Monday 5 May 2008

The Hamam - Home Sweat Home

After spending a couple of years in Turkey, I've come to realise that, comparatively, the Brits are really quite a dirty nation.

I've never been one for baths; the idea of sitting for an hour in my own filth soup never appealed to me. Turks, like most other nations, prefer a good shower.

The epicentre of the Turkish sense of cleanliness is the Hamam (or Turkish Bath). But don't be fooled by the name, this isn't a bath. As preening rituals go, the Hamam falls somewhere between a sauna and a fight.

The Hamam acts as a centrepiece to a great Turkish day of indulgence. Starting with cop sis (small pieces of lamb on a skewer, eaten in a smoky shed, standing around a grill), then onto the Hamam, followed by a few beers in a bar and ending with a night of Russian prostitutes and Raki (the Turkish equivalent of Ouzo or Pernod). But for most tourists, the Hamam is enough.

So what can you expect from a Turkish bath experience?

At the entrance of the Hamam, you'll be welcomed by the toned staff (see fig.1) and invited to haggle your way down to an unknown figure for unknown services. There are an array of options starting with a simple steam all the way through to a full service. I tend to go for everything but the oil massage, which happens outside the bath itself and isn't usually worth the hassle.

Fig.1 Your dreamy welcoming team of masseurs. If you're wondering where the sponge is, he's second from the left.

Once the deal has been struck you'll pass through the threshold and into the reception area of the Hamam. This is usually a dimly lit wooden affair with a balcony exposing an upper floor with changing rooms (see fig.2).

Fig.2 The reception area.

Staff will guide you upstairs to your room and tell you what you need to do. But you wont understand, so I'll tell you:

The changing room will be tiny and only suitable for two people. Inside you will find two beds, a table, 4 gingham sheets and 2 pairs of slippers.
Close the door behind you and get your kit off. It may be wise to take it in turns as you will be in such close proximity to your changing partner that a stumble could lead to an awkward encounter.

The level of nudity you adopt is entirely your call. Turkish men will strip to nothing but women may decide to keep a bathing suit on. Though traditionally, genders are separated by time and space, if you're in a tourist area, the Hamam will probably be mixed. I was once offered a job in a Hamam by a masseur who tried to sell the idea to me by saying that "you get to touch women all day". Girls, be warned.

Once naked, take the gingham sheet and cover you
r bits. Put on the slippers and head back out in the foyer. Note to spectacle wearers (of which I'm one): take them off and don't wear contact lenses (the heat will fuse them to your cornea). Yes, I know, good luck with the stairs.

Off the reception hall, a large wooden door will take you into the bath itself. What with the steam, only thin shafts of natural light coming from the domed ceiling and my -6 myopia with an astigmatism chaser, by this point, I may as well be wearing a blindfold. However, the little I have seen of these baths is truly breathtaking (not that you'd want to take a deep breath. It can be pungent).

Fig.3 The Hamam steam room.

In the centre of the room is the Gobek Tasi (stomach stone - see fig. 4). This is a heated marble slab where the main action takes place. Lining the walls are cubicles or simple seats with sinks, hot and cold taps and plastic bowls.

Fig.4 The 'Gobek Tasi' or stomach stone. Although most of the men in this picture are unconscious, try not to lie like the man in the foreground.

Take a seat anywhere you want. Lie on the slab if that's what takes your fancy. Just find a place, sit, settle and sweat.

You're going to need some time to relax and take in the atmosphere. You'll also need time to acclimatise to the heat and allow your pores to open. One thing than can shock some people is that these rooms, generally, aren't as hot as your average sauna. Traditionally, these were meeting places and people spent time sitting and chatting. For this reason, the heat should be bearable.

Remember your gingham cloth at all times and realise its size. It's not much bigger than a tea towel so be careful when moving about or kicking back. I once sat on the Gobek Tasi to build up some heat. The sweat was dripping off me as I sat there hands on knees with my head bowed. Remember, my vision is limited at the best of times and now sweat and, consequently, tears were added to the mix.

As I sat there with legs akimbo and a gingham sheet that had ridden a little too high, I was shocked to realise that not only had I sat myself in front of the main door but that it was opening to reveal three silhouettes. From their curves I deduced that one was a member of staff and the other two were female. The subsequent series of flashes brought me to the conclusion that a) they were tourists and b) perhaps unbeknown to them, they had taken a picture of my bollocks. Somewhere in Holland, someone has got some rather disturbing holiday snaps.

After about 20 minutes, a member of staff will enter the room. This man is known as the 'tellak'. He will gesture for you to come and lie on the gobek tasi. When he realises you've not obeyed his orders and are staring blankly into space (because you can't see your hand in front of your face), he'll approach you and physically manoeuvre you into position.

The tellak will then produce something that resembles a square mitten. This is your introduction to the world of pain that awaits. The mitten is called the Kese (see fig.5). It has a texture similar to a scouring pad and is used to 'exfoliate'. I use this term loosely because, from the rolls of skin it creates, you will conclude that the tellak has almost completely removed your epidermis.

Fig.5 The Kese. If the devil wore mittens he would choose the kese..

The tellak will scour your entire body with this mit and comment on how disgusting you are as he points out the rolls of black grime he works out of your person. Don't take it personally, for this may not be entirely your dirt. As he rubs the kese around
your face, bear in mind that he has, only moments before, been working that very same mit around the crevices of the guy before you.

Fig.6 Exfoliation Hamam style. You can keep your fancy creams, give me a sweaty, morbidly obese tellak with an arse scented Brillo pad.

The end of the exfoliation process will be indicated by a slap. The use of the slap in hamams can be a little confusing. For best effect, the hand is cupped to increase volume. Interpretations include:
  1. "Get on the slab"
  2. "Get off the slab"
  3. "Turn over"
  4. "This arm/leg/neck etc is done"
  5. "Your gingham sheet has worked loose"
  6. "I like you"
  7. "I don't like you"
  8. "I just want to slap you"
The tellak will now douse you in water. The temperature of which will depend entirely on his mood. This washes away any rolls of skin or tears that may be still present. He will then begin the firmer massage.

This is the famous moment of clicking bones and involuntary moans. In my experience, this massage can vary widely. Sometimes it's a simple slap and an arm stretch, other times it can leave you with a disability.

The contortions you adopt can be quite startling (fig.7). An English friend of mine recalls being in mid-massage when he noticed a white flank of skin next to his face, only to realise it was his own arse. Relax as much as you can and let the tellak work his issues out on you. Be warned, if he's gently rocking your head from side to side, he's about to perform a move that will have you staring briefly at your shoulder blades. Gets me every time.

Fig.7. In the Hamam no one can hear you scream ...actually they can ...and it echoes.

Next comes the soap-down. This, for me, is the highlight.

You will be lying, dazed on the slab. A little sore from the kese and a little bruised from the shoeing. The tellak will instruct you to lay on your belly and position your hands under your chin. Next you'll hear a sploshing, a puff, then a warm wave of soap suds will engulf you entire body. You will wonder how this is achieved. Well I'm going to let you into the secret of the foam.

The tellak has a bowl of warm water containing the biggest bar of olive oil soap you've ever seen in your life and something that resembles a pillowcase. This sack is swished around in the water before blowing air into it, closing the opening and forcing the soapy air through the pores of the bag and onto your trembling body (see fig.8).

Fig.8. The soap bath. You will notice that the pillowcase is now full of bubbles and that the guy on the right has a semi.

Fig.9. No trip to Turkey is complete without having a tellak empty his sack over your chest.

Fig.10. Here we can see a multiple soaping or 'Bukkake', as it's known in Japan.

The tellak wont stop at one sack load as he tries to impress you with his foam. Just ignore it and don't encourage him (see fig.11).

Fig.11. Especially during the slower winter months, prolonged periods without female contact can lead to tellaks becoming over zealous.

For most tellaks, the idea of working in tourist areas is a dream most will never realise. But who can blame them?

Fig.12 The dream.

Fig.13 The reality.

Through the voluminous foam, you will feel a slap. This marks the start of the soap massage process. The soap is worked firmly into your muscles. His hands will explore every inch of your body as he kneads and scrubs you to a state of squeaky cleanliness that would have Nanette Newman blushing.

The tellaks have a tendency to amuse themselves by pushing their thumbs into pressure points that'll make you squirm, giggle, yelp and coil. This is normal. Allow them this pleasure. Something similar happened to me once in Thailand (it turns out there's a pressure point in your upper thigh that can send a massage spiraling off into a whole new direction).

With various cupped slaps, the tellak will have you rolling around on the slab in order to cleanse your entire body. For me, the real spectacle here is how they manage to adjust your gingham sheet to a mere cocks-worth so as to expose as much flesh as possible. When they then give the 'turn over' slap, you'll be wondering how you'll manage this without showing your fellow bathers your giblets. The answer is that your tellak will follow your movements with the sheet to instill a false sense of security. Then, whilst in mid-turn, he'll raise the sheet and allow everyone, including himself, a good old butchers at what you're packing.

Fig.14. If, at this point, he swings his leg over, you're going to have to make some life decisions.

Fig.15. The photo that inspired me to finish university.

Now, you've been washed and are completely covered in soap. The tellak will now slap you indicating that it's time for you to leave the slab and head over to one of the sinks. If you take nothing from this post, listen closely to this... put your slippers back on. They may have seemed redundant until now, but this is where they make a whole lot of sense. Let me explain this with a very simple equation:

Soapy feet + wet marble = a fractured cranium and a £250 cheque from You've Been Framed.

Having reached your destination, in a style not dissimilar to Bambi venturing onto ice, you'll be seated with your knees around your ears and nuts open to the world before being doused, once again, with water. Draw breath as and when you can.

The tellak will now wash your hair (with the bar of soap), ears and any other orifice he can get a finger into. Close your eyes and think of Billericay.

After this final rinse, you're done. The tellak will move onto another victim and leave you weeping in the corner to gather the fragments of your shattered manhood. Take some time here. Don't go rushing straight out. Sit and relax a while. After a whole episode of unfamiliar experiences, it may take a little time for your adrenaline levels to return to normal. While you do that, ponder this:

In 1997, the film 'Hamam' caused controversy in Turkey. Depicting the life of an Italian man inheriting
an Istanbul Hamam The film develops into something of a homo-erotic tale of love in the steam room. The very thought that the Hamam could be used for such activities was abhorrent to most Turks and none more so than the Head of the Istanbul Hamam Association who made the following statement (I'm paraphrasing because this is complete hearsay): "the idea of Hamams being a hub of gay sexual activity is both ridiculous and impossible as men and women are segregated". Case closed then? Think again, because according to Wikipedia (which is always correct), historically, Hamams do have rather different story to tell:

"Traditionally, the masseurs in the baths also worked as sex workers. We know today, by texts left by Ottoman authors, who they were, their prices, how many times they could bring their customers to orgasm, and the details of their sexual practices.

After the defeat and dismemberment of the Ottoman empire, in the quickly westernizing Turkish republic the tellak boys lost their sexual aspect, and now the tellak's role is filled by adult attendants who specialize in more prosaic forms of scrubbing and massage. Yet in Turkish the term hamam oğlanı, 'bath boy,' is still used as a euphemism for a homosexual."

Fig.16. "Whatever you do, don't stop".

Fig.17. The Hamam. Officially no longer gay.

My understanding is that, in the UK at least, the Turkish Bath is still something of a gay meeting place. Here in Turkey, however, it's not the case. It's a masculine affair of slapping, strutting, blowing your nose through your fingers, snorting, making farting noises with your belly on the marble or simply making farting noises.

Turkish women, these days, rarely visit Hamams. They are used for one special purpose; if a male member of the family has a girlfriend he's considering marrying, the women of the family will invite her to the Hamam. The real motive of this expedition if to check her physique out. Is she going to balloon? Is she going to be able to withstand childbirth? So many questions to be answered.

OK, so you've had enough of the steam and sweat. Gather your dignity (that includes your gingham sheet) and head back out the door into the foyer. If you can find the stairs, climb them. There, at the top, waiting for you will be another member of staff whose sole purpose is to dress you like a fool.

With a series of twist, turns and slaps you'll be wrapped up in towels like a newborn baby (fig.18).

Fig.18. The post-Hamam towel wrap is a look somewhere between an Arab and a twat.

Once wrapped, don't go rushing back to your changing room. Take a seat around the reception area. Personally, I like to have a glass of apple tea while I enjoy the sensation of my scrubbed skin tingling in the fresh air.

When you finally decide to leave the Hamam, notice how cool the air feels outside. It may be 40 degree heat but, compared to the Hamam, it'll feel like Spring. You'll feel revitalised and alive. This is the real reason for coming to a Hamam. Also, if you make your trip to the bath early on in your stay, you'll get a much deeper tan.

For me, a visit to a Hamam is an essential part of a Turkish holiday. Even if you lose the ability to turn your head for a few days/weeks, rest assured that you've never been cleaner in your life.