge your progress and your pudenda.

But the Turks permit some modesty.  Lest you shuffle to the bathing area in a state of total undress, an attendant provides you with a red and white checkered loincloth which, under different circumstances, could be a blanket for the world’s smallest picnic.  Thus garbed, you walk through the atrium all casual-like, as if the boys and girls lounging there hadn’t just seen your penis, and you step into the baths themselves.

The main bathing area (“sicaklik”) is an ornate dodecahedron with an inverted beehive for a ceiling, Ottoman arches along each of the twelve walls, and a fountain in the alcove below each arch.  It is also a million degrees.  In the middle of the floor, bathers congregate on a marble slab, like particularly hairy sheep to the slaughter.

Figuring “when in Rome” (technically, “when in the former Eastern Roman Empire”), I flung myself onto the slab whereupon I relearned my calorimetry from AP Physics B.  In brief: some materials conduct heat better than others.  Ergo, if you put an object that conducts heat well (say, a marble slab) in an environment that contains significant amounts of heat (say, a Turkish bath), said object will sauté any pasty American who splays himself thereon.

Approaching medium-rare, I awaited the arrival of a masseur (or “tellak”).  The tellaks used to be sex workers, but in the 1900s, their role changed from bringer of pleasure to instrument of torture.  Lonely Planet neglected to mention this.  Accordingly, I greeted my tellak— a small man with sheepish mien and spindly limbs—blissfully unaware of the terror in store:

Greg: Hello.
Tellak: English?  Español?
Greg: English.
Tellak: Turkish?
Greg: English.
Tellak: (High five.)

I’m still unclear if we were deciding which language to speak or naming all the languages we could think of (in which case, I did poorly), but ultimately the tellak decided to forego language in favor of a more universal form of communication: fisticuffs.

When receiving a bath from a Turk, you must assume a specific starting position: on your back, parallel to the slab’s edge.  Unfortunately, I did not know this, so the tellak and I played “Position Bingo.”  The rules are as follows: assume a position.  If it’s correct, you win.  If it’s not, the tellak slaps you.  Repeat.

At last, I happened into the right position, and the bath began.   Like the Double Dare obstacle course or Jesus at the cross, a Turkish bath has many stations:

1. Exfoliation.  Using a glove that doubles as a cheese grater, the tellak scrubs your entire body.  Generally, I prefer my skin attached to me.  The tellak did not.

2. Massage.  In both architecture and massage, the Turks are pathologically symmetric.  If a mosque has a minaret on the left side, you can bet your bottom lira that the right side will have one as well.  Similarly, if the tellak does something catastrophically painful to your left side—e.g. cracking your foot, crushing your calf, cranking your heel to your head—it’s only a matter of time before your right side suffers the same fate.

To better distribute this suffering across your entire surface area, the tellak repositions you constantly.  As he does so—pummeling and torqueing all the while—your efforts are subdivided between (a) stifling your screams; (b) adjusting your loincloth in a vain attempt to obscure your junk; (c) wondering how much and when you’re supposed to tip (and where exactly you’re supposed to store money); and (d) thinking very, very unsexy thoughts lest your body do anything protuberant.

After every tenet of the Geneva Convention has been violated, the massage ends.  And the tellak moves onto—

3. Waterboarding.  Without warning, the tellak heaves a bucket of water into your face and down every orifice it contains.  In attestation of my manliness, I didn’t scream—mostly, because I was too busy drowning—but I vowed to write Disney and inform them that Aladdin wasn't nearly racist enough.

The next bucket contains soap—anticlimactic, really; at this point I was expecting boiling tar—and the tellak attacks your scalp with his fingers, attempting either another massage or a very thorough lice check.  The kneading extends toward your eye sockets (see also: Oedipus Rex), then a couple more body blows, a bear hug for good measure, and your bath is finally, mercifully complete.

As I lay whimpering on the slab, the tellak gave a shy smile and asked, “Was I good?”  A question I’ve heard before, and from a similar position.  But as with all things in Turkey, context is key.

If you see a Turkish bath, keep walking.

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