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Middle East Andrew Dispatch

Turkish Torture
February 9, 2000

Before today, if anyone had said to me that a fat, hairy Turkish guy would be shampooing my hair and scrubbing the bottoms of my feet, I would have called him a loony bird. But now, as I reflect on my afternoon at the hamam (Turkish bath) I see that it was something meant to be.

Turkey is loaded with these public bathhouses, where men and women of all ages go to scrub their woes away, drink tea, and socialize with their neighbors. Monica and I are here in Ankara and, working as hard as we do for The Odyssey, we often become filthy dirty and need frequent washing. Not that we often get it. But on this fortuitous day, as we wandered the cold streets in search of educational material for you, the students, we happened across one of the hamams. We were cold; inside promised warmth. We went in.

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Men and women are separated in the hamam, and so we agreed to meet in two hours. I entered and paid (about $3.00) and was given the key to a small room. Depositing my clothes there, I wrapped the scanty little pestemal (a cloth like a big, thin towel) around my midsection. Then, I walked through a heavy metal door, under a low marble arch, and into the bathing area.

This particular hamam, Karacabey Hamam, was built in 1440. So I was washing where countless numbers of bodies before me had been cleansed (I mean, think about it... even if it were only fifty people a day for the last 560 years... you do the math!) This odd thought occurred to me as I walked, in my brown plastic slippers, into the steamy rooms that were chock full of men with varying degrees of ablution. The main chamber had a high ceiling with small holes cut out at the top, where the last streams of sunlight fought their way through the steam obscuring the view down below.

There was a raised platform in the middle of the main chamber, and on it lay lathered-up men who were being mauled by men of mammoth proportions. The former were, in theory, being washed and massaged, but this looked so agonizing that I could not see how one would want to torment himself so.


ablution - a cleansing with water or other liquid, esp. as a religious ritual
fortuitous - happening or produced by chance; accidental
gesticulated - to make or use gestures, esp. in an animated or excited manner with or instead of speech
mammoth - huge; enormous; immensely large
maul - to handle or use roughly
obscure - to make dark, dim, indistinct

The reasons that hamams were (and are) so popular varies, but most of it has to do with the fact that Islam requires strict standards of personal hygiene. And it is no secret that Turkey has some fabulous natural hot springs. The Romans soaked themselves here before the Turks, and the Greeks scrubbed themselves clean before the Romans even arrived. At the time the Ottoman Empire began in 1288, most people didn't have a bath at home. (This has changed only recently.) Thus, the hamams have always been more than mere bathhouses, they were a place to wash, socialize, drink tea, and relax.

But back to my harrowing experience.

I sat down on the floor of a steam room and tried to relax, but the screams of the contorted men on that platform were like needles in my ears. For what reason were they putting themselves through such torture? I closed my eyes and concentrated instead on the steady dripping of water from the tap beside me, but just a few moments later a huge, furry man wrapped in the aforementioned cloth gesticulated towards me. He began shouting while I sat there, looking like a deer caught in the headlights. Apparently he had no time to waste, since he quickly came to me, took hold of my arm, led me out of that room, back through the low marble arch, and to the dreaded platform of pain! He shoved me down onto the platform, where I realized to my horror that I was about to receive one of the excruciating massages that I had pitied the other men for earlier. Before I could say "kebab", my chest was being rubbed vigorously with what I was then sure was a Brillo pad, but which turned out to be some sort of mitten used to separate skin from its owner. I screamed like a woman in childbirth. I cursed him in every language that I knew, and made up a few others. The man and his compadres laughed at me in my pain, and he gloated to his friends that he was massaging an American. Other so-called masseurs decided to massage their own charges less heartily and to join instead in the fun of watching my attacker as he raised my skin to a glowing red. I tried to flee, but the burly bundle of hair and muscle that was shucking the skin off of me had me firmly pinned to the platform with his big meaty hands -- and even one knee!

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After he had scraped all of the skin off my body, (at one point he just flipped me over to get at my other side -- I guess it would've been too much trouble to ask, well, maybe he did and I didn't understand. Now I know what a pancake feels like!), I was ordered to shower and rinse off. I noticed that he had brought up a lot of dead skin, and I felt lighter somehow. I got under the ice-cold stream of water, and before I had time to have a heart attack from that, I was slapped back onto the marble platform. Next came hot, soapy water. I know that may sound pleasant, but when accompanied by the boa constrictor-like grip of my masseur, well... it wasn't that your mama scrubbing behind your ears! This was real pain. Besides all of the violent scrubbing and rubbing, he contorted me into pretzel-like shapes and made my body snap, crackle and pop like Rice Crispies. When he had finished I was like a jellyfish. I sloshed across the room, sat down, and got my hair washed. (And he did not seem to care that the soap went into my eyes and burned them, I'll have you know!).

I know that I am not very tough. Abeja could eat me for breakfast and Kavitha could turn the leftovers into some exotic dish for lunch. Still, I had no idea I was so delicate that a simple massage could reduce me to a scalded, glowing, whimpering wet pile of a Trekker. It was fabulous. I recommend that the next time you are in Turkey, you make sure to visit the hamam for an experience that will leave you humbled and clean, inside and out.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - The Head of a Lion? The Body of a Goat? The Tail of What?!
Kavitha - Seeds of a Revolution
Monica - The City Mouse and the Country Mouse
Jasmine - Anatolia: Spirits of Old and New

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