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Friday, January 06, 2006


More Things to Love About Istanbul

The Way Turks React When you Tell Them You Live in Azerbaijan: Even though they're fundamentally the same stock and speak similar languages, Turks view Azeris as their country bumpkin cousins who speak cracker Turkish -- hardly heirs to the same cultural heritage that brought us Turkish Delight (fruit flavored Silly Putty). I told a shopkeeper today I live in Azerbaijan, and he nearly doubled over laughing. "Why?" he asked incredulously. Good question.

Hammams: For the amount of time I've spent in the Muslim world, it's quite surprising that I'd never visited a hammam, or traditional bath house, before. I remember standing outside a hammam in Bukhara with a friend, soap and shampoo in hand, hemming and hawing about going in. At the last moment, we backed out, claiming it was getting late, or it was too expensive or some equally lame excuse.

There's just something -- a couple of things, actually -- that's offputting about the whole thing. Participating in such a fundamentally foreign ritual (public bathing), naked, when you don't speak the language has always seemed to me to be rife with potential pitfalls. What if, for example, I think I am asking for something benign, like extra soap, but am really asking for the super anal cleanse? What if I commit some faux pas and everyone starts yelling at me? That can be disorienting enough in, say, a bazaar. Add nudity and you've gonna have more than one set of red cheeks to cope with.

That's why Istanbul is a great place for hammam virgins. There are lots of hammams that are used to foreigners here, so everything is spelled out pretty clearly for you. Thus the potential for humiliation is fairly limited. It's also easier if you go with someone who's done it before, and just take the self-service wash. That way you can observe the procedure from a safe distance and pick up on others' behavioral cues.

Hammams are still very common in this part of the world, even though most people have indoor plumbing now and don't have to get their weekly bath at the hammam. Some Istanbul hammams -- like Cemberlitas, the one I visited -- are hundreds of years old and quite grand. Others are just glorified locker/steam rooms.

It's very social. Women sit around for hours chatting in the steam. Some hammams have separate rooms for men and women; others have special hours for men and special times for women. This is Islam, you know. No mixed gender bathing.

The bathing room sits beneath a vented dome. It's octagonally shaped, with white marble floors and a heated marble platform in the center to lie on and and work up a good sweat, just like in a steamroom. There's nothing nicer on a cold, damp day or for sore, tight muscles. Hot and cold spigots line the edges, with marble bowls that collect the water. Older hammams have complicated heating systems that rely on wood or coal to make the steam and heat the floors. Silver and copper buckets are there for you to use to splash and rinse with.

You can totally leave your hammam experience at that. No one would blame you. But you're missing out if you don't get the scrub. It's just like getting a massage, only the massuese is practically naked and believes true cleanliness can only be achieved by the removal of three layers of skin.

I'm not sure what chain of life events results in a woman opting to become a scrubber in a hammam as her vocation, but one of the requirements certainly has to be pendulous breasts and arms like pistons. She takes a little loofah washcloth and swatches and scrapes every inch of your exposed skin until ropes and balls of dead skin slide off your body. She knows just enough English to position you for maximum efficiency on the marble slab and simply slaps your ass when she wants you to flip over. The skin loss is gross, for sure (where does all that skin go?), but you feel so dewy and youthful when you're done, like you've lost 10 pounds in dead skin alone.

You can spend all day in the hammam, if you want, but your hands and feet start pruning up after a couple of hours or so. Grab a big fluffy Turkish towel and head back to the locker room -- just like at the gym -- to get dressed and head out on your way, clean, relaxed and fully exfoliated.

If you ever fly to Baku (and you know you all want to) via Turkish Airlines and have to suffer through that hideous all-day layover, I strongly recommend grabbing a taxi and taking the 20 minute ride into town for a visit to the hammam. Nothing will rid your body of jet skank and help prepare you more to deal with Baku than a scrub and soak.

But do they have veneks? Did they beat you with birch branches?

Turkey is great but the hamam is not the banya.

Love your Turkey pictures. They are everything I saw but could not communicate about Istanbul.
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