Men have the barbershop. Men have the çay house. Places where men can be men, uninhibited and unencumbered. Having grown to love the occasional hamam visit in Turkey, I realize that I relish the experience for the momentary embrace into a completely female space. Its humid and echoing recesses are soothing, with the constant gurgling of water flowing through its drains- small rivers taking away our grime, the ritual of cleansing. It's a place for heart to hearts, catching up, confessions, and relaxation. Modesty is cast aside and bodies exist in their most honest form- sagging breasts, ample flesh and all. The spectrum of variety of the female body is on display- from fresh teenage bodies to creased and timeworn ones that have borne children and worked with their hands. All of these bodies sit sprinkled around the hamam like notches on a clock- a timeline of our time on this earth.
During my time in Istanbul, my preferred choice of hamam has been Çinili Hamam in Üsküdar. Trips there starting with an early morning, groggy-eyed ferry ride on the overcast days of winter alone or with friends. Once on the Asian side we'd snake through Üsküdar's back streets, often forgetting which way to go, but eventually ending up at its humble entrance after a long meander- the sinuous walk there an accepted part of the experience. After stripping down to underwear and wrapping up in a checkered hamam towel, we'd shuffle into the warm womb of its central room, where bodies large and small were kneaded like lumps of dough on the central marble slab. We'd find an empty sink to begin our cleaning process, and, while soaping up and rinsing with the provided pan, bare the sagas of our lives to be kneaded over amongst friends, like the bodies on the slab. We discussed decisions large and small, shared funny stories and frustrations, strengthening the bond that women weave through conversation in wait of our turn to get scrubbed.
This weekend, Melody and I ventured to Kocamustafapaşa Hamamı- one we'd never tried before. I'd heard about it during my interview of Olivia Cumming of Cleopatra's Bling, who mentioned that they used Turkish coffee in their scrub. The novelty of this was an immediate draw. Like most hamam experiences, getting there was a journey. We took the tram to Yusufpaşa and walked the rest of the way. This part of Fatih was also new to us and we soaked up the sights and sounds of a new place, along with the welcome springtime sun. After several twists and turns, the street opened up to a small square on which stood the hamam. We entered and asked for the works.
Walking into the heated section, we saw a mother sitting on the tiled floor with her teenage daughter sitting between her legs. The mother washed her daughter's hair as if she were washing sheets by hand- grabbing locks and vigorously rubbing them together. The girl squeezed her eyes shut while spitting out suds of water and catching her breath as soap dripped over her face and her head shook to the rough tugging of her mother's movements. She seemed a little too old for this treatment, but at the same time, she exemplified the return to childhood and bath time that is the hamam experience, when you completely surrender yourself to someone else to be scoured from head to toe.
We pushed further into the rose petal pink room and found a vacant nook in the far corner. The room echoed like a cave and the echoes had a tinny, metallic quality. The mother scolded her daughter in a shrill, thorny voice that reverberated sharply off the moisture-laden walls. We hung our hamam towels from a jutting pipe and joined in the cleansing ritual.
Finally, it was time for the kese- or scrub- and massage. We were called to the slab and directed by one-word instructions to sit, come, and turn over. It was refreshing to completely relinquish control and just let myself be guided. The scrub was thorough and felt incredible. When it came time for the coffee scrub, the women opened up packets of Mehmet Efendi coffee (a detail that had my jewelry class peeling over in laughter when I told them) and dumped mounds of the powder on our bodies, filling the room with the comforting and earthy scent of roasted beans and Sunday mornings. Grounds got in our eyes and mouths, but the experience of being rubbed by their gentle coarseness was heavenly. We lingered a bit longer after our scrub and then gathered our things to leave.
Outside the steamy room, the women who worked in the hamam took a break. A grease-soaked takeout cardboard box of hamsi sat between them on a low table. They sat, ate, and smoked, cigarettes hanging at the edge of their lips as they multitasked, half-naked. A soap opera flickered through the bouts of static on a small TV and lively conversation swelled the air. The occasional disagreement spiked the noise level to high-pitched squawking, reminiscent of groups of seagulls astir. The women were kind, though, and quick to smile. This was their territory, the hamam, a woman zone.