The Hammam: An Untold Story that Should Probably Remain Thataway

Just to be clear, it is not my idea. Neither is it the idea of the six. But they go along. All of us go along. This much cannot be denied, although I am certain that some might try to when we get home. Curiosity, more than anything else, is the motivator.

“It’s a cultural experience,” Uraz insists. “It is good for the muscles after the climb.” And here on the Turkish-Iranian border, it is “the real thing,” not like the tourist attractions in Istanbul. Every village has a place like this.

Parked on the Doğubeyazıt backstreet.

Stacks of brick and concrete bags clog the narrow Doğubeyazıt backstreet (everything is “in process” in this Cowboy Town). They test the driver’s skills. He stops in front of a freshly painted building. Whether it is new on account of the paint job, the management, or something else is uncertain, but whatever it is, it is boldly proclaimed. The sign reads: “Yeni Alnazar Erkek Hamam,” or “New Alnazar’s Men’s Bath.”

We unload and follow Uraz through the door. It is sheep to the slaughter.

Inside we are greeted by the middle-aged manager wearing blue jeans. They are cuffed above his ankles. He wears plastic sandals. New Alnazar, I wonder?

Towels, plastic sandals, and plaid wrap-arounds are issued from the desk. Boxer shorts, too, come with the deal, in case the more traditional wraps turn out to be too complex for our oxygen-starved brains.

New Alnazar points to a small changing space adjacent to the entry. Cubbies for storing clothes and shoes are on the other side. The balance of this first room consists of a front desk, a tea-making area, and, most curiously, two rows of bed-like couches along the long walls. These are vinyl and come complete with matching headrests. In the center of the room hangs a television catering to the universal male experience. I conclude from the well-worn looks of things that the place has been around a while, so that it must be Alnazar that is new, or, a second option suddenly comes to mind: our experience here will enroll us in the ranks of the “New Men.” This latter thought disturbs me. Quickly, I undress, stuff my sweaty clothes in a cubby, and emerge in the presence of all my friends, both old and new, feeling quite white and vulnerable.

No, this isn’t us. Do you really think I would take a camera in here?

Our troop of nearly naked men is led into the back room, equal in size to the one we just left. However, unlike the cool room in the front, this one is tiled, warm, humid, and lined all around with bathing stations. Each station consists of a small alcove in the wall adorned with a spicket and two knobs. It is fronted by a seat and small basin for catching water. A bowl for dipping and pouring water rests in each basin. But the most striking feature of the room is in its center. Here, encircled by the bathing stations, is a marble edifice about one meter high. It is the communion table in this “sanctuary of the flesh.” The table is quite warm to the touch and is large enough to hold ten or so persons all stretched out like bacon on a griddle (please dismiss the culturally inappropriate analogy).

Uraz gives directions. Soap up, clean off, splash cool water on the table and lay on it. Or, if you prefer, enter the sauna behind door number two (which somehow I miss coming in). A final option rests behind door number three. Here one may find a small cold plunging pool, in case of overheating. Repeat, in any order.

We go to work. All of us try all of the above and in the end, are feeling quite seasoned. Our muscles are rummy and rubbery. This is a good thing, because about this time the tellak appears. He is a large and hairy Turk wearing only a plaid wrap-around, and, as we discover soon enough, has fingers that can bend steel (or crack bone!).

One by one we lay on the table and yield to the tellak. I watch, all wide-eyed, as he works the others. Those in his grip have eyes clenched in terror. He grapples, kneads, and slaps bare skin, eliciting various grunts, yelps, or even the occasional moan. Limbs are stretched out slowly, slowly, slowly, and then suddenly bent backwards in ways not intended by God. Occasionally, for the sake of sadistic humor, he throws a bucket of cold water over his sweating victim (to keep him from passing out?). Of course, with eyes squeezed, the bucket always comes as a sudden shock. The shout of the victim that inevitably follows is entertaining to the crowd of witnesses (which includes a few locals, amused by our American naiveté).

Bent in ways God never intended. And no, this is not us either.

At times, the tellak works the table from the floor. At other times he climbs up and stands on the table or even stands directly on us. A knee or elbow to the back assists him in the twist.

Later, Brad will comment dryly, “It’s been a long time since my heel has touched my butt.”

Apart from these exercises, he mixes soapy bubbles in enormous quantity and pours these on our bodies. What follows is perhaps as painful as any of his other deeds. He dons a gritty mitt of camel’s hair (yes, you did not misread this) and uses it to buff our hides. I yelp and lose three layers of skin in the furious scrub.

Ditto all of the above. Image from here.

All bent and buffed, we file back into the cool room, lie down, and melt on the vinyl mattresses. We are swathed in terrycloth towels and served hot sweet tea. As I sip mine, I am reminded of how the Imperial British of yesteryear considered such treatment effeminate, preferring their own cold water baths. I am also reminded of the public baths, or thermae, of the Greek and Roman periods. One day (I now determine) I will investigate the ethnoarchaeological connections between these classic structures of antiquity and modern Turkish baths like New Alnazar’s.

Dry, warm, and horizontal, Wilkerson goes to sleep straightaway. Occasionally, he snorts in his slumber. The rest of us doze waiting for our pores to close. I watch the television with one eye. On screen are two men wrestling in the 2012 Olympic games. One is in red, the other in blue. The two grapple, struggle for leverage and bend limbs in ways that God never intended. The locals who have gathered love it. The man on screen is a Turkish hero. Uraz tells me, it is “our national sport.” This New Man is not surprised.

Turkish wrestling god, Ramazan Şahin. From here.