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Picking up the soap… A Turkish bath

Lying face down on the cold tiles, steam clogging the air, arms from four hairy images suddenly grab me and hold me down. A big fat guy waddles over… Errrrreeeeech (like the sound when a car locks up and screeches to a halt) whoa now, I know what your thinking, and that ain’t what a Turkish bath is all about. Well, sort of. Sure, since I think that I am not totally out of the average American category, I have to assume that there are a lot of people who also have their own imbedded image of what a trip to a Turkish bath would entail. For me, it goes straight from Turkish bath to Turkish prison, and that is directly related to about the only thing that I had really known about Turkey, which was the movie I believe is Midnight Express, the one where that guy gets thrown into Turkish prison and he has a wonderful time and his girlfriend comes and sticks her breasts up to the glass partition and he is really really happy. A great Christmas movie. TV is knowledge. Actually, I am writing this piece out of sheer guilt as I spent eight days watching tv in Latakkia on the coast of Syria and then going back to Damascus to work on a Visa, and took a bus all the way back to Latakkia just so that I could get more tv time. Oh, on face value it comes across as pretty sad, but it’s okay, I have 190 channels to make me feel better. Look at that I made it a whole paragraph writing about a Turkish bath and not saying anything about it being gay (not that there is anything wrong with that, well, unless of course you were lying face down on cold tiles in a steamy room with four hairy guys holding you down, “gay” would probably come screaming across the old panic area of the brain.) Again, just not my thing, but… I’ll stop now, I have a cold and I think a fever. It’s time to move on.

Well, to clarify about the Turkish bath thing, I’ll share my bounds of knowledge on the subject. Okay, I went once, but hey, it’s probably 100% more than most of the people who have passed judgement on them and never have been.

I ended up meeting up with a guy I knew from Beirut. He is my third travel author that I have met on my trip. His name is Jeremy Kroeker,, he wrote a book called Motorcycle Therapy, an International Bestseller, Oprah’s Book Club book of the year, New York times really really interesting book, etc. Slight exaggerations, but that’s okay, this is, the International Bestseller blog, Oprah’s blog club blog of the year, the New York Times really really interesting blog etc. My own special world. I have a fever, definitely. Anyway’s, I figured there are two places that traveling solo is not so cool, strip clubs and Turkish baths. A guy goes solo to a strip club, and on the face that looks kind of sad, and the strippers probably think that your just going to be another stalker. Now, I am pretty confident of my manhood but just the thought of going to a communal bath, without having a clue of what the procedure is can be a bit daunting, even for me, and I have crossed both the Amazon and the Congo so there. I AM NO woosy boy. Just a little shy. Anyways, Jeremy had been there before, so it was good to have my own guide and also to have someone to talk to during those possibly uncomfortable rest periods between god knows what.

So you wanna go Turkish.

The place that we went to was Damascus’s oldest Hamman. It was kind of a hardcore locals place because women weren’t allowed. In most other Hammam’s, women can go, but usually there are separate times for men and women. The more touristy places allow both, but I think to get the real effect (old wrinkly fat guys), you gotta go to a place like we went.

First, you hit the entrance desk where the guy gives you a little bag to keep all your valuables. The reception person takes your order of what you want ie. sauna, bath, scrub, massage, soap and scrubber, drinks, etc. For each they give you a band that you use as your tab. A kind of guide comes and gets you especially when you are a white guy and an asian guy with very little Hammam experience. We were taken to the main lobby like area where it was very big and open under a huge dome. The architecture of many of these Hammams are world class and almost as elaborate as Mosques. There was wall to wall carpeting with a raised walk way surrounding the room with covered bench seats and coat hangers on the walls to leave your clothes. The guide holds up a towel/bed sheet for you to undress in (yup, buck naked, although showing off your wares is a big no-no.) You wear the thin sheet as a saree. They hang up a cloth over your clothes to prevent sticky wandering fingers. You are given almost high heeled clogs to wear (that was a bit queerish as having to wear heels with a saree really struck down my manliness.)

The first stop is the sauna. A normal wood encased dry sauna to get the juices flowing and the pores opened. Pretty much standard stuff, sit and sweat.

Once you are sweated out, you are taken to the main bathing area. The rooms are pretty much all open to each other. The first room is kind of a cool/staging area. All of the rooms have basins spaced along all the walls. They are non-draining basins meaning there is no plumnbing attached, just a sort of porcelain bowl with hot and cold spigots. They are set about two feet off the ground as most of the bathing and scrubbing is done while seated or lying down. At the basins are steel bowls used to scoop out the hot water and splashed on yourself. You do have to be careful to not splash others especially on Fridays as many Muslim men take the baths in preparation to go to prayer and to have a foreigner soil them with over spray would mean starting the whole cleaning process over.

There is a main bathing area which is larger than the other rooms and where most people congregate as the steam room is puffing out enough steam to make the common room just as steamy and hot.

The third room is the massage and scrub room. Not much difference except for the massage table. The scrubbing is done right on the floor, so no special area for that.

Once you have a basin, you basically just splash yourself down, use the birds nest scrubber and soap that you are given and clean yourself. The biggest thing is that you have to totally forget about your normal bathing procedure. It’s not like taking a shower or bath before the day starts, this is a purification process where you take your time and scrub down every nook and cranny. When you are done, you go back and give it another run through just as if you washed a really dirty car (get the thing reasonably clean and then do it again to get off the real nit and grit. Figure a good hour doing that (serious cleaning.) As I stated before it’s not a vertical type thing like washing in the shower. No, you sprawl out on the tiled floor and get in whatever position you need to to get a really good scrubbing. The most common position seemed to be sitting with legs straight out.

Once you are cleaner that you feel that you have ever been clean before, you head over to the scrubber guy. Just look for the fat hairy guy sprawled out in the corner fingering you over to the corner. I kept an eye on this guy. When I went he pointed to me to sit down, so I did what I thought would be politically correct and sat facing him, thinking that we would get some basic procedural stuff out of the way first. Nope. He just grabbed my shoulders and spun me like a top (not as difficult as it sounds as you are sitting on a soapy puddle of tiles. You get a whack and then the sanding begins. Not a pleasant feeling. Basically, he uses a big brillo pad to de-skin you. Before, I used to like to think of myself as partially African as I spent quite of a bit of time there and my skin tone is darker than most. Well, I am now closer to caucasian as he basically just sanded me to a new race. Did I mention that it hurt? As soon as he started, I wanted to quit as I am in a point of my life that I am really not into anything that is slightly discomforting. A little angst, I quit. My new motto. Well, this guy was pulling off slivers of what had to be skin as it looked like the stuff that rubs off your hands when you are a bit sweaty and you rub your hands together really hard and the dirt and sweat kind of roll into tiny slivers. Did I mention that it hurt? I just remember Jeremy describing it as being really abrasive, not quite enough to cause bleeding, but….

After the sanding, it’s a flop on the massage table for a de-popping of the back and a grinding slapping massage. Now, I am not a very good massage recipient because I usually only last about five minutes before I am snoring and don’t have a recollection of what happens after that point. Here, it was more of an intense quick massage, but the most memorable part was the slap at the end of each portion. Massage the back, SLAP.. Massage the thighs, SLAP… Rub out the chest, SLAP….

Once the sanding and slapping are finished, you go back and have a steam and then a final soapy. At that point you are feeling a bit stretched, a bit dehydrated, a bit dazed. Before you leave the bathing area they have an attendent that holds up a sheet so you can switch to a new/dry saree. He then wraps another one around your shoulders and then you head back to the lounging area. Once you get there, another attendent changes out the saree and the top wrap and then takes a towel and wraps your head for you. You are then led to the bench seating area that run along the walls where they bring you tea, water, or sodas. There is where you spend quality time just relaxing and talking. It’s kind of like a place to let all the comforts soak in. When you are finished, you suit up, head back to the reception area, pay the bill (around $8US), have a going away coffee, and you are done. A Turkish bath.

Not so scary/gay was it. Well, there are some things that I should point out. A lot of the confusion is clarified by the difference in cultures between the Middle East and well I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but at least in America. In the Middle East, men are much more touchy feely with each other and even though it is in an extremely anti-gay culture their actions are totally considered non-sexual even though in the states it would cause a few double takes. Men walk hand in hands down the street, lots of hugs and kisses, even lap sitting or almost spooning each other. It’s just friends hanging out. I figured it out pretty quickly once I learned that females co-mingling with guys is a pretty big no-no. For that reason, guys hang out with guys and girls hang out with girls. It was that way in Africa as well. Maybe in the states we are just a bit up tight. Anyway’s, in the Hammam, it is very common place for you to go with a few of your buddies and make an evening out of it. Spend a couple of hours scrubbing each other on the soapy floor, rubbing each other down, having slap fights and water splashing. Just some good old boy fun Middle East style. Nothing gay just guys being guys. I myself didn’t feel comfortable enough to ask Jeremy if he wanted me to give him a rub down, so we basically just spent most of the time not making eye contact and talking about the weather (He is Canadian and they are probably more up tight than Americans, except for those French bastards, they are just freaks). Overall, it was a good experience. I think I would prefer going to the co-ed version and taking a girl with me, but it was a good experience. So, Turkish Baths, safe to pick up the soap. Now, if you go to a Turkish Bath in San Francisco, well, I wouldn’t recommend doing above (not that there is anything wrong with that…)

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