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.