Body Language–A Traditional Turkish Bath

(Placed 3rd in Fall 2010 essay contest [3000 word] published on Writing It Real website, Feb. 2011)

I laid impatiently on a marble slab waiting for further instructions. I stared at the domed ceiling of stone, shaped like the mosques here in Turkey, but punctured with tiny holes of sunlight filtering through bottle glass. I wondered if young boys climbed the dome and peeked to gain access to the female body. I fidgeted. What next? I mentally fussed. What am I to do? Finally, I closed my eyes, drew deep breaths, and relaxed into the marble that surprisingly softened, while the pores of my skin opened to release the toxins of days of travel.

During an international agriculture business trip with my husband, Lynn, to Turkey’s Süleyman Demirel University, women in Turkey were typically inaccessible to me because there were few women in agriculture, and because of the language barrier. So I was somewhat embarrassed to ask the male professors about arranging a Turkish Bath for me; but they seemed unexpectedly comfortable with my request. They arranged for a female graduate student from the International Office to accompany me and negotiate the bath experience.

I have always bathed privately in my own porcelain bathroom, but I do indulge in an occasional massage. In my early twenties I visited a public bathhouse in Hot Springs, Arkansas; but have never been to a ritzy spa by our standards today. I didn’t know what to expect here.

In anticipation, I asked one professor’s wife through her English-speaking daughter what I should know beforehand. She said to take towels, my own toiletries and slippers.

I arrived prepared – I thought. But a hand-crocheted mitt was required with a massage and bath, which I had requested – to support the local economy? The manager picked a fuzzy pink one for me, over the blue one I preferred – perhaps a friend had crocheted it and she could say, “The foreigner selected yours.”

Twenty lira for the massage bath; three for the mitt ($18.50 in 2008; in 2010 $15.00). The student took care of the payment much to my surprise.

“No, no, I am to pay; I want to. It is my request.” I said to the student, digging in my bag.

“Compliments of the university. You are our guest. It is the role of the International Office to see that our guests get to experience a part of our culture.”

“This is a personal luxury. I did not expect you to pay. You should not pay.”

She silenced me with her hand held between us and a smile. “But it is our pleasure to see that guests to our country enjoy their time here. We insist.”

Acquiescing, I said, “Thank you then. It is very kind of you.”

“I’ll be back in an hour,” she said. I was on my own.

A plump woman with short damp hair and a towel tucked around her full bosom pointed to herself, then me – she was my masseuse. I realized body language was the only language available to me now. She pointed upstairs and led me to a changing room upstairs.

She surveyed my toiletries and motioned for me to undress and wrap myself in a towel. She left and reappeared when I was ready, then led me back through the lobby, where I had first entered, with women lounging wrapped in their personal towels or bathrobes, wet hair hanging down their backs or turbaned on their heads.

I wondered whether these women had arrived in western style clothes or in hijabs, the Islamic headdress that covers the head, ears, and neck. Both were acceptable in western Turkey, not so much in eastern Turkey. Inside the hamam, the bathhouse, the women were all equals. Unlike the inequities they faced each day outside the hamam.

My masseuse heaved open a thick and aged, arched and wooden door, then stepped back to let me pass into an ancient world of marble, steam, and earthy women. The door closed behind us, landed with an impact, reinforced by a massive wooden peg hanging from a rope attached on top of the door. What’s the peg for? Maybe it seals the moist heat in.

The steam misted my view – felt like I was in a dream. I walked among women without seeing a single person, through a long corridor and then into a spacious domed room with natural light. The hararet consisted of the inner rooms of the hamam past that ancient door that closed out the world. The inner sanctum walls and ceiling were gray stone with white-veined, solid marble slabs for floors, narrow drainage troughs and bathing stations, like storybook pictures of Greeks and Romans, except with naked light bulbs glaring.

I was told that during the Ottoman Empire husbands were required to provide a weekly bath for their wives at the local hamam, or find themselves without a wife. These were grounds for divorce. The lack of bath facilities in their homes, and the grime of daily life in a hot, dry, windy climate was likely justification for a weekly bath.

The Turkish Bathhouse has always been either for a single gender or has had a separate schedule for men and women at different times. Women traditionally bathe nude, while men bathe wrapped in a towel. Is this hamam for women only?

The Islamic faith stresses cleanliness in both the physical and spiritual realms. I wondered when I first arrived why sinks and showers had no drain strainer or stopper; they were all open. Islamic faith states they must wash away the dirt from their bodies; they never soak in a tub, like we do. Hand washing fountains with multiple stations are built outside each mosque, where worshipers at a minimum wash their hands up to the elbow, sometimes feet and legs, before entering. So bathing is a holy event, a melding of a religious belief into a cultural norm. This may be why the Turkish professors didn’t seem the least bit embarrassed about my request.

But they must also be pure in spirit and is the purpose behind women being modestly dressed to keep others from impure thoughts. Turkey’s secular government allows Western fashion, but still women choose (or their husbands choose for them) the traditional Muslim fashion of full-body coverage. I cannot fathom the restriction of full dress with hijab, covering the head, but while here in Turkey, I observed a woman fully clothed swimming with her family in the Aegean Sea. I was fearful she would drown from the weight of it. The only freedom of Muslim women in the past (and may still be for some) was to be shed of their protective clothing from infidels and other Muslim men during their weekly bath. Ah, this single liberty!

This day I was transported into another world. I wanted to slow down time, capture every detail in my memory, but it all blurred in my awe of this old world womb that was caressing me. Did these Turkish women feel the same caress?

I sensed the ease these women shared inside these walls. The stories they must share of children growing up, of husbands leading lives outside that they could not experience, of death in the community or family, of longings not understood anywhere else.

Do some Muslim women experience being adored, loved, and cared for? Do they feel free to be themselves at home, if not on the street? Are there women who can initiate a loving embrace or must they wait for their husband to advance? Do these women know the pleasure of orgasm with a man or even by themselves, or sadly not at all?

My attendant lowered her towel from her bosom to her waist, as a laborer in the hot sun would take off a shirt. She sanitized one of the marble bathing stalls and a portion of the marble slab in the center of the room with a blue potion and several hot-water rinses.

The tools of her trade were my toiletries and mitt; ironically, a plastic bucket and flat-bottomed bowl; of course her powerful hands; and today, body language. I took off my towel. The bucket and bowl were used to rinse the marble slab and me. Then she placed the bowl upside down and my towel on the marble and motioned me to lie down with the bowl cradling my head. She left me alone in this vast, empty room without instruction, without language to explain. The pinholes of light in the dome focused my impatient ruminations on young boys sneaking a peek. Finally, as I let go and relaxed, the moist heat began to work its magic release. I escaped into a dream state and floated on a magic carpet.

Moist heat radiated from the marble, generated by fires below, I later learned. I could only question how the sauna effect was manufactured that day, and later I would imagine flames licking the marble softly to heat the slabs to the perfect temperature to refresh the bodies held in this primordial world. I had traveled back in time.

After floating in this dream state with time indiscernible, my faithful attendant silently tapped me on the shoulder and gestured to wrap myself in the towel, drawing me back to this room. She motioned for me to follow. As we approached another room I heard voices. The voices of gossiping women grew and reverberated within those solid walls that held their secrets silent over time. One recognizes the chatter of gossip in any language. What plans must have been laid here for children, new business ventures, for the community, even for leaders of the world perhaps, and of course, for the intimate men in their lives. We arrived in another more intimate space of the hararet, with fewer bathing stations and three smaller slabs.

Two older women sat in adjacent stalls and chatted, one with a mud pack on her hair, reddish brown dye dripping down her back. Later I learned a henna treatment must set for an hour and a half, which would lead to long visits. This may be a cherished ritual for her and her friend. 

The haman may serve as the mental health center for Muslim women in their culture, as the beauty shop has served in decades past in the U.S. Time alone. Time away. Time to think. Time to rest the spirit. Time to nurture relationships with others or themselves. It may be why this womb-like essence is rejuvenating.

When I was growing up, my mother would soak in a hot tub of bath water on Saturday nights while preparing the Sunday School lesson she would teach the next morning. Later when I was a teen, she used this excuse to wait up for me after dates.

As an adult now, one of my greatest pleasures is soaking in a tub with Epsom salts and some lavender essential oil for fragrance with a good book. I’ll never outgrow this ritual. This too is a restorative place for me, though a Muslim woman would never sit in a tub of bath water.

On this day most bathers were nude; others wore only underpants, or underpants and a bra. Most appeared over sixty; many with huge swinging breasts, nipples pointing to the floor. Some were bathing themselves; while others were being bathed and massaged by a masseuse.

One grandmotherly woman arrived with a little girl about four clinging to her leg and gave her a bath and shampoo. A thirty-something young woman, the youngest adult I saw, passed through in a swimsuit. Do professional women come in the evenings or on weekends? One thing was obvious; all were uninhibited in the presence of each other and even me.

As my masseuse scrubbed my back, she rummaged her memory for words in English and asked, “Where – you – come – from?”

I replied, “United States.” She frowned, not understanding.

I tried, “America.”

“Ah. America!” That she understood. “English?”

“Yes, I speak English.”

She raised her head from our private conversation and announced to the room of curious women, “America.”

A hum of discussion escalated, as they acknowledged my presence among themselves. Embarrassed, I didn’t know where to look or focus, but one woman caught my eye and asked, “English?” I nodded. She smiled, seemed rewarded for her effort that she had made a connection with me and appreciative that I had joined them in spite of the fact I knew no Turkish.

The masseuse returned her attention to me; ransacked her memory again, “You, teacher?”

“Yes, teacher.” She likely thinks I am a teacher because I arrived with university staff.

“Me teacher, also.” This pleased her that we shared something in common. We exchanged names, but I failed to grasp the pronunciation of her name and therefore memory of it. Our conversation came to an end with her limited English and my non-existent Turkish; we were back to body language. (However, I choose to call her Cemile, for her kind and friendly demeanor, for the remainder of this story. She deserves a name, not just a title or role.)

As Cemile scrubbed my back, my breastbone pressed into the marble. I slipped and slid on the wet slab uncomfortably; funny to imagine myself being pummeled as coarse grain with a pestle in a mortar. When rinsed, she pantomimed that I was to wrap myself and follow her.

Back in the lobby, Cemile offered, “Cay?”

“Ah, yes, cay please.”

She brought me tea in a blue Oriental style cup; then I added two cubes of sugar from a red Tupperware container and stirred it with their tiny version of a teaspoon. This time seemed to be a cooling off time – like going from a sauna to cool shower before returning to the sauna.

The lobby was an oddly shaped, windowless room, with two support beams in the middle and green linoleum flooring. The women and I sat on fifties-style banquette seats covered in green plastic. I drank my cay silently while the local women read a magazine or watched daytime Turkish soaps around the support beams on a TV suspended from the ceiling. The contemporary world colliding with an ancient tradition on the other side of the door to the hararet. Their soaps as melodramatic as our Guiding Light or Days of Tomorrow.

Uh-oh, I might have incurred another expense, accepting the cay.

Back in the inner sanctum again Cemile lathered the pink, crocheted mitt; and then me with it. She integrated the massage into the bath this time. Her powerful hands worked out tiny kinks, which long days of cramped travel had knotted in small university vehicles with professors too large and too many to share the space. She crouched astride me and massaged my neck, shoulders and back, her ample bosom swinging above me, creating a subtle breeze.

The force of the massage bumped my ankles and knees against the marble; but in spite of the momentary discomfort, I relished this tradition of Turkish women. I could only imagine in a society, even secular Turkey but still Islamic, where women had the one place they could be alone or share their secrets and the pleasure of being among equals. This weekly indulgence was and perhaps still is as essential to making their religion and marriages work.

Then Cemile motioned me to turn over and she lathered my head with her baby-shampoo and proceeded to massage my scalp, face, chin, and ears. I felt like a little girl again when my mother would shampoo my hair in the kitchen sink. Cemile doused my lathered head with hot water. I tipped my head back, and got a nose full, feeling like that little girl spitting and spewing with water up my nose. Head down next time. She would rinse, start again; rinse and start all over again. I should have removed my contacts and mascara.

In the end, Cemile steered me back to the original steam room and ran hot water in a shallow foot tub in one of the stalls. I sat perched on a stone bench with my feet in the low tub. She had me rinse myself using the plastic bowl with hot water, while she alternated cool water on me from the bucket. The pores of my body closed, preparing me to return to the outside world. I am clean. The water drained from the tub to a trough that carried away the wastewater. I am pure again.

When we completed this rhythmic cycle, she gathered up my toiletries, wrapped my big towel around me motherly-like, and marched me back through the lobby and pointed me upstairs to change. Unceremoniously, it was over.

I was not ready for this moment. My magic carpet ride was over and I didn’t want it to end. Now I should have thought about how to express my thanks before coming.

When I returned to the lobby – relaxed, refreshed – curiously the graduate student was waiting for me. I asked the student if I owed money for the cup of cay. She asked the manager and translated for me, “No, no, it is a gift for our guest today.”

Body language was now inadequate. The only thing I knew was to use the voice of the graduate student. I asked her to thank the manager and masseuse for the bath experience – to convey my pleasure – and for the cay. They locked their eyes on me, as I smiled to them and they listened as the student expressed my gratitude. They spoke back to me, but not in words.

And then I thought to ask the student to thank the women cooling off in the lobby, some of whom had been in the hararet while I was there, for sharing their bath experience with me, a tourist. I looked each one in the eye and nodded my thanks and they replied, “You’re welcome!” in that international language – a smile.

As I left the hamam, and specifically the wet womb of the hararet, where these women had opened their hearts to me, I felt like an honored guest – an equal among women.

Though I traveled with Lynn and male university professors for two weeks, spending most hours of every day with them, it was the rare moments with these women that rewarded me with my fiercest memories of Turkey.


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