Firuz Ağa Hamamı, Çukurcuma Cd. 6, Çukurcuma, Beyoğlu. Men early AM and normal PM, Women midday. About 35 TL.
This post is significant because it covers two firsts for me: Firuz Ağa Hamamı, and my first “gay” experience in a hamam. Together, my fellow hamam blogger and I have encountered our share of arkadaşlık — a slightly tongue-in-cheek word roughly meaning “friendship-ness”, sometimes too much — in our hamam excursions, but nothing so overt as our experience in the Firuz Ağa sıcaklık. That said, hamams’ location in the body-culture and sexual-identity worlds of Turkey makes “gay” a slippery label, for me. Perhaps the word is best reserved for David Barton gyms in Manhattan or the Turkish “saunas” on Istiklal, both of which display posters of young, sweaty, bare-chested men in the windows. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The hamam itself will be described for any would-be visitors. The post will also address the specially “gay” aspect of the experience under the meta-narrative of this blog’s initial concept: namely, the various spaces which the hamam occupies in Turkish society and how it offers a window into Turkish social, sexual, body, and gay cultures. Also, as this blog is committed to anecdotal evidence and personal experience, I will write the “straight” narrative, and my friend will write the “gay” narrative. Sure, it’s hopelessly suspect. But also more fun this way because we came away with quite different things to say. I’ll say the experience made a powerful expression on me. A kind of “popping of the gay hamam cherry” if you will. That is, until Firuz Ağa, I went to hamams in a comfortably hetero-normative world where Turkish societal norms may have been played with or stretched, but never seriously questioned or re-proposed. My post will first go through the events of the hamam with minimal flair, and follow with some comments and pure speculations.
The Firuz Ağa Hamamı is located on Çukurcuma Caddesi in the depths of Çukurcuma, Beyoğlu. Few cafes and curio shops have penetrated this far into old Çukurcuma, and the manav and kuaför across the street from the hamam’s entrance seem to the main source of street life. The building is substantial for the neighborhood, but altogether modest and looks to be the result of some shitty concrete refurbishment. Neighborhood hamams are usually tucked away (see Beşiktaş), but this building asserts itself on the street front with green roll-on tile mosaic. A dilapidated wooden apartment perches on top. The whole aspect is one of familiarity and lack of ceremony, like an old couch you can’t throw away though it smells a bit. A small illuminated sign calls attention to the entrance. We are welcomed as much by the manav as by the somewhat portly and brusque young hamam attendant. Down a few steps and we are in a fairly typical rectangular court with changing rooms lining the upper balcony. The light is ample, and the atmosphere quiet to the point of feeling deserted.
Upon entering, the attendant sizes us up. Two dudes: one, I’ll say at the risk of pissing off my friend, looking more traditionally masculine than the other. I’m taller and I do feel when we walk into hamams together, the notion of us being more than friends is put on the coffee klatch table. (We’re actually just great friends, but the image is there. In hindsight, it’s especially there in this hamam). We change, etc., and flip-flop downstairs to the soğukluk entrance.
Into the Hamam
The keseci meets us in our towels and redundantly gestures toward the soğukluk. He is a 4’11″ hunchback, and as we approach the diminutive door I am reminded of a scene in the original Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory movie. But glibness aside, I have never seen a hunchback in Turkey before, let alone in a hamam. Clothed only in a towel, his body’s unusual shape covered in the honed muscles of a keseci is really noticeable. This is pure foreshadowing and kind of crass, but for me he added an element of the grotesque to our entrance through the tiny door.
The soğukluk, the small anterooms leading to the main sıcaklık, is dingy. Stained walls and floors materialize in the sun’s tentative suggestions through plainly stained skylights. The lightbulbs are bare compact fluorescents, and perhaps one or two other bathers make a sultry shuffle through the greyish mist. The effect is altogether McCarthyesque and I have my first sense of sqeamishness. At the keseci’s beckoning, we move into the sıcakıik proper.
Welcome to the Sıcaklık
The Firuz Ağa’s sıcaklık has a typical layout: central table surrounded by a walking path surrounded by basins and floor seating. Upon entering this equally dingy chamber, I almost smash my shins on the göbek taşı. The room is compressed. The göbek taşı lies at most a meter from the door, the walking path can’t be a half-meter wide, and space around the basins and floor seating is so limited that upon my sitting down the entire length of my shins lies across said path. If I were to lie on the central table, ankles would dangle. Equally midget-sized domes, some with impressively dusty cobwebs, admit a little light. Are we in a Montessori hamam?
We settle at a basin just to the inside of the door and begin wetting down and looking around. A few other figures are present. One’s a fairly fit, bald guy opposite us against the wall. I make eye contact and nod, and nod returned, nothing more. Another slim guy comes in and sits against the wall with his knees pulled up. This is a classic bullshit move to me, because, as he’s wearing only a towel, his cock and balls dangle freely for all to see. I’m thinking, if you want to cruise, no need to be coy about it. This of course just shows my ignorance of what it means to be gay in Turkey. He looks around shyly and expectantly. My friend and I look at each other, eyebrows raised. A third is a rotund Turkish man who steps into the sıcaklık, glances around, at us, and bows out. A quiet settles in the room. Unlike the calm, warm silence of other hamams, this one feels drawn and cagey. It is not very warm, either.
My friend and I have sat by our basin for at least 10 minutes. We’re getting comfortable and appraising the hamam in the utmost knowledgeable tones. I’m thinking that, while a bit funky, I might enjoy this hamam. Via peripheral vision I notice another man has entered from the door to my right. He is large and not young, with a impressive belly and thinning grey hair. No mustache. Since everything in this hamam is compressed, his bulk has a significant presence in the space. He looks around and then sits on the göbek taşı not more than three feet to my right. He’s pretty close, so I glance up, make eye contact and nod, and look away. I don’t notice the eye-liner, but it’s there. My friend and I have started to chat again when the guy hefts up – it was definitely a deliberate hefting of his belly-mass – and settles on the göbek taşı in front of our basin, directly between us, with legs comfortably spread. Given the cramped position of the göbek taşı to us, he is damn close and looming. Something is going on. He looks down at us with a certain circumspection, as if at two specimens. At this point, I can’t really not be intensely aware of what he’s doing. Then, with utmost dignity, he purses his lips and slowly looks to the right. At the same time, he gently fucking raises his peştemel to expose what might be the biggest phallus I have ever seen. It is there, and it is proud. My friend exhales to my right, and I’m thinking, “Oh fuck, now he showed his penis.” Something far beyond arkadaşlık is staring me in the face, and I am caught way off guard. I glance back up at his face, which has turned back to us, and I definitely see the eye-liner and blush this time. It’s like being confronted by some terrible character in a Miyazaki film. My friend is frozen, or at least I don’t pick up any signals. I exhale loudly myself, flick my head to the right, and put a look of disgust on my face. He gets the point. He takes his towel, slowly replaces it, and again with dignity hefts up and moves away. We don’t see Big Mehmet again.
My friend has a look of, “What the fuck just happened?” on his face, and I’m sure mine isn’t much different. We sit for another few minutes pretending to have intelligent things to say, but soon give up and get up. We wander into another room for some fresher air, but at this point it’s perfectly clear this is not your average hamam. In each room we poke our head into, the walls are slimy and I’m not too interested in meeting Big Mehmet in a small, damp stone box. Then the hunchback kese comes lurching up with his bowl and I indicate that, for me, it’s time to get the fuck out, cleanliness be damned. We dress, promise to talk about this kind of incredible experience later, and I run home for a shower.
I’ll be the first to admit, I was shocked by the overtness of Big Mehmet’s gesture. But homosexuality doesn’t shock me, nor do penises. On the one hand, I felt it was a breach of contract. For me, a hamam is an incredibly safe place to escape into oneself, into one’s own body and mind, yet in the presence of others. Interaction between hamam-goers commonly occurs, usually as borrowing a water-scoop or asking that someone move their feet. Friends have conversations. Yet almost all interaction exists with the purpose of forwarding the general hamam experience. Big Mehmet’s sexual offering shifted this intent outside of “Hamam.” The Firuz Ağa hamam looks normal enough at first. But eventually our sitting on that warm stone was no longer about the hamam experience, per say, but a specific exchange the hamam-space made possible for certain actors. The hamam had shifted from an appreciated ritual itself to a flexible space subjugated to the occupant’s desires. First, this saddened me because I dig a good hamam. Second, those desires were simply not mine.
On the other hand, I can’t forget the ritual which Big Mehmet performed to make his offer, or showcase, or whatever. His approach was slow and phased, so there was no chance of surprise. The towel-lift was equally staged and almost delicate, recalling the care a Turkish waiter might take serving you a simple tea. The deliberate look-away, simultaneous to the towel-lift, felt intentionally non-confrontational and respectful. He even dressed up with eye-liner. Altogether, it was still a process prepared and carried out with some deference to ritual, signs, and signals. And in this way, a certain humanity was preserved in that hamam as it is in other parts of Turkish society.
Perhaps it goes further. Two young foreigners walk into a gay Turkish hamam? For all we know, Big Mehmet was called in as an offering himself, a welcome gift, a show of hospitality akin to coffee or breathmints. It’s even possible he was a keseci himself, and this was part of his duties. Like a “happy ending,” but a “happy beginning.” Either way, the reason for his presence is arcane once past the gay-ness. Did he fancy us? Was he taking a break from keseci duties, across and street getting a shave, and had to rush back in to do a quick towel-lift? These questions are merely proposals for future directions in research, which I hope someone, not me, takes up at some point.