Hammam Guide

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Atik Valide (Part 4): Carribean Dream

by kirkdc23 on Aug.05, 2010, under Asian side hamams

The Archaeologist Bathes in Üsküdar

The Atik Valide Hamamı is related to Çemberlitaş, its larger fatter cousin in the heart of Ottoman Istanbul – Sultanahmet. But unlike Çemberlitaş, with its many tour groups passing through giving of their sweat and dead skin, and kesecis cursorily lathering up and washing down bodies as if on a conveyor belt, Atik Valide Hamamı is completely different – a quieter more intimate world. It lies in Üsküdar on the Asian side, a more residential, more conservative, and decidedly less touristic part of the city. With me was a perfect quartet of friends who you have no doubt read their accounts: the first time to a hamam Dutch man, the first time to a non-touristy hamam Dutch man, and the Turkish born  Dutch immigrant who had hamam childhood trauma. We went in the evening, at about 8:30/9:00 pm.

The entrance to the bath was off the main street in an alleyway. The reception room was tasteful and modest but beautiful. The bath had clearly been redone. We were given rooms on the second level balcony and proceeded into the bath itself. There were 3 or 4 of the usual burly attendants who were all congenial and inviting. The hamam bath itself, however, we had to ourselves. It was a simple affair, with a wide gobektaşı and four corner alcoves. One had been outfitted into a “Finnish Sauna”. The walls had been redone in a mosaic pattern of red squared scattered on a white background. The only issue I had was that it was rather well lit inside, too much in fact. I felt as if in a house party when someone keeps the lights on. Dim lighting I felt is more appropriate to the intimacy of a hamam. In a matter of minutes I was sweating nicely and relaxing on the stone. It was nice being there with friends, as we were creating a social atmosphere out of the space.

The kesecis walked in and three of us elected to get washed. Our Turkish friend declined. The kese and massage was done in the intermediary warm room. As we walked out a very cute blond boy came in alone to bathe, which I thought odd and interesting. To one end there were three marble ‘beds’ with hot water bottles as pillows. We were done all at the same time; the kesecis all working together side to side, back to back, chatting with each other and singing. It was quite different than the usual one-on-one keseci-bather intimacy that is often formed but  sweet nonetheless. My keseci gave a good massage and seemed to locate the one spot on my quad that had been sore for 4 days (from dancing atop tables at a beach nightclub on the Italian Riviera the weekend before). He instinctively pressed down on it and looked me in the eye grinning. I arced in pain but felt good soon after.

I wanted to return to the bath and see the boy. He was in the Finnish sauna and I went in and we started chatting. One of my Dutch friends, the hamam experienced one, also came in, slightly shattering the moment. But I continued asking the blonde boy (who was Turkish) some questions. He was 26, spoke a bit of English, understood much more, and had an MA in Journalism. He said he came to the bath once a month, then amended it to 3-4 times a year. But always the same bath, never another. Was he looking for men, I wondered? That such a young Turkish guy would come in alone as a ritual seemed to me unusual. But then this may be my foreign mind looking into the situation from one perspective. In a way I wanted to believe that young Turks didn’t bathe (publicly), if they did they went as a group, or if they went alone, they were looking for sex. I wasn’t sure in this case. We left the Finnish sauna into the main bath and he reclined across from me on the gobektaşı, while I was sitting near a basin. My Dutch friend followed. What were signals one could give? I realized inadvertently that my peştemel was not doing a good job of covering myself up. I tucked it between my legs and closed my knees slightly – as if I were a woman in a skirt suddenly forgetful of what I was wearing, how I was sitting. Then I moved my legs further apart and shifted it to see if there might be any recognition. I recalled the Ağa hamamı experience and the old man who rolled up his peştemel in almost the exact same position. Well, now I was in the role of old man, though I was not nearly as overt and flirted back and forth with demureness and temerity. The whole time we were chatting idly about what I did, what he did, etc. My Dutch friend left, I think sensing to give us a moment. In that moment of absolute aloneness in the hamam with this boy, nothing shifted or changed in the air. He did not engage me in eye contact more intensely, play with his peştemel, or lean in to my space. But he did ask me one thing – for my email address to give to him so that we may hang out. It seemed rather friendly, not suggestive. He even said we could meet with some friends. He got up to go out and I followed and we showered, I dried off to meet my waiting friends, and he reentered the bath. I felt a tinge of regret at the non-event that just occurred. Was this encounter friendly, was it something more, should I have done more to initiate it? But then I realized that he asked me to meet him later, asked me for my email. While seemingly innocuous this is part of some interaction. Men could meet in baths, that are not clearly gay spaces, with the idea of meeting later. That is; if there was something between us that evening, it didn’t have to happen in the bath. The bath was a place to make a date.

I met with my friends and we relaxed in nice canvas beach chairs in the main reception room. Behind us was a large blown up photo of a tropical beach with palm trees taking up the entire wall. On the television hanging from the ceiling there was a Turkish TV show. The kesecis were watching it. Strangely it was of men in a hamam socializing. Rather than wearing peştemels they wore white towels. And they were all incredibly built and good looking. How appropriate to have 24 Hour Hamam TV in the hamam. Then one guy stabbed another, a massive fight broke out à la martial arts films. I had to laugh at the hamam turned bloody on one side of me and the hamam turned Carribean dream on the other. We soon changed after having spent a wonderful evening. Just before we left, I scribbled my email address on a slip of paper and told the keseci to hand it to the blond boy in the hamam.

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My (Hi-)Story of a Hamam

by kirkdc23 on Mar.28, 2010, under non Istanbul hamams

İstanköy Hamamı. Izmir. 917 Sokak, behind the Sahlepcioğlu Mosque, Kemeraltı District

My first hamam experience was nearly ten years ago when a friend of mine took me to İstanköy Hamam in the city of İzmir. Until then, like many other Turkish city-dwellers being used to single bathing in bathtubs and showers in their bathrooms, communal bathing had been an extraordinary activity for me. Having been influenced by the Turkish idioms comprising the word ‘hamam’ I heard and the hamam scenes I saw in Turkish comedy films, travel magazines and other visual media, I was presuming the hamam a so-called ‘erotic’, ‘exotic’ and ‘authenticized’ space left in a mysterious past. This personal belief had mainly resulted from the collective cultural memory that considers the hamam as the only ethnographic figure representative of the Ottoman-Turkish bathing culture. On account of my preconditioned mindset, I was not only quite excited about what I would see and live inside İstanköy but also curious if the interior space is as mysterious as I imagined.

As we opened a short wooden door, we entered a square chamber, called soyunmalık or soğukluk, used mainly for undressing, keeping personal belongings, providing bathing equipments and making payment. At that moment, the hamam manager and employees stared at me strangely. My friend later told me that this was because I was ‘a new face’ in the hamam. The side walls of soyunmalık was plastered and painted in a light yellow color. The plasters had partially peeled off and the whole ceiling had darkened due to intense moisture. There were disrobing cabins all around, closed with translucent curtains and seemed to be added later to the original space. First, the manager locked our valuables into a small drawer and gave us its keys tied to a rubber wristband. Then, one of the hamam employees directed us to a cabin and gave each of us a piece of cloth (peştemal) to wrap around our hips. Except for beaches, I had never been such half-naked in a public space before. Yet in a public beach, sexual privacy is guaranteed with swimming suits designed to properly cover the naked body, while a thin and loose cloth is always possible to reveal it. Fortunately, my friend showed me how to wrap my peştemal tightly. Having been full of anxiety, I hardly realized how much small our cabin was for two persons to move and get dressed inside. Half of it was occupied by a wooden bed with a worn and pale divan and a simple coffee table. I had to wear one of several pairs of wet slippers which had probably been used by another bather before.

When we were both ready for the hamam ritual, we moved out of our cabin under the curious eyes of the hamam attendants. The same employee gave each of us a small bar of soap and another piece of cloth (çıkma) which has a different texture from that of peştemal and worn on the way out. After we were provided with all these ritualistic objects, my friend quickly moved towards a steel door not to get cold and I followed him. The door was a bit shorter than average human height so one had to watch his head while passing through it. This door took us to a smaller chamber, ılıklık, sheltered with two vaults and a dome in the center. A white tiling had been applied up to the mid-level of the walls and the moisture had deteriorated nearly all plastered surfaces over this level. In one of the vaulted corners some bathers were smoking while some were seated on a tiled platform in the other one. The bathers were staring at me with the same strange look but I was rather interested in the spatial ambience created with steam creeping into the space each time the door was opened and smoke mixing with light beams running from the small openings on the dome. This sublime picturesque in such a small dimmed space impressed me so much that my anxiety and stress turned into a peaceful mood after a while. I realized afterwards that this space was connected to a musty toilet area by a narrow corridor on which a small space for shaving (traşlık) was located. We spent some time in ılıklık standing and chatting with some bathers whom my friend knew before.

There was another short steel door opening to the main bathing section, sıcaklık, of the hamam. As we entered sıcaklık, I came across with the typical hamam scene I had virtually been familiar before. But this time, instead of plump ladies playing saz, singing loudly and making belly dance, there were a crowd of gay males in different states. Some were sitting next to marble water tubs (kurna) and cleaning themselves. Some had lied down on the central marble platform (göbektaşı) resting or having scrubbing and foam massage. Some were circulating around göbektaşı and some had leaned on the side walls and sending sexual invitation messages to others by bodily gestures. Sıcaklık was lighter and hotter than ılıklık, and the picturesque of steam and light were further strengthened by wet male bodies of the bathers shining under the dome. The space was divided into areas of different sizes: a central area sheltered with a big dome, four corner areas with smaller domes and four side areas with vaults. All the corners and two sides were sub-divided into smaller private bathing chambers called halvet by half-height walls. These corner halvets were busy with partners in casual sex and the others had to wait for their turn to use them. They were closed with curtains on some of which a peştemal was hanged. I learned that this was a sign to highlight privacy, thus to prevent some thoughtless bathers from entering halvet without permission. If anyone was accepted to enter, another pestemal would be hanged as an indication of a ready-to-start sexual activity. I tried to adapt myself to this social environment; spilling from head to foot some warm water in a kurna, lying on göbektaşı and watching the light beams creeping into the space from the big dome, but making no sexual activity. I also remember myself passing to ılıklık section every fifteen minutes since the high temperature in sıcaklık was too sultry for an amateur bather like me.

This first visit of mine did not take as long time as some bathers being used to spend all their day in the hamam. Although time had little relevance in sıcaklık, I realized that we had been in İstanköy for two hours by looking at the wall clock in soyunmalık through the blurred glass on the steel door in ılıklık. I told my friend that this introductory visit was satisfactory enough for me and asked if we could leave. We entered one of the halvets in sıcaklık to take off our wet peştemals and wrap our dry çıkmas instead. As we got back to soyunmalık, the sudden temperature decline made a shock-effect on me, since my skin was not adapted to such a difference in temperature. I remember myself trembling and running to our cabin. We got on our clothes quickly and came to the manager’s desk to get back our valuables and pay the fee which, I thought, was not too expensive for an ordinary hamam like İstanköy. However, every bather in Istanköy was traditionally supposed to leave a tip for the service given by the employees. After we checked ourselves in the mirror, we got out the hamam from the same wooden door into the street. As my friend asked me if I was satisfied with my first hamam experience, I was in complicated feelings. Although only one visit to a hamam (and only to İstanköy) was inadequate to answer his question, I shared with him my impression that hamam was ‘a space of extremes’: hot and cold, dark and light, sublime and ordinary, peaceful and depressing, spacious and narrow, charming and musty, lively and tiring, noisy and acoustic, etc.

In the following two years, I visited İstanköy every month, occasionally with my friends but mostly alone. The more my skin was getting adapted to humidity and temperature difference as well as the social atmosphere, the more time I was spending inside. The strange looks of people dwindled in time so I was able to make many friends there. However, I rarely had sexual activity in İstanköy, only with bathers who were (or seemed) trustworthy. After a certain time, I found myself guiding the inexperienced bathers and introducing them the details of a typical hamam ritual. I also learned some of the terminology of a gipsy-origined language peculiar to gay culture. It was obvious that not all the bathers were visiting İstanköy for bathing. This obviously made sense to me since the physical conditions of the hamam was (and still is) not appropriate for a full cleansing and detoxification ritual. Nonetheless, there were people telling that they were addicted to visiting İstanköy every week since they had no other chance and venue in their daily life to satisfy for their sexual demands; but at least two hours to visit İstanköy and get relaxed.

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Cemberlitaş : The Sultan’s Treatment

by kirkdc23 on Feb.12, 2010, under Comment, Sultanahmet hamams, Uncategorized

I go to Turkish baths more than most people here.  That the owner of one of the city’s major hamams is a partner at my firm just encourages this habit.  For example, Selcuk (my boss) and I went to his hamam just following our student’s final studio exhibition night.  We thought we’d sit around with a bunch of other dudes in towels on a hot stone table, enjoy the steam, and hash out the semester.  Then have a wizened but shockingly vigorous old Turkish man scrub, soap, and massage till just semi-consciousness.  (Replace “dudes” with “babes” for the female side.)  I’ve been a big hamam fan since my first in winter ’09, but going with Selcuk raised the bar.  He’s not only business partners with the hamam’s owner, but he also understands “service” in a way I never will: a very Turkish way.  Typically, the massage guys treat a European tourist somewhat like confused but valuable cattle that may offer tips.  Hey Kobe beef-to-be, come here, sit, turn, sit up, slap on the back, ok you’re done.  For Selcuk, the guys layed out two towels and pillows for us right on the stone table, pushing other customers away, brought water, knew him by name, how are you Mr. Selcuk?, etc.   Once finished and sitting in his little cubby room, Selcuk had the normally surly attendant delicately serve tea and manually dry him with at least four fresh towels.  Even the change in my own treatment, from wary recognition of a semi-regular customer to outright fawning in front of me, was startling.  Who am I?  In the American service industry, would a customer even want this sycophantic display, let alone be able to ask for it?  But Selcuk is “a big man,” and “this is Turkey.”  I mean, it’s hard to describe without oversimplifying through caricatures, but the whole scene and the attendant’s behavior was genuine.  The tradition of overt subservience to a person of stature is still very much respected here.

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