WILD RIVER BOOKS
:Anatolian Days and Nights
The Steamy Side of Istanbul
Editor’s Note: – The following is an excerpt from Anatolian Days & Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses and Saints by Joy E. Stocke and Angie Brenner.
Our taxi enters Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s oldest quarter, through Catladikapi, the cracked-marbled gate. It rumbles over cobbled streets once traversed by emperors and sultans, and stops in front of our hotel just inside the red-stone Byzantine sea wall.
Happy to be back in our beloved city with its scent of sea and spices and its translucent light, Angie and I are tempted to watch the snow drift past the minarets of the Blue Mosque beyond our hotel window. But, before jetlag pulls us into honey-thick sleep, we leave our unpacked suitcases behind and walk through Gulhane Park toward the Cemberlitas Hamam.
When we reach the corner where the Cemberlitas baths should be, we lose our bearing. We’ve seen its namesake from blocks away, the imposing Cemberlitas Tower–the tower of banded stone–erected at the dawn of Byzantium by Emperor Constantine to establish the city of Constantinople, the new Capitol of the Roman Empire, marking the great road that led all the way to Rome.
Noticing our confusion, a chestnut vendor points us in the direction of a dank flight of steps behind a row of storefronts. At the bottom we enter a dimly lit lobby where an elderly man with a trimmed gray beard and a crocheted cap pulled tight to his skull takes our money. We buy the works: steam bath, massage, and shampoo, for at least twice the price of a typical neighborhood hamam. But, we don’t care for we’ve come to believe that our ritual cleansing in the Cemberlitas Hamam has brought us good luck.
The man hands us each a plastic chip, massage tokens, and shoos us past a group of German tourists arguing vigorously about whether to pay the extra money for a massage, and we see an apple-cheeked, bespectacled girl wearing a flowered headscarf.
“Lutfen, please,” she says sweetly. “Follow this way,” and leads us into a narrow, musty room reminiscent of our high school gym locker rooms.
Gone are the lattice-screened changing rooms with soft chaise longues and cups of hot sweet tea served by Ottoman slaves from the far reaches of the empire. Instead, the girl hands us scratchy, red-plaid towels and motions us to choose from a stock of cheap, plastic flip flops lined up beneath the lockers before turning to speak to two Italian women drying their hair by the bank of lockers.
“Lutfen,” says the girl. “Lockers are for these ladies now.”
One of the women turns off the dryer she’s using to fluff luxuriously curly hair and looks up, letting us know she has no intention of rushing.
“Take your time,” I say, but in truth I wish she’d hurry. Suddenly I feel cold and tired as our hamam fantasy begins to evaporate under the flurescent lights.
Several German women enter and jostle for space behind us, which seems to encourage the Italian woman to finish drying her hair. And she is beautiful; her hair might be the envy of Botticelli. She shimmies her slim body into a skintight leather skirt and soft cashmere sweater. A final flip of her hair, and she slinks past the German women who rush toward the meager supply of lockers.
But two of the lockers belong to us, and a competitive gene switches on. With a head start, we quickly take off tights, skirts, sweaters, and underwear before attempting to cover our now goose-fleshed bodies with stiff, postage-sized towels called pestemals. Designed to protect a woman’s modesty on the short walk from the changing room to the bath, these pestemals are so small they barely cover our derrières.
“Why did I remember this differently?” says Angie, attempting as best she can to secure the towel ends under her arms. “I feel like a stuffed grape leaf.”
“That makes two of us,” I laugh, giving up on closing the towel and slipping on a pair of damp, rubber slippers.
We pass through a cold, clammy antechamber and heave the heavy wooden door of the steam room open. Hot, moist air catches in our throats and obscures our vision. White marble walls and a high domed ceiling echo and amplify a rhythmic chant of dripping water and the beehive hum of foreign voices.
Like apparitions, women lay head to toe on the large hexagon-shaped platform of gray-veined marble called the belly stone. Breasts angle in all directions, pubic hair frizzes and fluffs in the humid air.
We cross the threshold, moving through a cloud of steam across the great room to a vacant alcove, one of a half dozen containing marble basins and faucets. Time changes shape, stretches and bends.
In the sixteenth century, at the height of the Ottoman Empire, the sultan’s architect, Mimar Sinan, a contemporary of Michelangelo and Leonardo DaVinci, designed the Cemberlitas Hamam. Baths were an essential part of spiritual ritual for Muslim men and women who would purify their bodies before attending Friday prayers.
But the baths held special importance for women. Except for a weekly trip to the hamam, women were, according to Islamic custom, sequestered in their homes, away from contact with unrelated men or infidels such as the merchant Greeks, Venetians, and Jews who handled most of the trade. Men were forbidden to enter the women’s baths and faced execution if they did.
In the hamam, women gauged the pulse of the neighborhood and learned the latest medical cures. A mother of an eligible son would examine a prospective daughter-in-law and potential bearer of her grandchildren by dropping a bar of soap. The girl would lean forward to pick it up displaying her breasts, hips, and all the intimate details of her body.
Preparations for the bath were elaborate. Women brought carpets, towels, henna for hair and hands, attar of rose to perfume their bodies, as well as sophisticated lunches of roast chicken, pilaf, and sweetmeats. Inside, a beautiful, green-eyed Circassian girl from the Caucasus north of the Black Sea or a jet-black Nubian woman from the banks of the Nile would lead the lady of the household to a changing room designed with polished lattice screens, sculpted fountains, and ornate wooden chaise longues piled with embroidered pillows.
While the lady drank tea in a delicate glass cup, her servant removed her clothes and shoes, wrapped her in a robe of spun silk, and slipped wooden platform sandals inlaid with silver and mother of pearl over her feet to protect delicate soles from the hot floor of the steam room. When her patron was fully relaxed, the servant would guide her through a dark passage to the great marble bath with its domed ceiling and waves of gauzy light.
Our towels are damp by the time we sit down at a basin below one of the domed alcoves and turn on the elaborate brass faucets. While Angie fills the basin with hot and cold water, she reminds me of something our friend Bekir told us.
“I learned about women when I was very small,” he had said. “Until I was seven, my mother would bring me to the women’s hamam. I would meet my friends and we would play, but we also watched our mothers, how they moved, what their bodies looked like, how they shampooed their hair. We listened to the neighborhood gossip, too. At wedding times, the women would sit for many hours painting their hands and feet with henna, and tease the bride-to-be about her wedding night. It is how I learned to love the body and the heart of a woman.”
A different kind of body too, we muse, since Bekir is always telling us that American women are “too much skinny,” and that like him, most of his friends prefer women with fuller hips and thighs.
Angie adjusts the water to lukewarm and fills a red plastic bowl with a round indentation molded in the center for gripping. The elegant hamam taslar – bowls hammered by Armenian craftsmen from copper, silver, or tin from the Ottoman days – are now collector’s items. In the twenty-first century hamam, they’ve been replaced with garish but functional plastic replicas. She hands me another bowl and after I fill it, we pour the water over our faces, letting it fall over our backs and breasts. The water revives us, sliding from our skin toward drains built into the marble floor.
Star-shaped vents in the huge dome unleash hot air into the sky. A light bulb sways from the center on a long electrical cord. The light casts shadows, revealing a craggy fissure that reaches like a lightening bolt across the high arc of the dome, caused perhaps by an earthquake. For a moment, the thought of plaster and mortar crashing on our heads makes us nervous, but structural engineers consider the five hundred year old bath, designed to move with tremors, safer than most of the city’s modern buildings.
From the raised marble belly stone, a woman sits up and wags an index finger at us. At first we ignore her and dip the bowl back into the basin. Her head shakes back and forth while she pats her hand on the stone. Her silent mime reminds us that according to hamam protocol, the rinse at the basin comes after the steam bath and massage, not before.
Reluctant to give up the sensuous pleasure of cool water on hot skin, we climb onto the belly stone and carefully pick our way toward the center. Smiling, the woman slides closer to her teenage daughter and makes room on the crowded platform so we can spread out our pestemals and lie down, pressing our backs against warm marble, easing toward dreams.
Her face flushed crimson; she whispers something to her daughter. The girl laughs at their private joke and reaches out to hold her mother’s hand.
Delicate stretch marks adorn the mother’s breasts like tribal scars; her navel creases like a smile into a soft mound of flesh as her belly rises up and down. Her daughter, with budding breasts and scant pubic hair, rearranges her fawn-colored ponytail. Taut muscles move beneath sleek skin as she turns onto her stomach and brushes a wisp of hair away from her mother’s forehead.
I touch the flesh of my belly and remember a morning long ago in a hotel in Athens, when my daughter was eight-years-old. Exhausted after a flight from the States, I had drawn a bath and we had taken it together, lathering each other’s hair, shaping it into question marks above our heads. She had laughed when the soapy question mark toppled over my forehead, and had reached out to smooth it from my face with a gesture as motherly as I had ever shared with her.
The air has grown heavy, filling our lungs with moisture. We notice the scent of perfume, unguents, soap, and something richer rising from pores, the primal scent of saltwater, brine, and algae. And then we detect the unmistakable smell of tobacco rising from skin. Our world of deodorants, powders, and body sprays hasn’t prepared us for this assault to our senses.
The door to the steam room swings open and four German women burst through it joking and climbing onto the stone. Elbows, knees, and pestemals scatter in all directions. Two of the women with short, spiky blonde haircuts squeeze behind us in the winding row leading to the masseuses.
The ease and confidence these women have in their bodies fascinates us. We think of our own culture where being naked with other women can turn into a competition for thinness and cellulite-free thighs, and where the desire for perfection is often accompanied by a sense of inadequacy, shame, and judgment.
By the time we near the platform edge, our skin drips with sweat, soaking our towels. The mother and daughter move in one direction while we wait behind a petite Japanese woman who slides to the edge of the belly stone for her turn with the masseuse. A skinny masseuse wearing matching red bra and panties fills a pillowcase with soap and water, squeezing mounds of suds over the woman from head to toe until she disappears beneath the lather. The masseuse gently polishes her client’s skin, carefully kneading her muscles.
Angie nods in the direction of the other masseuse on the opposite side of the stone who commands the teenage girl to lie down. With strong arms she massages the girl liked she’s kneading a mound of bread dough. When the masseuse bends forward, rolls of stomach fat fold into themselves, eclipsing her black bikini underwear. Heavy breasts swing back and forth as she roughly scrubs the girl’s back with a nubby cotton mitt until layers of dirty, dead skin slough off. She slaps the girl’s bottom indicating that she turn over and continues to scrub until the girl’s skin takes on the color of a beet.
“I’m glad we’re on this side of the platform,” says Angie glancing toward the skinny masseuse.
We’ve never seen a hamam so crowded, but we’re next in line and wait patiently while the gentle, skinny masseuse leads the Japanese woman to a basin for shampoo and rinsing. When the masseuse finishes, she motions for Angie and me to take our places on the edge of the stone near her. But before I have a chance to move, one of the German women sits up, letting her plump breasts fall forward.
“We are in a hurry,” she says anxiously. “Our boyfriends are waiting for us. And we are already late.”
“May we go ahead?” says her friend.
Without waiting for a reply, they clamor over us. Their pink faces shine with sweat and they look like they might expire at any moment from heat exhaustion.
“They’re probably meeting two young carpet sellers,” Angie whispers.
“They wouldn’t be the first,” I laugh, reminding Angie that we’ve known a few carpet sellers ourselves.
We watch the skinny masseuse take the women’s massage tokens and drop them into her cup.
But, the large masseuse has been keeping a close watch, and has already pegged the German women as her clients. When she sees that her coworker has just claimed the two women, she walks over, hands on hips, breasts swaying, belly fat jiggling, shouting in Turkish. She grabs one of the German women by the arm and pulls her toward the opposite side of the platform.
The skinny masseuse shakes her cup full of tokens, grabs the woman’s other arm, and tugs her back. At the end of the night, tokens will be redeemed for cash and she’s not about to lose them.
Conversation on the platform stops while the women shout back and forth, their voices echoing off the marble walls. With no resolution in sight, someone has called the locker room attendant who emerges from the mist, fully dressed, her glasses opaque with steam.
“Ladies,” she says, looking at us and pointing to the large masseuse. “You must go with her.”
Her breath ragged from the excitement, the large masseuse turns and scowls as if Angie and I are the cause of her problems. After more debate, the masseuses reach a compromise. The German women are returned to the skinny masseuse, and we inch off the belly stone, following the large masseuse to the opposite side, expecting the worst.
I slide to the edge of the stone first and lie on my back. The masseuse fills her muslin pillow with soapy water and squeezes, immersing me in suds. My nose tickles and I sneeze.
“Where you from?” she asks in a gruff voice, digging hard knuckles into my thighs and pressing my hipbones against the marble.
“America, close to New York,” I say reluctantly, knowing that the U.S. has been out of favor with many Turks.
The masseuse remains silent, and I wonder what she might be thinking. To her, I’m probably just another over-privileged woman from a country that feels free to exercise its power where it chooses. Or maybe I’m just another body that will allow her to pay bills at the cost of tired, swollen feet, and an aching back.
She moves on to massage my breasts and shoulders, and taps my hip indicating that I should turn onto my stomach.
“My brother, he lives in The New York City,” she finally says. “It is a great place, yes?” She points to her cup of tokens. “One day, I will go there.”
Lost, perhaps, in thoughts of a family reunion in a far away land, the masseuse softly begins to hum, gently working my aching hips and rubbing my tired feet and toes. She leads me to a basin to wait while she takes her time with Angie, humming in rhythm to the movement of her hands.
After shampooing and rinsing our hair, she sits between us for a moment at the basin, pressing our palms to her flushed cheeks. “Maybe one day I will see you in America,” she says.
“Inshallah, God willing,” we say.
Still humming, she leaves us to greet her next client already waiting on the edge of the platform.
On our way toward the door, we pass the German women lingering at one of the basins, filling their red plastic hamam bowls with warm water. Forgetting boyfriends waiting outside in the cold, they close their eyes and tilt their heads back in what we can only believe to be bliss.
In 2006, Joy E. Stocke founded Wild River Review with Kimberly Nagy, an outgrowth of the literary magazine, The Bucks County Writer, of which Stocke was Editor in Chief. In 2009, as their editorial practice grew, Stocke and Nagy founded Wild River Consulting & Publishing, LLC.
With more than twenty-five years experience as a writer and journalist, Stocke works with many of the writers who appear in the pages of Wild River Review, as well as clients from around the world.
In addition, Stocke has shepherded numerous writers into print. She has interviewed Nobel Prize winners Orhan Pamuk and Muhammud Yunus, Pulitzer Prizewinner Paul Muldoon, Paul Holdengraber, host of LIVE from the NYPL; Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of Upaya Zen Center; anthropologist and expert on end of life care, Mary Catherine Bateson; Ivonne Baki, President of the Andean Parliament; and Templeton Prizewinner Freeman Dyson among others.
In 2006, along with Nagy, Stocke interviewed scientists and artists including former Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman and Dean of Faculty, David P. Dobkin for the documentary Quark Park, chronicling the creation of an award-winning park built on a vacant lot in the heart of Princeton, New Jersey; a park that united art, science and community.
She is president of the Board of Directors at the Cabo Pulmo Learning Center, Cabo Pulmo, Baja Sur, Mexico; and is a member of the Turkish Women’s International Network.
In addition, Stocke has written extensively about her travels in Greece and Turkey. Her memoir, Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses & Saints, based on more than ten years of travel through Turkey, co-written with Angie Brenner was published in March 2012. Her cookbook, Tree of Life: Turkish Home Cooking will be published in March, 2017 by Quarto Books under the Burgess Lea Press imprint . Stocke and Brenner are currently testing recipes for a companion book, which will feature Anatolian-inspired mezes from around the world.
Stocke’s essay “Turkish American Food” appears in the 2nd edition of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (OUP, 2013). The volume won both International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) for Beverage/Reference/Technical category, 2014; and the Gourmand Award for the Best Food Book of the Year, 2014.
She is the author of a bi-lingual book of poems, Cave of the Bear, translated into Greek by Lili Bita based on her travels in Western Crete, and is currently researching a book about the only hard-finger coral reef in Mexico on the Baja Sur Peninsula. She has been writing about environmental issues there since 2011.
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with a Bachelor of Science in Broadcast Journalism from the Agriculture Journalism School where she also received a minor of Food Science, she participated in the Lindisfarne Symposium on The Evolution of Consciousness with cultural philosopher, poet and historian, William Irwin Thompson. In 2009, she became a Lindisfarne Fellow.
Works by Joy E. Stocke in this Edition
AIRMAIL – LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
AIRMAIL – VOICE FROM SYRIA
ARTS – ART
COLUMNS – THE MYSTIC PEN
FOOD & DRINK – ANATOLIAN KITCHEN
FREYMAN & PETERSON- Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir
LITERATURE – BOOK REVIEWS
LITERATURE – ESSAYS
LITERATURE – MEMOIR
LITERATURE – POETRY
LIVE FROM THE NYPL
The Euphoria of Ignorance: Being Jewish, Becoming Jewish, The Paradox of Being Carlo Ginzburg
Fountain of Curiosity: Paul Holdengraber on Attention, Tension and Stretching the Limits of Conversation at the New York Public Library
Paul Holdengraber – The Afterlife of Conversation
2013 – Three Questions: Festival Director Jakab Orsos talks about Art, Bravery, and Sonia Sotomayor
Critical Minds, Social Revolution: Egyptian Activist Nawal El Saadawi
INTERVIEW – Laszlo Jakab Orsos: Written on Water
Tonight We Rest Here: An Interview with Poet Saadi Youssef
Georgian Writer David Dephy’s Second Skin
On the High Line: Diamonds on the Soles of Our Shoes
Car Bombs on the West Side, Journalists Uptown
New York City – Parade of Illuminations: Behind the Scenes with Festival Director Jakab Orsos
The Pen Cabaret 2008: Bowery Ballroom — Featuring..
Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses and Saints
Daring Collaborations: Rolex and LIVE from the NYPL at the New York Public Library Composing a Further Life: with Mary Catherine Bateson
WRR@LARGE: From the Editors – UP THE CREEK
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 1
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 2.5
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 3.3
Up the Creek: Number 4.4
Up the Creek: Beautiful Solutions
Up the Creek: Blind Faith, July 2009
Up the Creek: Create Dangerously
Up the Creek: What Price Choice?
Up the Creek: Before and After: September 11, 2001
Up the Creek: Candle in a Long Street
Up the Creek: Crossing Cultures: Transcending History
Up the Creek: Man in the Mirror; A Map of the World
Up the Creek: Stories and the Shape of Time
Up the Creek: The Divine Road To Istanbul
Up the Creek: What It Means to Yearn
WRR@LARGE – WILD COVERAGE
UNESCO World Heritage Site Under Threat of Mega-Devlopment Sparks International Protests
The Other Side Of Abu Ghraib — Part One: The Detainees’ Quest For Justice
The Other Side of Abu Ghraib – Part Two: The Yoga Teacher Goes to Istanbul
WRR@LARGE – WILD ENVIRONMENT
WRR@LARGE – WILD FINANCE
WRR@LARGE – SLOW WEB
WRR@LARGE – WRR BOOKS
Freelance writer and illustrator, Angie Brenner, is a contributor to the online magazine, Wild River Review, covering PEN World Voices Festival and Los Angeles Times Festival of Books events, international topics, current events, political issues, and author interviews such as those with Orhan Pamuk, Elif Shafak, and Pico Iyer.
Brenner is currently writing a cookbook with co-author and Wild River Review founder, Joy E. Stocke, Anatolian Kitchen: Turkish Cooking for the American Table, to be published by Burgess Lea Press in the fall of 2016. Her first book, a travel memoir, also co-authored with Stocke, Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses, and Saints was published in March, 2012, by Wild River Books.
Brenner left the security of a managerial job to follow her passion and opened a travel planning service, Journeys by Angie, where she created personalized travel itineraries for clients that included researching history, art, and cuisine. Later, she bought and operated a travel bookstore, Word Journeys, in Del Mar, CA. For nearly ten years, Brenner nurtured her inner travel bibliophile by buying and selling travel literature. She closed her store in order to travel and write.
With a business background, Brenner worked in the health care industry in Southern California for several years, and later as Business Manager for a public school district. Yet, a love of travel and a curiosity of foreign cultures led her to explore Europe, East Africa, Vietnam, and South America. For over twenty-five years, she traveled the four corners of Turkey, and became immersed in all aspects of Turkish culture from food, to politics and religion. She is a member of the Turkish Women’s International Network.
It was during a research trip to Turkey that Brenner began to sketch and watercolor, and to create the illustrations that are included in her memoir. A certified yoga instructor, Brenner lives, writes, and facilitates weekly yoga classes in Julian, California.