by David Rago
I visited a traditional Turkish bath, or haman, on a recent trip to Istanbul mostly because of the relentless prodding of my wife. She had gone the night before to a 400 year old “spa” just behind the Aya Sophia. It was her inability to say she actually enjoyed the experience, and her desire to do it again, one night later, that most aroused my curiosity.
Hamams, or at least this one, aren’t very much like the spas we’re used to back in the States, which was immediately evidenced by the cluster of men sitting in the waiting area smoking cigarettes. No Four Seasons mint-scented icy towels women shuffling quietly in white outfits, the gentle trickle of a faux waterfall, or even the soothing strains of the Sirius Radio Spa Channel. Just some brusque locals smoking Turkish tobacco.
Directed upstairs to the men’s “dressing room”, I was met by a brooding gentleman I’ll call Kemal. Kemal’s job consisted of mostly rising halfway from his iron stool and, with a nodding grunt, indicating the location of my “dressing room.” It was quite clear that Kemal was not being underemployed this incarnation.
I keep using quotation marks around the words “dressing room” because it more resembled a tiny cell for a prisoner who’d been very bad. There were a few hooks to hang my stuff, a tiny bed made of a sheet of plywood and a layer of padding the thickness of a slice of ham, and a room-sized window through which Kemal, hunched on his stool, could watch me undress. Sitting on the bed with my back to one wall, my knees nearly touched the other. I wrapped myself in a paper thin cloth towel with a surfeit of faded stripes which looked strikingly like the flag of one of the Caribbean islands.
Walking down the stairs to the main floor, I realized that for an Islamic country, I was scantily clad in the main foyer through which people of both sexes waited, some still smoking cigarettes. I was shortly directed through an old, large, brown door into an antechamber where I was met by a skinny, elderly, bearded man in faded jeans and even more faded plaid shirt. It took a moment or two before I was certain he wasn’t the panhandler who’d accosted me earlier that evening in the Hippodrome. He appraised me for a few seconds before pointing left saying “Toilet!”, and pointed right saying “Heat!” He turned away and disappeared. Since he said “Toilet!” first, I moved to my left.
In a flash of insight and premonition I thought emptying my bladder was a pretty good idea and then showered off because, well, it seemed like it was better to err on the side of conservative. I then moved towards the Heat!
To be continued…
David Rago is a founding partner of Rago Arts and Auction Center in Lambertville, New Jersey. He appears as an appraiser on the popular PBS series, Antiques Roadshow.