How A Visit To A Muslim Country Revealed My Own Prudish Tendencies
“When you enter the Turkish bath your breathing becomes slow and regular, your mind calms down and your muscles relax.”
So said the brochure at the Istanbul hotel where my friend and I were staying for the week. We had just finished a difficult term teaching primary school in London. Maybe a day in a Turkish bath was just the thing we needed to let go of our stress.
Arriving In Istanbul
How did two female teachers, one American and one Australian, find themselves in Instanbul over the half-term holiday? Online research of course. I found an amazing deal for a flight + hotel within my budget. My fiance refused to go with me. He couldn’t bring himself to take time off over the half-term holiday when every other family in Britain had exactly the same holiday. The jump in holiday prices reflected this. But I had found a great deal so I invited an Australian colleague and friend to come along with me. She jumped at the chance to explore a new country.
The next thing we knew we were checking into a modest hotel located in the heart of Istanbul. The morning after our arrival, I woke first and decided to brave the shower room — a musty, wall-papered space that appeared to be a former bedroom. The smell of damp paper pervaded the room as I closed and locked the door. I tried unsuccessfully to keep the spray of water away from the wallpaper. At least the water was hot.
Feeling refreshed I unlocked the door and gave it a pull. Nothing happened. I pulled again, harder. Still nothing. Leaning back I put my full weight into pulling. The door didn’t budge.
“Caroline,” I called to my sleeping friend, “I’m stuck in the shower room.”
Caroline came over and pushed from the other side of the door. I pulled and she pushed. Finally, we managed to get the door open. From then on, we left the door ajar when we showered.
Breakfast was on the top floor of the hotel and consisted of stuffed grape leaves, olives, cheese, spicy sausage, egg, cucumbers, tomatoes and bread with honey and jam. The first time I looked out of the floor-to-ceiling windows and saw the delicate minarets and colorful domes of the city’s many mosques, I was charmed. The views from the breakfast room more than made up for my unpleasant shower.
Looking out the window, I was filled with the excitement exploring an entirely new city gives me, the giddy, stomach-fluttering kind.
My friend and I headed out into Istanbul. Wearing a long skirt and flowing, long-sleeved top, I hoped to blend in. With my dark hair and dark eyes, I figured I could pass for Turkish, but somehow the Turkish carpet sellers knew I wasn’t local. Not only that, they somehow discerned that I was American.
“American lady, hello! Come to my carpet shop,” they called. “I have beautiful rugs just for you. Free Turkish coffee if you come have a look…”
I tried to explain that I was an American primary school teacher who could barely afford rent in one of the most expensive cities in the world let alone a Turkish carpet. I didn’t have the money for one. Neither did I have the space in my tiny room in a house-share in London.
The carpet sellers didn’t buy it. I guess the usual American tourists had deeper pockets than I did. So much for blending in with the locals. I brushed off the carpet sellers with the expertise of someone used to brushing off street vendors in Tijuana.
Caroline and I visited the Blue Mosque first, awed by the 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles inside. Next, we admired the massive dome, Byzantium architecture, and Christian mosaics of the Hagia Sophia — the former Christian Eastern Orthodox cathedral. I was utterly charmed by the beauty of Topkapi Palace. Stories of harems intrigued me as I tried to imagine what life was like for its women living in what was essentially a gilded cage.
The next day, we went on a Bosphorus Strait boat cruise. We admired the European and Asian coastlines of Istanbul. From the boat we got a private glimpse of the palatial residences and exotic gardens lining the water. Cruising along in our small tour boat between two major continents was a magical experience.
Visiting the Turkish Bath
Finally, we booked a day at one of the oldest Turkish baths in the city. The brochure claimed that Florence Nightingale, Omar Sharif, John Travolta, and Cameron Diaz had all visited the bath.
Caroline and I went in through the ladies entrance where we were ushered into changing rooms. I put on my bathing suit and wrapped the small, thin towel around my hips. Together, we walked out into the steam room.
“No! No!” said a commanding voice as a woman rushed over and yanked off the straps of my bathing suit. Bewildered, I looked around and saw that the other women in the room were naked.
Blushing, I removed my swimsuit and tried to cover myself with the tiny towel.
“I am your Turkish Mama,” said the older woman as she grabbed my hand and lead me over to a warm marble slab. “Sit down. You relax.” Then, she left.
Caroline and I sat on the warm marble slab, breathing in the steam and sweating as we discussed our experiences thus far. We kept our eyes averted. After all, we hadn’t been friends for long. We were both new to the school. I was very aware of my discomfort at being naked. I knew it was cultural so I tried to let go and relax. I could see that Caroline was just as uncomfortable as I was. I studied the impressive dome in the middle of the room and the architecture of the oldest Turkish bath in Istanbul, trying not to look at my friend as we conversed.
“One day we’ll look back on this and laugh,” I said.
When we were thoroughly soaked in sweat, my Turkish mama returned. She grabbed my hand and lead me to a central platform where she indicated that I should lie on my stomach. Then, she poured buckets of warm water all over my body. She scrubbed me with olive oil soap and gave me a massage. I giggled when she scrubbed my feet. It tickled. I finally relaxed and let my mind drift.
The next thing I knew, she was tugging my arm and telling me to roll over. What? She wanted me to lie on my back. I closed my eyes and held my breath as she dumped buckets of water on my front side. I was no longer relaxed. Not with the front side of my body fully exposed. My Turkish mama set about massaging the front side of my body. This was new. Well, if Cameron Diaz could do it, so could I.
Next, my Turkish mama took out a loofah mitt and scrubbed my entire body. I couldn’t believe all the grime that came off with the dead skin. Even after my frequent hotel showers. After my body was thoroughly scrubbed and glowing (I think several layers of skin came off in the bath), my Turkish mama shampooed my hair. Again, came the buckets of warm water. I felt like I was drowning on dry land.
Finally, she pulled out a comb with the Turkish bath logo printed on it. “You keep this after,” she said. I looked around for the conditioner. I have thick, curly hair and never attempt to comb it without a generous helping of the stuff. The conditioner was nowhere to be seen. I gulped. My Turkish mama attacked the knots in my hair with relish. My eyes watered as she pulled and tugged. Chunks of hair came out on the comb. I winced as she worked on a particularly large knot. Finally, she was finished. I exhaled. She smiled and stepped back so I could feel my smooth, but decidedly thinner hair.
Caroline and I left the Turkish baths that day forever changed. Our friendship had reached a new level because of this shared experience. It was a day I will never forget.
As restrictive as many in the west view Muslim countries, it is interesting to note that in certain settings, Muslim women are more free from inhibitions than we are.
“Craft must have clothes, but truth loves to go naked.” — Thomas Fuller
Maybe being naked and vulnerable in a Turkish bath is a far more honest and authentic experience than a day in a Western spa…