Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Hammans, Virgins, and Ice Cream, Istanbul, Turkey

The Hamman is the famous Turkish Bath. They’re in every neighbourhood.  Some men go daily. According to Moslem tradition a man must be cleansed after sex before prayer. So the Hamman opens early.  All the handsome and happy men are lined up to get in the Hamman at that time.  The not so handsome and more unhappy men go any time in the day. I went at night.
The first gay movie in Turkey was called the Hamman.  I wasn’t too sure about the whole experience.
My guide Mehmet Tetik (\tetik) insisted I go. He told me Mark Twain had even gone. Apparently he’d written an amusing story of his hamman adventure.  Mehmet told me I should read it.
I’m of an age where nudity and laughter mix without the help of Mark Twain. But I will read it.
Mehmet showed me the neighbourhood hamman and asked me next day if I’d been. I gave lame excuses.  So after a great day of touring mosques and churches and palaces he insisted he’d walk me down the the Hamman and introduce me.
Next thing I know I’m through the door of the neighbourhood Hamman and these men are talking rapidly in Turkish .  They’re laughing. Mehmet  is pointing at me.  More laughter.   Mehmet  says “I’ve told them you want the scrub and the massage and bath.  You just leave your shoes there and go up to the room with this fellow and leave your clothes up there. He’ll give you a towel."
The men are still laughing.
I know translators aren’t necessarily true to what they have said.  So I know what has really been said is:
“See this old skinny armed chicken with the big pig belly. He stinks like a foreigner. Do whatever you can to make him smell better. Also he’s a psychiatrist so he’s very uptight. He’s all in his head. All day he's asking me endless intellectual questions.  Then he tells me all about himself and his problem with too many wives and too little sex.  I just want to guide him. So please make him relax. He’s so uptight.  And another thing, he’s a Christian.. I’ve shown him all these mosques but he keeps wanting to look at the pictures the Greeks painted of this one Virgin.  These Christians only can talk about this one virgin in the past and laugh at us thinking of many virgins in the future.  I’ll never understand them. Allah be praised."
The men are laughing. I leave my shoes and put on slippers.
I go with one upstairs. Somewhere a call to prayer is being sung outside.  I notice for the first time it has  a dirge like quality.
I am shown to a room with windows.  I’m left with a towel. How can I undress in a room with windows? Is there no modesty?  What would Freud think of this?   I undress cautiously. I am not at all sure I like what I’m getting into. But now the smiling attendant  is back.  Again he is showing me, like I’m an idiot,   how to tie the towel around my waist. I still have my underwear on.  I leave them on. He wants me to follow him.
Downstairs a bigger swarthy man with muscles like Schartzenager takes me by the arm and leads me into the bath area. It is very hot.  Not just hot. Really very hot. I know it is supposed to be hot but this is hell hot.  Very hot.  And that’s just the entrance. There are all these little booths around the outside with white marble sinks a person could drown in. They have taps and the cubicles are open so  I suppose others can watch the Christian being tortured. Everything is marble so that blood would be easy to clean up.   The fellow has noticed I’ve slowed but happily encourages me to keep up.  A big marble slab in the middle of the room looks just like a butcher’s table.  I imagine these people are cannibals.  That’s why it’s so hot.  it’s soup hot.
He shows me into another  interior room, all white, like an asylum.   Already the sweat is bleeding out of me.  This is what the temperature of the sun at it’s core must feels like.  The man leaves me.  There’s a Mexican there. He has a high voice.  He is so happy. You can see the coocaracha bands playing in his head.  His eyes are sparkling like Jack Nickolson's in the Shining.  “Where are you from, “ he asks.  “Canada.”  “It’s cold there,” he says.  “Yes,” I say, the word ‘cold’ bringing to mind  ‘ice cream’ in my head. All I can think of now is ice cream.  I’m wilting rapidly like a Dalli clock picture. The energy is seeping out of me.   There are rivers of sweat pouring off  me. I am fast  a grape becoming a raisin. The very water in my body wants to escape this heat.  A man can’t live with this much sweat leaving his body. The Mexican is smiling. The coocaracha band keeps playing in his head. I’ve got ice cream and death images running through my mind.
I can’t stand it.  It’s exhausting.  I’m going to faint. I have no more water in my body. My brain is overheating. I need air. I stagger out of the room.  If only I can make it to the lobby. I’d leave my clothes but my wallet is there. Still I see myself running down the streets of Istanbul in just a towel and my wet black shorts. My black shorts are very wet like I've wet myself.
The very very big man is guarding the exit.   He’s smiling too. He sees me and concerned,  points to where the washroom is.  WC.  I don’t need a washroom.  I couldn’t piss if my life depended on it..  I have no water left in me to piss.  I need ice cream.  I need to escape.  After standing a bit in the WC hoping the man will have left and the exit will be unguarded I come out.  He’s standing there smiling.  He is showing me back into the furnace cauldron.   I am now even more convinced he’s a cannibal.  He wants his meat more marinaded.  The Mexican is still there smiling. Coocaracha bands are playing in his head.He’s in his native element. Meanwhile I am regretting every blizzard I cursed. What I would give for a hockey rink right now.  I can't stop thinking of ice cream.
I make another escape.  The big man is waiting for me.  This time he pulls me by my little chicken arm  along to one of the cubicles.  This is definitely  where the Turkish CIA water boarding takes place.  I have no secrets.  Except I’m wearing black underwear under my towel.  I’ve forgotten to take off my cross.  He sits me on the floor beside the huge sink. Then he fills a bucket and time and time again he throws water over me.
I think its very odd.  It’s humiliating. This is very peculiar. Another bucket in the face.  I’m a little angry. Another bucket over my head.  I don’t know if I should put up with this.  Humiliation. I’m sure it’s some form of humiliation technique.  That’s when he pulls on the Glove.  The Glove  is a real instrument of torture. It’s got nails and broken glass embedded in the mitt. He covers it with sweet smelling soap. Standing over me  he rubs and scrubs.  Huges strips of flesh are removed with each brush of his big hand. He shows me all the dead skin on his torture mitt.  I’m sure there’s live skin there too. I can see strips wiggling. I don’t understand why there’s no blood. He really scrubs my back.  I remember my mother doing this.  I don’t think I’ve remembered my mother scrubbing my back ever before.  For a moment I feel cared for and almost have peace.  Then he throws another bucket of water at me. This psychological torture coupled with flaying goes on interminably, repeated over and over again, bucket of water in face, scraping away skin, bucket of water over head, scraping away skin.  Turkish water boarding.  I’ll confess to anything.
Next he shows me a slab of marble against the wall. There’s a towel laid out on it and a bowl at the top. .  The bowl is just the right size to catch the blood when you slit a throat. The man must want me Hallal.  Hallal human! I lie down on my back.  I’m so weak.  All the water is gone from my body.  I am ready to die.  The man is obviously ISIS. I’m such a fool that I forgot to remove my cross. I just don’t see the scimitar.  Where’s his great sword! I’m been to the armoury in Topkapi Palace with my guide Mehmet and any minute I imagine the sword from the armoury, the biggest one I’ve ever seen coming down like a guillotine. I’d pee myself right now if I had any water left in my body.  I can see myself being beheaded any minute. Any minute now my head will go plop.  It will roll across the marble floor and my last thought will be  ice cream.
Now I am confused. He wants me to turn over and lie on my fat belly. Doesn’t want me looking in the face of my executioner.  Now I see what the bowl is. I lie on my fat whale belly with my face in the bowl. He’s put a towel across it.  No doubt this is meant to quiet my screams.
Thats when  he pummels me. Two handed hammering away at my puny flesh.  With his hands he hits me all over. He's tenderizing me.  I can’t fight back.  He’s too big.  I have no water in my body.  All I can think of is ice cream.
Then the massaging begins.  Gentle long strokes. Any moment now I expect to be raped.  He’s just wearing a towel. I’m just wearing a towel. He’s beat me up.  He’s got scented soap and water.  I’m thinking now of ice cream and rape.  Then his hands are digging down to the bone. It’s gentle at first but it just about hurts.  I know he’s used to massaging men with big muscles. He’s  not calibrated his hands to weak academic tissue. I resist crying out. He presses my back down through the marble.  Each vertebrae of my spine separates. I can feel myself getting longer. I’m being racked and unpacked. All the carefully honed knots kneaded out of me.   Torture Racking.
Now he tugs on me and I realize he wants me to turn over. It’s a Charlie Chaplin silent move. I don’t speak Turkish .He doesn’t speak English.  He just moves me about like a slab of meat.  He lifts my leg like it was a twig and pulls it about forgetting I’m attached to it. Then he’s pulling each of my little toes. Im asking myself what did my little toes do to him that he’s twisting them and tugging on them.  He gives my stomach and sides a going over. Then he’s tugging on my ears and rubbing behind them. I’m convinced he’s “tut tutting’ just like my mother did when she washed behind my ears insisting I’d not done a proper job of it on my own.
Once all my joints have been separated and my muscles pommelled and kneaded like doe he takes me again to the little Turkish CIA water boarding rooms. He throws more water on me. Bucket after bucket.
Then he tells me with pointing and gesturing I must go back in the oven.  He’s blocking the way to the outside.  So to humour him I take his lead.  On the way he shows me my own water boarding cubicle and wants me to go in the oven and come out and throw buckets on myself and go back into the oven. I’m not making this stuff up! That’s what he wants me to do.  He wants me to humiliate myself. So I do it.
The Mexican is in oven. He’s still smiling. He’s still got coocaracha bands playing in his head. This inferno must make him feel like he’s at home on a nice sunny day. I’m overheated in seconds and out water boarding myself to cool off.  I’m about to escape but the big big man is at the doorway and he points me back to the oven. I think he just thinks I don’t remember his instructions. I go in and out a couple of times but then I see the man’s no longer guarding the exit.  I make my escape!
In the the lobby there are three other men sitting wrapped in red and white towels. Their heads are  wrapped funny  in towels too  Like a lady hairdressing party.  It’s something out of a Monty Python Egyptian skit. They ‘re just sitting there talking and drinking tea. Next thing I know, the attendant takes my wet towel  has  gift  wraps in dry towels. Maybe now I get raped.   My head is wrapped  funny like the other guys.  My underwear is still all wet underneath. I really think it’s better if you don’t wear underwear in Turkish baths.
I down a bottle of water the attendant gives me. Then I drink  tea.  We’re  all sipping tea and smiling.  They  were talking to each other but since I don’t speak Turkish they   just smile  at me like we all do when we’re with an idiot.   The tea is good too.  I can feel myself reviving.  When I have some strength back I climb the stairs and change to my outside clothes.  I stuff my wet underwear in my suit jacket pocket.
I go down stairs. I pay the attendant the 50 Turkish Lira.  The prices were on the door and Mehmet had explained  this . A turkish lira is about 25 cents.  I give a tip as well. I can’t believe that I’m going to be allowed to leave. I’ve not been beheaded, cannibalized or raped.  It’s almost a disappointment.    They all  smile at me.  I smile back.  I step outside.  I’m free.
As I walk along the street back to the Amber Hotel I realize I feel good.  I feel better than good. I feel better than I’ve felt in years.  I’m squeaky clean. I smell  good.  My body is moving  like a young big cat.  I’m a tiger.     I’m padding down the street.  All the normal tension is gone.  I actually begin to  think of Virgins. They don’t even have to be Virgins.  At the first cafe I stop.  I order  ice cream.  I’m happy. Really happy.   Sexy happy.    I even hear a coocaracha band playing in my head.
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