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My experience at a traditional Turkish bath

Nov. 27, 2017

Led by a child and his father, I squeeze through the dense crowd of dark-robed people and pre-holiday sacrificial sheep, my eyes darting around colorful produce and spice stands on a busy afternoon in the local souk. We pause at a cactus fruit wagon, and an elderly man cuts out bright-pink seedy fruit with his machete in exchange for a pocket coin. I continue along the unknown route, wondering if I’ll ever be able to find my way home, until we cut through a narrow alley to a rounded door with black and white stripes. This  type of door is commonly known as the sign of a female-only hammam, or bathhouse, where your grandma’s goodies are guarded only by a fluttering white sheet.

I thank my guides, who are forbidden to enter, and cross into the mysterious haven of liberal femininity, hygiene, and gossip. After giving the blind attendee her 50 cents, I remove my shoes, dress, and bra, following the apparent “undies only” dress code. Embarrassment washes over me as I hear “abiad” (“white”) whispered by a woman laying on a rug receiving a leg wax. As I come to terms with the reality of my ghostly white breasts, I’m greeted by a few cigarette-smoking older women sprawled out on some steps, their hijab strewn amongst robes, shampoos and oils.

I carry myself tall through the caved corridor, fancying myself a cultured woman of ancient tradition. Small skylights in the ceiling illuminate the dusky space with intimate light and serenity. As I wander through, I meet eyes of grandmothers, mothers, and daughters making their weekly pilgrimage to the hammam. I nod my head to them, hoping not to run into one of my students.

I would never do this with my family, I say to myself, suddenly picturing the unfathomable sight of my baseball-fanatic, sequined sweater-wearing grandma sitting around sweating in her underwear while smoking a cigarette. 

I wonder how uptight I must be to find naked bonding time with my own flesh and blood so damn bizarre. Why do I find it so awkward to put nudity in the same box as quality family time? Does that make me guilty of sexualizing nudity? We’re all born naked with the same parts, after all—am I just ashamed like Adam and Eve, searching for leaves to cover myself with after eating the forbidden fruit? I imagine proposing the idea at the next Christmas cookie bake-off: “Hey, how about getting naked and scrubbing off each other’s dead skin? By the way, can you pass the chocolate chips?”

I nakedly creep past another sheet to the next phase of the “fun house”, and my breath is taken from me as I feel the weight of the thick, humid air settle in around me. A large woman in a tiny tube top and flip-flops grabs me by the hand—“Ya binti tali hon,” she says, or “Come here, my little lady”—and plops me down on a warm, damp block. She fills up two buckets of hot water, one to soak my feet, and she pours the other over my head as if I were a baby in a bath. She says something in Arabic I don’t quite get, then leaves me to sweat, soak and soap up. Looking around, I see other women enjoying the stillness of the place, each at different stages of the hammam process. The warm water and air start to work their relaxing magic on me, and now I don’t even mind that I’m a naked foreigner amongst total strangers with whom I have little in common aside from an interest in oriental hygiene.

The woman returns and pats me on the back, snapping me out of my thermal daze, and leads me to the torture-chamber exfoliation room. I’m motioned to sit on a tall marble bench, and a bucket of cold water is splashed into my face, throttling me out of my tranquil state: waterboarding, phase one. What the hell was that for? I exclaim in my mind, too shocked to utter a word. Little do I know this is only the beginning: at least at this point I still have all my skin attached to my body.

I’m told to lie down flat on my back, though I’m still soapy and grasping for stability on the slippery bench. Before I know it, the attendant puts on a single rough mitt (torturer’s weapon of choice), and I’m rapidly scrubbed and buffed by what feels like an electric sander, black stringy clumps appearing from nowhere and falling off like grated cheese as each body part miraculously gives way to the laborious scrubbing. Women giggle as I pick up the disgusting skin in horrific fascination. “Awol marra,” I tell them, or “First time,” and they lift their eyebrows in curious appreciation for my interest in their cultural norm. The attendant taps my side to turn me over. I straddle the block like a starfish, asscheeks clenched like they’ve got a secret, trying not to face-plant as I think: “Does my insurance cover hammam injuries?”

After all parts are shown equal tender loving care, I’m sat up for waterboarding phase two. Splash—I choke and try to breathe—splashCall my embassy, I’m not a spysplash. The torture subsides, and then I’m directed to go wash off what skin I have left and clean my hair with oil and shampoo. I thank my scrubber and give her a tip, bidding the other naked ladies adieu.

Even though this experience has made me feel vulnerable, awkward and nervous, I’ve gotten over the hump of the first time, and now I’m strangely addicted to the hammam. These days, I repeat the torturous scrubbing process a few times a month. Each time, I appreciate how soft my skin is, and I feel more like part of the community.