My First Hamam
It’s Sunday night in Ankara, Turkey, and more than an hour has passed since the canon shot was fired signaling the end of the day’s fasting for Ramadan. I’m in the mood for some adventure and decide to try my first Turkish hamam – the traditional Turkish bath.
There’s a hamam right around the corner from my hotel, so I gather up my nerve and wander down. The hamam is in an old building with an unassuming storefront and glass doors. There are steps leading up to a counter where a man is sitting next to a sign with a list of prices and services, which are all in Turkish and which, of course, I can’t read.
No one speaks English, but after a game of charades, we finally agree on something. The man leads me to a small room with two cots and a place to hang my clothes. He assigns me a locker to store my valuables and gives me a key with an elastic band so I can keep it around my wrist. I put on a sarong-like garment called a pesternal and head downstairs.
I think the Turkish language sounds a lot like an alien language from outer space – something like Romulan or Klingon from the Star Trek TV series. For example, the Turkish word for two is iki and the word for small is kuçuk (pronounced KOO-chek) and the word for bread is emek. Two small pieces of bread is iki kuçuk emek. See what I mean? It’s Romulan. I wish I would have brought my Star Trek dictionary instead of this useless Turkish one.
They lead me downstairs to a cavernous, domed room with marble floors and a sauna off to one side. The room is dominated by a large, flat, round marble slab (called a göbektasi), and ringed by five small cubicles that have washbasins, showers and sliding curtains. It is noticeably warmer than upstairs.
I sit in the sauna – pronounced sah-ooh-nah (Romulan again) which is set at 60°Celcius (140° Farenheit). There’s another guy in the sauna. We try to have a conversation, but me not knowing Turkish, and him not knowing English, it’s rough going. He asks me my job and I try to tell him, then I ask him his. I think he says he’s a soldier, then a veteran, then he says something about a dog, so I’m not sure if he’s a veteran with a dog or a veternarian. We give up. It is too bad because a hamam is a social place and I would have liked to have had a conversation with him.
After about 15 minutes I come out of the sauna to sit in a chair and sip a mineral water. Looking at this cavernous domed room with marble floors, it doesn’t take much to imagine that I am in the belly of an alien spaceship, the smaller rooms start to look like transporter rooms and everyone is speaking Romulan. It’s so perfect. I’m really starting to believe it. The attendants are called tellaks, so I think I’ve been beamed aboard a Tellak spaceship.
When they ask me where I’m from, I almost say, “I’m from the blue planet, Earth.” The Tellaks sound like they’re saying, “Ha, ha! Iki kuçek emlek, Earthling!”
It’s finally my turn, and the Tellak signals me to lie on my back on the marble slab. He douses me with warm water and begins to scrub me with a coarse cloth that has the texture of number five sandpaper. I say scrub, but it’s more like trying to take paint off an old door with a wire brush. Every now and then one of the Tellaks rings a buzzer on the wall, and I imagine he is signaling the engine room to power up the lithium crystals (but he’s really only ordering a coke).
When the Tellak is finished scrubbing, he shows me to one of the transporter rooms to rinse. I’m wondering why I have to rinse, since he didn’t use any soap, but there’s a dry, fibrous substance all over my body, and I realize it’s my skin! The scrubbing actually removed a layer of dead skin. Suddenly I realize the Tellaks want a sample of my skin to study in their laboratories!
After showering, I go back to the slab, and now the Tellak takes a cloth bag the size of a pillowcase but more like a pastry bag and blows in it. The blowing serves to froth up the sudsy soap that fills the bag, which he then pours all over me. What follows next is a combination of washing, shiatsu and chiropractic, as he bends, straddles, twists, cracks, massages and manipulates every inch of my sah-ooh-nized body until I feel like the guy on the bottom of a football pile-on. I even see one Tellak walking on another guy’s back.
Finally, I rinse off again in the transporter room and put on a dry sarong to go upstairs where it’s cooler. Another Tellak wraps my head in a big bushy towel and hands me another towel and an ice-cold bottle of Coke.
I don’t remember how I left the hamam, but an hour and a half and nine million Turkish lira later (US$5.62), I find myself beamed down once again on the city streets of Ankara. Somehow the glow of the lights seems warmer, strange, new and different. And I feel strange and new and different, and, in fact, I am. The Tellaks have my skin for their experiments and I had my first Turkish hamam. It’s reason enough to visit Turkey.