I’d been in Istanbul for a week when I figured it was time to book myself in for a session at a Turkish Bath House. I knew little about them; just that somebody gives you a semi-violent scrub down.
Finding one proved to be easy enough, though as I walked through the door I filled with an instinctual unease that I’d just entered a men’s only swingers club.
I was first lead to the counter, where a moustache-with-a-bloke-behind-it asked me to pay up front. He was enormous, and I was somewhat confused by the request of scrub and massage prepayment. Next I was given a robe, a pair of sandals, and a towel about the size of a banana peel.
‘Why?’ I asked
‘It’s your costume.’
He then gave me a key and led me upstairs to a private room to lock away my clothes, and naked, but for my banana peel, I was next led downstairs to the main bathroom – The Lair of Cleanliness.
I had no prior visual of what to expect, but as he pushed open the heavy marble doors the main room opened out to a vast size – with rows of giant pillars stretching into the distance, and all reaching to the ceiling above.
Off the main room were other smaller rooms, and all surfaces; be it walls, floors, or ceiling, were made of a purple-coloured marble.
The entire place was steamed as though someone had left the chips on, and through the thick fog could be seen countless old blokes, all strutting around nude, but for their banana costumes. There were men sitting on marble chairs, others strewn across marble beds, some talking and laughing, and others splashing themselves in steamy marble sinks. It was as though I’d stepped back in time, like I was in some ancient world that existed in fables long expired.
The first stage of the process was to bake yourself in the sauna rooms, and my general feeling being they’re like a prison cell with the option of suffocation, I managed to convince myself throughout that breathing was best considered secondary.
After some time I came back out into the steamy lair, and was now starting to find the experience of hanging nude with the old fellas quite liberating. The situation certainly forced me to lose any self-consciousness regarding my physique, whereupon thoughts of ‘I’m too this’ or ‘too that’ were dying like the impurities in my skin.
I walked slowly through the steam, but it was then, that as if from out of a dream, the silhouette of a man appeared in front of me.
Be it nearly infeasible, he was even bigger than the Moustache-with-a-bloke-behind-it at reception, and as he drew nearer I could see he harboured an even beastlier moustache. He too was nude, but for his banana clothes, but was hairy enough, nonetheless, to be considered legally clothed.
‘Come with me,’ he ordered in a tone derisive enough to make me nervous, and thus he was – The Cleaner.
He led me into a private cubicle, about the size of a toilet cell, and as I stood there in the steam, he, without warning, put his hand on my shoulder and pushed me to my knees. I looked up at him with vulnerable eyes, and just to be precautious, locked my lips and threw away the key.
He frowned down at me, mean and contemptuous, with eyes twisted and haggard, like a scorn soul marinated in long years of revenge, and where I would have been happy if he were armed with a baton and bayonet, he was armed with a weapon that could strike fear into the heart of Tarzan himself – a bar of soap. But this was no ordinary bar, but fully equipped with built in razor blades, and a chewy centre made out of nitrogen and Tabasco sauce, was an ultra bar.
As though psyching himself for battle, he began breathing heavily, and although I knew not of the details to come, I was frightened, oh so frightened.
He doused me with searing hot water, of a temperature comparable to that Dad used when occasionally having the job of running a bath for me as a kid. My skin turned pink, only before it next turned red.
He then grabbed me by the hair and raised me to my feet, and with not a whisper of romance, grabbed my banana skin towel and ripped it off me, leaving me standing there like a cheese stick without its wrapper.
He then spun the towel into a thick twined rope, much like an older brother does with a tea towel before flicking his little brother, and then pulled me in close like a girl on the dance floor.
Half wondering if we were about to tango, we stood there naked, until in a second’s blur he wrapped the towel back around my lower half, leaving me looking like a Sumo Wrestler in a championship nappy.
He pushed me back into oral kneeling position, and with his breathing getting even heavier; it was then that he put on some gloves. ‘What’s he doing with them?’ I fretted, sighting that these gloves, not dissimilar to the mittens Mum used when taking a hot tray out of the oven, looked as though they were made of a cruel low-grade cloth coarse enough to fashion a tree into a toothpick.
He glared down and spat to the side, and thus the hands on battle begun.
It was an onslaught, a systematic invasion of my person and more, where I could scarcely decipher the tearing of my skin from the slaps across my face. The bloke’s hands were a blur as he attacked – with hot water being thrown about and soap being rammed especially into my eyes, I felt like I was in a crocodile roll of death but with the added disorientation of suds. This was not a war of pride or land; but a war of exfoliation.
I was down there, with my head at his crutch height, and while scrubbing me with every inch of his beastly valour, he for some reason seemed to be paying particular attention to my left arm, as he kept raising it up into a horizontal position, and holding my hand firm against his body. I was blinded by the suds, so could see naught a thing, and any time I let my hand drop to the floor he’d lift it back up and rest it firm against his person.
Time grew blurry, and as I sat there with my face at his waist height, and hand against his body, it occurred to me that something from his own body was resting in the palm of my hand. This something felt like a body part I’d never touched on another person. This something felt as though it were in two halves, or made of two neighbouring components. And it was then that my mind provided a visual of exactly what this something was – Aaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgggggggggghhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The world had changed for the worse, and violated and beyond I pulled my hand back in horror. I wished to stand up, slap him with my handbag and storm out, but whether by the slap of suds or testicle-induced shock, I grew weak and shriveled.
Weariness took me, and somewhere between wakefulness and sleep, I could hear a certain song rise into my head. I failed to recognise it at first, until with the assistance of humming I realised it was Roxette’s ‘It must have been love’.
This was without question the tenderest moment I’d ever shared with a man, and figuring I was already on my knees I braced to propose, but it was then that the soapy barrage stopped.
He glared down and again spat to the side, and as though in ceremonious conclusion of the kill, slapped his hands together before walking away. ‘And to think that I never knew his name…’
The chips must have still been burning, as the room continued to fill with steam, and as I slowly managed to rise to my feet, the silhouette of yet another man, bigger and more naked, came forward through the fog.
I frowned in awe, for surely – like an ancient god of half man, half strauss, and the other half retired racehorse – he was only just human.
It was like being faced with Conan the Barbarian, and I was convinced that he, The Cleaner, and the Moustache-with-a-bloke-behind-it at reception, were in fact a set of Babushka dolls in which he held top spot.
‘Come with me,’ he ordered in a gargantuan tone, and I figured he’d lead me back to reception where I’d be free to go, but he instead led me to yet another marble den with a sign above the door that read – The Massage Room.
‘Surely not? Surely the massage component was amid The Cleaner’s battering earlier?’
‘Lie down,’ he grumbled, thus becoming The Massager, and through fear of being eaten whole, I laid facedown on the searing marble bench. He peered down at me, and like a pizza chef before wadding the dough, he slapped his hands firm together. ‘Be gentle, this is my first time.’
But gentle he was anything but, as he dug into me with as much ambition as an archaeologist tipped to find the skeletal remains of two Stegosauruses in the 69 position. I was facedown, so couldn’t see his methods, but judging by the pain was convinced he was using an ice cream scoop to get out those unwanted knots. ‘Acceptance of suffering eliminates it… acceptance of suffering eliminates it…’ I recited the old Buddhist mantra, yet any time I made a noise, objecting to the re-alphabetisation of my flesh, he would grunt and spit to the side. It was like surgery without the anaesthetic, until, signalling the end; he slapped his hands together, and walked back into the fog from whence he came.
So if I were to summarise the experience – you walk in, strip off, walk around wearing an Adam and Eve tea cozy, are doused with lava, scrubbed, slapped, punched in the face, massaged and pushed out the door. Never again did I wonder of the inspiration behind the drive thru car wash, and feeling, at the end, as disorientated as I did, the requirement of prepayment therein made sense.
All in all it was brilliant, and I came out of Turkish Bath House softer than butter, and pinker than a slapped ham. But being this clean had its shortcomings, as the outside world next played host to an ensemble of threats – puddles, car fumes, chewy, and more. ‘Perhaps, like when ET wasn’t looking too well, they should have topped it with a bubble boy service door-to-door?’ I thought as I tippy-toed back to the hostel.
By David Kerrigan.