The Great Tragedy of the Turkish Hammam
He leads me into a dim hall, the winter sun struggling through the skylight. The squeaking from my rubber sandals echoes around the room.
“WC,” he grunts, gesturing at the toilets, and opens another door into a larger room, a domed ceiling framing a knee high marble slab. Basins with ornamental taps line the walls.
“Hammam,” he announces without turning around, and opens a small door in the corner. “Sauna.”
The door slams behind me as I step inside and he disappears. After ten minutes I’m pouring out the sweat that has pooled in my sandals. After 20 minutes, I’m wondering at what point dehydration becomes lethal when he appears again through the condensation of the door’s window, his pants and woolly jumper replaced with a tea towel and rubber slippers just like mine. He splashes some water around and opens the door without looking at me.
He gestures at the basin he’s filled with water and I go to sit in it, which elicits a disgusted click of the tongue, and a light shove sits me down next to the basin. He scoops hot water over me for a long time, and when I open my eyes he’s wielding some sort of glove that looks soft, but when he grabs my head and attacks my face with it I find it’s actually quite coarse. It’s only now I remember to unbend my legs, as my knees have been at my chest the whole time, giving him a sore eyeful of white-boy wang. He moves on to my arms, back, chest and legs with the exfoliating scrubber and grunts to point out all the grey flecks of dead skin making a mess everywhere.
Next, I’m lying face down on the marble slab in the centre of the hammam, and with freshly soaped hands he goes at me like a wrestler. He intersperses his attacks by bending my legs back to angles they’d never achieved before and never will again. Then he goes at my back once more, and the force of his bald, deceptively flabby mass on me and his fingers groping for my organs blow all the air out of my lungs. My involuntary grunts echo around the hammam. Mercy comes momentarily as he moves to my legs, and it’s almost a relief as he works furiously at them, time and again those buff fingers brushing my virgin buttocks. But there is no room for squeamishness in the hammam: it’s just me and an old guy who’s seen far too many wet towels clinging to nether regions to have any interest in my pasty arse.
A tap on the back tells me it’s time to move his assault to my front. My arms are pulled across my body just short of the point of dislocation, and individual fingers are yanked until the joints crack. Then, covered in soap, I’m sent back to the basin where my hair is rubbed through with shampoo. He grabs my head and braces himself, and for a moment I think he’s going to finish me off once and for all. Something in my neck cracks audibly, and it takes him two goes to get the same result on the left side. All of a sudden, I feel 20 kilos lighter.
I’m doused in water again and my attacker sends me back to the sauna with a point and a, “Sauna. Wash,” and he pinches his fingers together: “Tip service.” In the sauna, a muscular young Turk is hyperventilating and groaning as he writhes on the bench, evidently overcome with fear at the ordeal he’s about to undergo. He is summoned with an opened door, and with a final a slap of the chest and a grunt, he steps into the breach. I sit and sweat until I’m reaching the texture of a sultana, douse myself a few times back at the basin and stagger into the reception.
It’s cool out there and I’m wrapped in a towel and sat on a couch by a stove. The masseuses are sitting around watching music videos of similarly moustachioed men whining about lost love and shredding on their ouds. The obligatory old man with nothing else to do but sit in the reception is chain smoking across from me and the smoke drifts towards a high ceiling. The room is all dark wood, and there is little light. I’ve been in Turkey long enough that I’m not surprised when tea is placed in my hands, a small pile of sugar cubes nestled by the tulip shaped glass on a saucer.
Eventually my Dutch cousin and Australian travelling companion arrive from the women’s hammam with news that although the women’s massage is less gruelling, everyone in there is completely naked. They had only met for the first time that morning, and several hours later found themselves sitting side by side in their birthday suits, subtly checking out the other’s breasts. We climb the stairs beneath the stone inscription bearing the Nişancı Hammam’s founding date – 1475 – and step into the biting sea breeze of a January day in Istanbul, resolving on a kebab for lunch. My skin feels pure and my joints have a greater dexterity than before, their movements freer and less taxing to the muscles. And with each waking moment in the open air, wearing clothes, exposed to the outside world, we feel the purity slipping away. “You will never feel as clean ever again,” goes the cliché, which is just as much a tragedy as it is miraculous.