Firuz Aga Hamamı, Çukurcuma Cadd. 6., Çukurcuma, Beyoğlu
Often in baths talking is limited. While chatting can happen, the space is public even in its most private sense, and the echoes and reverberations, sounds of the washing and splashing, and the heavy walls can mute the space and make having a full on conversation difficult. Unless one shouts, which one would not do. As a result, although my friend and I went together and chatted throughout, there were some things we were not able to talk in depth about, foreign language or not. This was partly in deference to not interrupting our experience but partly in preserving the quietude of the bath. This post follows my friend’s post as a part II impression on a bath from a straight perspective (his) and a gay perspective (mine). Oddly, it is the first time we have shared our experiences with each other about it. From the silent hamam to the “loud” blogosphere….
I had been by this hamam before. It was right in my own neighborhood. I noted that it was women’s day previously, so I was happy that it was open for men on this day. My friend and I had partied the night before and were hungover and eager to sweat it out. The bath is fairly nondescript and very local. I vaguely remembered that one of my fellow Fellows in residence at the RCAC, a very stout and very straight Turkish man, had insinuated something about a bath in this area being “gay”. I wondered if this was it, but decided not to share this with my straight friend so as not to bias the experience for him. And for me, for that matter. I put the suspicion out of my head. The neighborhood is Çukurcuma, down the hill from the mosque between Galatasaray and Cihangir neighborhoods. The steps took us down below street level to the bath. A man seemed skeptical about our entering but showed us our rooms. I remember only that he was odd and odd looking. We changed in our rooms and entered the bath. Strangely I remember little of the intermittent changing area.
I do remember the bath itself. There were several rooms that gave it a maze like appearance. The bath was not in good condition. It was dark and moldy, but I was determined to experience this local flavor. After all, not all baths can be refurbished and full of tourists! A hunchback was wandering around the bath. It was quite jarring to see him barely clad. We went to the biggest room and sat on the side facing the göbek taşı. Between us was a wash basin and we set to gossiping about the night before and sweating, occasionally dousing ourselves with water. I felt actually like we were a pair of middle-aged Turkish women at the bath, socializing and chatting about our lives. We were speaking in English and there were no other foreigners in the bath. I bring this up because I quickly noticed that this was in stark contrast with the social arrangement of the rest of the bath.
In the sıcaklık with us was a middle-aged man, quite well-built, and arrayed out by himself. He gave us glances at first. I didn’t think much of this but when I took a quick wander around the bath I noted that the bath had several more middle-aged, slightly older men, all with less-then-ideal body types (mainly with big bellies), all bathing alone, all either totally engrossed in themselves or in glancing at other bathers intently. Further it was totally quiet. No one was talking, which I found amazing. Generally, Turks are incredibly social and need no invitation to speak with one another. I had the sneaking suspicion that this was a “gay” male hamam, that is, a place where Turkish men can cruise each other. I had remembered that one of the baths in our neighborhood functioned as a male to male “gay” space. I decided to not say anything to my friend and see what happened. I also realized that the hunchback was the keseci. I thought to myself that a kese might be the last thing on my list. I felt like I was in Fellini’s Satyricon.
It was when I returned to the washbasin with my friend and we resumed talking that an older man with white hair and a massive gut came into the sıcaklık and took an easy turn around the room, eyeing both the well-built reclining man, and ourselves. He took a seat on the göbek taşı directly in front of and between us. We questioningly stopped our conversation and looked at him and then resumed chatting. Then the man began to slowly roll up his peştemel up over his knees, past his thighs, until the cloth was a belt around his waist. His rather large equipment lay directly in front of us, not even two feet away, completely exposed and dangling. We both looked over and back again, and kept talking. I was consciously signaling that I (and we, if I could speak for my straight friend) had no interest in his striptease or his goods. He unfurled his peştemel and left the bath. Having been to gay bathhouses before, this was no real shock to me. However the shear directness and aggressiveness of the act I found amazing. And amusing.
At that point the cruising element of the bath, which had been operating in the background seemed to be more forcefully presented. I realized that my friend and I were by far the most attractive and youngest bodies in the bath. We were foreign bait. My friend and I switched rooms and started to wash up. My friend said he didn’t feel well and that he wanted to leave, which I took to mean that his hangover was not sitting well with his immersion into cruisy male baths. I was ready to leave as well. I was not in a mood to negotiate any of the men in the bath who I didn’t find attractive. I had enjoyed my conversation but then, for some reason, began to feel the bath’s dinginess. We cut our experience short, left, changed, and entered the outside world. As I never got the chance to properly get clean in the bath, I showered when I got home. The irony of showering after leaving a bathhouse seemed almost sacrilegious. Strangely enough, I had no problems with it at all.
As we began to debrief about our experiences I realized that my friend was seriously shaken by what he had witnessed in the bath. This astounded me on some levels, having taken for granted advances by men at various point of my life and not feeling to jostled by them. I personally didn’t wish to enjoy the space and found no one appealing. But I found this anti-desire fascinating as I had never seen a gay bath (an overt one, at least) feature a cast of characters with such less than ideal looks from the grey haired with the big gut and matching big cock to the hunchback keseci. In some ways, the keseci, as the “face” of the bath (at least hired as such) whose job it was to rub down our bodies, inspired an absolute lack of eroticism. Despite my own reservations, I appreciated the bath for what it was. That there was a space for men to meet each other was encouraging. I had no idea what sexually occurred in the bath, but I assumed that idle groping and fondling were socially permitted. I also presume that these men were not identified within Turkish society as openly gay but had families. This was a safe space for them to meet each other. I found it interesting that this space which these men had was not and likely would not be cleaned up and renovated like other baths in the area. Like in the Ottoman period, patronage is key to the maintenance of baths. This translates to a steady clientele and an element of tourism in today’s shifting bathing culture. It is no wonder that safe spaces for male to male activity frequently occur in the unpolished, liminal, and interstices of public social spaces: older bathhouses, underused bathrooms, ruins. If the bath were likely to be restored, this space would probably disappear. Publishing this blog puts the space in another category of being exposed, which may change the nature of the space; making it more fleeting, like our visit, or, cement the space firmly within the bath, like the confident Big Mehmet.