Swallowed by a Hammam

Summertime in Istanbul is hot. It is not the kind of hot that lets you lounge languidly in a plush green garden, drinking white wine spritzers with blackberry garnishes and enjoying a sweet siesta in the salt tinted breeze. No. It is the kind of hot that greets you with a punch, squeezes your breath between its wicked fingers, and melts the soles of your feet to the bottoms of your shoes. It is the kind of hot that creeps through stone walls, breaks through doors and windows, and rises up in sordid haze from sticky pavements to blinding white skies. Summertime in Istanbul is that kind of hot.

On my third day of trying to find respite from the heat, I was offered a cup of sweetened cai by a time etched cobbler who own an unlikely shoe factory in the  bazaar. He offered me a chair which had long lost its back, and helpfully turned his tiny fan towards my glistening face. I accepted the cai, and in my broken Turkish, managed to gracelessly deflect his stories about the eligible bachelor that was his nephew and to ask him where I could go to escape the suffocating heat.

He directed me to a hammam.  As I had been hoping for information about a hidden ice grotto or even just an air-conditioned supermarket, I was sure at first that I had misunderstood. A hammam, or Turkish Bath, usually involves going into a steaming chamber, laying on a piece of heated marble in said chamber until your sweat starts to sweat, and then going through a spiritual-like cleansing ritual replete with warm water rinses and hot towels. I have to admit that at first, this did not seem like the most logical solution to my problem. Yet, it seems I had understood. My new friend was directing me to a hammam. I was too hot to argue.

A hand-written note and nearly 20 minutes of circling around the back streets of Sultanahmet later, I arrived at the hammam. I pushed the tired wooden door, and walked in.

A young man with unashamedly perfect skin was playing on his phone behind the reception desk, though he quickly attended to me. The fact that he did not speak any English bolstered my spirits somewhat; I felt I had found an authentic gem in the tourist heart of Istanbul. I was given a threadbare sarong and some plastic sandals, and directed to the women’s section.

As soon as I walked in, an incredibly rotund and very naked woman greeted me. She yelled something at me which I didn’t understand. Seeing my blank look, she yelled louder. Fed up, she finally grabbed my sarong, untied it and set it to the side, and pushed my now naked body on to the marble slab. It was scalding. I jumped. My pale skin screamed at me. I tried to move but she mumbled something and pushed me back down. I dared not move. I wondered momentarily if this was how I would die.

Nearly 45 minutes later, once my breath had settled from desperate gasping to slow resignation and my skin had scalded itself numb, the same woman approached me. As she did, I noticed two things. First, each of her breasts was a good deal larger than my head. Second, she was not in fact naked. She was wearing a paper thong.

Without ceremony dumped cool water over me. While I was still blinking in shock, she sprayed me with eucalyptus and liquorice scented black foam soap, and started to scrub. And scrub. And scrub. She scrubbed parts of my body I didn’t even think my gynaecologist had seen. My dead skin fell in little wet clumps across the marble. I worried she might tear me open.

I quickly saw there was no point in resisting, and became as malleable to her as clay to a potter. As she pushed my body, I slid up the marble, and as she pulled, I slipped back towards her. I had no control over my body; if I tried to move of my own volition, I slipped. I forgot about the stinging pain the marble had inflicted on my skin, and worried instead that she was going to fling me across the slab with such force that I would fall off the other side. Again, I wondered almost without hyperbole if this was how I would die. I had no choice but to give my trust to her completely.

Finally, we were done. She heaved me up off the marble with unprecedented care, gently poured metal basin after metal basin of cooled water over my head and limbs, and wrapped me tightly in my red sarong. She then retrieved my sandals, slipped them on my feet, and guided me out of the chamber and into the cool changing room.

I lay for nearly an hour on the wooden bench which lined the room. I was grateful that I survived, and happy to be out of the steam. I closed my eyes and let myself fall asleep, cool for the first time in nearly a week. My skin was plump and pink and pure. I felt like I was breathing more deeply, as if my breath moved through my skin. Looking back on that moment, it may well be the most relaxed I have ever felt.

Eventually I put on my clothes, paid the man with the impossible skin, and walked back through the broken door and up the rusty steps into the heart of Istanbul.

Amazingly, I did not feel as hot.

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