first published in Bayou Magazine. Issue 67. Spring 2017, 49-55. Print.
by Caroline N. Simpson
With my arm resting between her leg and breast, she begins her questions: How do you know Turkish? Are you married? How old are you?
Her breasts swing toward my face as she methodically scrubs my arm, hand to shoulder. But when I tell her I’m unmarried and thirty-six, she stops mid-scrub, making no effort to contain her shock: Oh my God! Thirty-six and not married? But why?? You have a beautiful face! You’re tall! You’re strong! Why?!
I am their first customer on a Monday morning. A mild sunny December day in Istanbul, the woodstove in the center of the soyunmalık, or dressing room, remains unlit. Natırlar, female bathhouse attendants, sit half-dressed around the perimeter of the room, drinking tea and eating simit, a kind of Turkish bagel. Transfixed by the melodramatic voices coming from the soap opera on the TV, they don’t stir when I enter, until one nudges the natır next to her and whispers, a tourist.
Do you speak Turkish? the woman asks me in Turkish as she points to a sign written in misspelled English: 42,50 = scrup + lit masaj 20 min
Yes, I’d like the scrub and massage, I answer in Turkish. She delights in hearing me speak her language, which I learned from having lived and taught in Turkey for four years.
She ushers me to a private cubicle, hands me a towel, and reminds me not to take off my underwear. I remove my clothes here as many women have before me, the only thing evolved being the style of clothing hung on the hooks.
Exactly 300 years ago, a Western woman also ventured into a Turkish hamam, but removed very different garments indeed. In 1716, when Lady Mary Wortley Montagu traveled to Turkey with her husband, a British ambassador, she wrote many letters to her friends in London describing her experiences. As a woman, she was afforded more opportunities within the various layers of female life, visiting spaces closed off even to Turkish men. Through her writing, she exposed misconceptions recorded by previous male travelers about the traditions and treatment of Ottoman women. Her 52 letters written during the two short years she lived in Istanbul have become famous as The Turkish Embassy Letters. In one such letter, she details her first visit to a Turkish bath.
When she arrives in her Victorian riding habit, probably a peculiar sight to the women there, not one of them shows the least bit of surprise or “impertinent curiosity.” They receive her “with all the obliging civility possible.” Lady Montagu notes how no European Court would have behaved so politely to a stranger; she would have received “disdainful smiles and satirical whispers.” Instead, these natırlar repeat over and over to her, pek güzel, or so beautiful. Their complements charm her, and she wishes to spend more time in their company, but like many Westerners after her, she rushes off to tour a famous historic site, in this case, the ruins of Justinian’s Church. It is no more than a heap of stones, and she instantly regrets not having passed more time with the women at the hamam.
The most famous anecdote in this particular letter involves a natır earnestly trying to persuade her to undress for a bath. When Lady Montagu finally opens her dress to show them her corset, the women immediately stop entreating her, for they believe she has been “locked up in that machine” by her husband and “that it [is] not in [her] own power to open it.”
I admire Lady Montagu’s willingness to reveal a layer of herself to these women that she probably wouldn’t have revealed to most European females, and I admire her willingness to defend and celebrate the Turkish women’s way of life in these letters, even when the women brazenly judged European men for something widely accused of men in the East. The Victorian era British felt themselves superior in their treatment of women. Of course today, we look back on Victorian dress and etiquette as horribly repressive, but at the time these Turkish women made this comment, it amused Lady Montagu. I’d also like to think it ruffled her, that this moment planted a seed for her later work addressing the social attitudes towards women in England.
I wrap a thin cotton towel around me. The natır leads me to the ılıklık, a warm steamy room with marble floors and sinks around its edges. She leaves me to remove my towel, the last of the manmade layers to be shed, and sit beside a sink. I let the warm water run as I use a plastic basin to pour it over my body, over and over until my fingers become raisins, the rest of my body not too far behind- the desired effect.
During Roman and Ottoman times, this room would have been full of women and the sounds of their gossip. Hamams were a place where mothers found matches for their sons by scouring the naked bodies of the young women around them. They were looking for beauty and childbearing hips. A kind of meat market run by women.
After 15 minutes, the natır returns. She takes off her shirt so she is wearing only a pair of white cotton underwear. Her skin is taut and wrinkle-free over her swollen belly. I can’t tell if she is pregnant or has eaten one too many a simit. Now that we are both bare-chested, she is ready to bathe me.
In a hamam, all body types are exposed to one another unflinchingly. Maybe Americans flaunt it out on the streets more than Turks, but we certainly are very modest indoors with one another, barring the bedrooms of lovers. An American massage therapist does everything she can to avoid exposing body parts unnecessarily, a sheet tucked over a buttock or breast while she massages the nearby area. Many self-care establishments in the U.S. embrace hidden-ness, with the notion that you might feel ashamed were a stranger to see you naked. We dance delicately around each other’s vulnerability as if it resided in our physicality.
I blush to think not only of myself exposed on an American massage table, but also of my masseuse bare-chested as she goes about her work. It seems like an opportunity for a hundred sexual jokes, as the only time we let ourselves be naked with others in the U.S. is during sex. Yet there is nothing sexual about my interaction with this natır.
She leads me into the domed sıcaklık, or hot room, which has a large marble slab in its center- the göbek taşı, or belly stone. This is where customers lie down, while a natır scrubs and massages away. Star-shaped skylights above called elephant eyes redirect the sunlight onto the scene below.
I lie down on the göbek taşı as she uses a kese, an exfoliating hand mitt used on hundreds of women before me, to remove layers of dead skin from every part of my body. The marble is warm and slippery. My breastbone and hips dig into the hard slab as she applies pressure, running the kese over my back, butt, legs, arms. When she motions for me to roll on my back with arms overhead, breasts pointing to the skylights, my shoulder blades dig into the marble as she scrubs my chest and armpits. Dead skin comes off in rolls, her back-and-forth motion creating black play-dough snakes.
My American massage therapist once said to me that if I was uncomfortable lying on my back with my heart facing up, an emotionally vulnerable position, to please let her know and she could work on me in another position.
My natır makes no effort to ensure I am comfortable. She motions for me to sit on the edge of the göbek taşı. She places my arm between her leg and breast as she scrubs it the long way, hand to arm. I’ve been to hamams several times, and depending on the sagginess and size of the natır’s breast, I might be slapped in the face by its swing during this portion of the scrub. She asks my name and I hers. Sevil. A common female name in Turkey, it means “Loved.”
After learning I am 36 and unmarried, she asks if I’d consider marrying a Turk, and again I shrug and say maybe, which sends her laughing with an Oooyy! as if this is the cutest answer she’s ever heard. She asks if I still live in Turkey and where my parents live, and says I should come back so I can marry a Turk. I don’t tell her that on this vacation to visit old friends, the last thing on my mind is finding a husband. Instead, I continue to smile and shrug.
Without fail, I am always asked in a hamam, Are you married? I find the interrogation endearing rather than insulting. I can’t say the same for the constant question I hear in the U.S. by coupled girl friends and acquaintances alike- Have you met anyone yet? –which also contains the assumption that, as a woman, my path remains stalled and unfulfilled.
When people ask why I’m single at this age, I’m often taken off-guard. My usual answer is a shrug and one word: life, or hayat in Turkish. I’ve been enjoying a rich life- chasing experiences, developing my career and passions, cherishing friendships, savoring occasional romances.
The difference between the Turkish and American approach to this interrogation is that my response to such a question usually ends the conversation in the U.S., and I am left to imagine their inner thoughts questioning, judging, worrying, hoping for me. That all this takes place silently somehow makes me feel not enough, even if I didn’t feel that way before.
But in the hamam, Sevil holds nothing back. She is shocked and wants to understand why and give me advice, yet I don’t feel ashamed. Her giving all of this a voice while we both stand nearly naked before one another, with her bathing and caring for me, her breasts swinging towards my face unapologetically, makes me feel enough. Here we are carrying on the same tradition as in Ottoman times, me with all my woman shapes exposed, and my natır telling me I am marry-able based on what she sees. I can’t step out of this historical trajectory even if I wanted to.
You’d think that young Ottoman women had to have the thickest of skins as they walked around the hamam, their bodies an open invitation for critique of their daughter-in-law worthiness, but somehow my skin is becoming softer and smoother, my pores opening wide as Sevil removes my dead layers.
For the next part of the bath experience, she sweeps a towel through soap to create a mountain of bubbles on top of my back, then massages me, again pushing my hip and breastbones into the hard marble. Same order of positions: stomach, back, sitting. Next, I sit by the marble sink as Sevil washes my hair, sticking her pointer finger in my ears periodically to wash then rinse them as she pours basin after basin of water over my head. I hold my breath as the water continuously pours over my face. To both rid me of and prepare me for the filth of the outside world, my skin has to come in contact with so much water. Thank goodness my skin is impermeable, or I’d drown.
Next, she motions for me to stand up and open my hand to her. She pours shampoo into it, then points to my underwear. This is a first. My vagina has never been motioned to in a hamam before. I stare at her to make sure I understand. She motions again. So I stick my hand down my underwear and wash my crotch with shampoo, while she holds the elastic band away from my body and pours basin after basin of water in to assist me.
I can’t tell if Sevil wants me to clean my vagina of its Western filth (she hopes not), or from its 36 years of underuse (she hopes), or in preparation for my wedding day (which she hopes will be really soon). But I am sure that I have not washed my vagina before another woman since I was a little girl in the bathtub. This time, my mom is not towering over me; I am towering a good foot above my caretaker.
Completely rid of dead layers from every part of my body, I return to my private cubicle in the soyunmalık to dry off, pause over a cup of tea, and put on the layers I’ll need for the outside world.
A hamam is a place where you remove old skin to bear the new. You have to be scrubbed and prodded, naked and exposed for this to take place. And the natır has to clean every inch of your body, or you’d feel ashamed.
In 1715, the natırlar instinctively wanted to rid Lady Montagu of all her layers, to strip her down to their nakedness, but they were stopped by a layer of clothing meant to stop European gentility from negatively judging her, a layer that had to be hidden in order to do its work, one that was flush with her flesh. The Turkish women were saddened when stopped by this “cage,” unable to remove this layer to effectively care for her. Lady Montagu never became fully naked before them. She was never massaged, scrubbed, cleaned of dead skin. She never made it past the soyunmalık.
In the West, we have a tradition of keeping ourselves safely covered while we compare our lives and our bodies silently, speaking ourselves softly, under our breaths.
You’d think I had to adopt a certain impermeability as yet another Turkish natır asked me why I was in my 30s and unmarried. And you’d think Lady Montagu had to thicken her skin when looking upon the unconstrained waistlines and sagging breasts of the half-naked natırlar lounging in the soyunmalık day after day waiting for the next customer to enter. And you’d think a natır would have to develop the thickest of skins- all the water, unhealthy bodies, and sad stories they come in contact with day after day.
I can’t speak for any of these women, but finally out loud I can speak for myself. As I leave the hamam and re-enter Istanbul on a sunny December day, my skin is thinner.