Archive for August, 2010
Firuz Ağa Hamamı, Çukurcuma Cd. 6, Çukurcuma, Beyoğlu. Men early AM and normal PM, Women midday. About 35 TL.
A German friend was coming to the city and he asked me to take him to the best hamam in town. I knew it was an impossible question but yet I gave it a try.
I asked around, browsed the web, read some books and I really didn’t have any clear idea. Even though I had already been here for a couple of months I hadn’t had any hamam experience myself.
I knew I didn’t want one of those big hamams which were far out of my budget but also seemed an artificial experience. With that juvenile eagerness of the traveler I was looking for the “real thing”.
When I finally met up with my friend I simply was going to tell him I was broke and we should better go for çay. He refused and we went to the hamam that is in the corner of my house. It was close and it was a Thursday afternoon and because of work and time that seemed as our best option.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about this place. Especially after reading the big Mehmet story I wasn’t all that keen to come here but I didn’t want to negatively predispose my friend so I didn’t tell him anything and simply accepted to go. For me it was also interesting; regardless of the result, I was going to experience my first hamam.
The entrance was small and the people working there very friendly. The tension began to build up. I was excited to wear the little peştamal and to be guided into the chambers of the hamam.
Architectonically I wasn’t expecting it to be so beautiful. I wasn’t expecting more than one big room. It was all very pleasant to see all the little chambers, with different temperatures, different qualities of light.
There were about 4 other people in the place. We learned what to do by mimicking their behavior. We chose our marble basin and began pouring water on us. It was really nice. It wasn’t extremely hot so it was quite very enjoyable and my friend and I hadn’t seen each other in almost two years so it was a fantastic environment to catch up with all the life stories.
In an opposite corner two Turkish men were doing the same, just chatting. The heat made the conversation stop every now and then; just to catch your breath, to relax, to pour some more cold water.
I really love “sweat houses” curiously because in general I don’t like the heat much. But I like them as transitional spaces.
In every society there are some characters who are allowed to break the social rules, to live in spaces in between. This is the case of the shamans. However for the average folk, who can’t live in between worlds there are spaces where rules can be broken. Sweat houses tend to be one of them.
I could see this was one of those places by the tender way these very tough men were pouring water over one another, on how relaxed they were.
The heat got too much for me in one moment so I moved to a different chamber where I could cool down.
There was another guy. As soon as I entered the room he engaged in conversation with me. He spoke a little English, enough to have one of these pleasant slow conversations. With the same curiosity that I have encountered in many other Turkish, he asked me on my whereabouts and we spoke about hamams for a little while. Then he washed my back –rules can be broken– and pour water on me. I did the same for him.
Soon my friend was joining us along with another traveler who ended up in the same place. The new guy was from Iran and with anthropological curiosity I began talking to him and asking him about hamams in his country. He wasn’t eager to talk but seemed amused by the conversation going on.
And that’s how it continued; we just began talking to the newcomers when we were apart and talking about life when we were together. Everyone was talking among themselves, just cut slow phrases, shorter according to the temperature of the room. Everybody was simply friendly, trying to share stories or simply smiling on the way.
Then it was time for my soap massage. I was taken to the smaller coolest chamber. By the eyes that you develop through experiencing things over an over the masseur could tell I wasn’t much for heat. He was the older of the three men who work on this place. I can tell that he has spent his entire life among these walls where his physical defects didn’t matter at all, what mattered was his ability for his job.
I lay down in the cold gray marble and felt the foam fall all over me, falling slowly along with some air and the occasional touch of the tissue. Not so far I could hear one of the Turkish men singing a distant song with that sense of melody that reminds me of how far away I am from familiar places. It was sensorial heaven.
It was my friend’s turn. He was taken in the main chamber, the hottest one with most intricate details: The little niches on the wall, the skylight glasses, the white shine of the marble table. I then had the voyeuristic pleasure of watching him being washed, taken care of in the abandon of a child. It was beautiful to see him so strong and yet in surrender.
This hamam experience was fantastic. It had everything I could dream of in my best hamam fantasies, the broken rules, the friendliness edging on flirting, the songs, the beauty. We simply didn’t want to leave but the time came and we left utterly pleased about this great evening.
We were so happy that we decided to come back, on Friday night after work just to repeat this adventure. Little did we know how easily the rules of transitional places change from one instant to the next, using codes that will long escape our foreigner eyes.
We went back, same beautiful place, same corner of my street; a completely different place. The people working there welcomed us in friendly manner and placed my friend and I in the same dressing room. None of us has a problem with nudity or close physical contact both of us being long time friends and naturists so this change probably wouldn’t even had made it to my mind map if it wasn’t for all the other changes.
Today, a Friday night, the ambience was denser. I not only mean that it was much hotter, much steamier. The moment we walked in there it felt already as a different experience. We went to the main chamber. The idea was to follow the same procedure as the previous night. Today, even though there was about the same amount of people as the last occasion, nobody was talking.
My friend and I were much more silent too. It was partly the extreme heat, partly the fact that we had already shared many of the day’s stories earlier at dinner, but also we were following the rules of the place.
As I have already mentioned in different areas in this same post I don’t love heat. Soon I needed to go cool down in one of the smaller, fresher chambers.
Shortly after, somebody followed me to the room. I tried some conversation but didn’t get much answer. What I did get were several glances of the guy who had an increasing erection.
I went back to my friend who during the same time had had a similar experience. Today the hamam wasn’t a place to find friends but to find lovers. We stayed there a little but longer trying to figure out the new dynamics and codes. We learned that the masseur today wasn’t as good and much more likely to touch your genitals on the way. While the first night there was the older, more experienced, ugly guy tonight there were two young men, more inexperienced in massage but more handsome and more likely to caress other parts of your body. I found one of them, the middle one, an interesting case. The first night he was also there learning to give massages, changing stages. This night he was the main masseur, dressed in a completely different way, providing a different service and he was almost a different person.
My friend did get a massage, in the fresh dark chamber. Not because of heat considerations but because in this place, if he felt like it, other hand services could easily be required.
We understood that in this forbidden encounters silence was something essential. Today there were no songs or chats and we got odd looks by talking all the time, by disturbing the anonymity of the place. The last thing we learned today was that a peştemel hanging by the entrance door of one small chambers means “attention, men working” to put it lightly. We left the place quite aware that rules change much more than we had imagined when discussing our transitional hamam experiences. That we are more Thursday evening guys.
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.