Since no trip to Turkey would be complete without a visit to a Turkish bath (called a hamam), I read up on the local favorites and selected one of the fancier ones. If I was going to do this, I was going big. The package I selected included a massage, shampoo, and total body exfoliation along with your very own hamam-branded plastic comb and fresh pair of “knickers.” After handing over my Liras, I was quickly shuffled into the changing room where I was told to disrobe, wrap myself in one of their signature plaid towel-robes, and put on a pair of wooden bath shoes. They made sure that shoes my size were waiting for me outside the door. Nice touch.
The next stop was the bathing room. Here, a battalion of notably large and shockingly strong female bath attendants dressed in black, one-piece bathing suits lathered, massaged, and exfoliated their naked patrons with a loofah pad that could have removed the paint from a school bus with a few swift circular swipes. I was so concerned with the fact that my new tan was being scrubbed off (damn!) that I forgot all about the fact that I was laid out naked before a queue of onlookers, sliding around on a raised marble platform in a mix of soapy bubbles.
Before I knew it, I was being shampooed, rinsed, combed, and shuffled into the tea room. There, I pulled out my brand new knickers from the pocket of my plaid towel-robe, put them on as directed, and tried to register what had just happened. The whirlwind experience felt like something between Dorothy and crew's experience in the Emerald City salon...and going through a human car wash. I was certainly left rattled and a bit dazed, but, man, was my skin soft.
Sipping an apple tea, I thought about how glad I was that I wasn't being evaluated while naked. It’s not that I suffer from debilitating body shame or embarassment around other naked women. After all, the Madison, NJ YMCA was my second home for 9 years of my life...and we all know there's no such thing as modesty in those locker rooms--they may as well be brothels. Plus, I now live in San Francisco where "clothing optional" applies to everything from city parades to street fairs to club dance floors. It’s that the hamams play a dual role in Turkish culture, according to the hotel manager at my Fethiye hotel who gave me the 411 on the local dating scene one night.
According to my local informant, many Turks still practice arranged marriages which are set up by the families of the unwed twenty-somethings. Since the main community focal points are the mosques (where matchmaking efforts would be inappropriate) and the hamams, the hamams function not only as a means for people to relax and bathe, but also as a place for women to identify potential wives for their unwed male family members.
Call me bashful, but the idea of a suitor’s mother scrutinizing me in such a situation is a little unsettling. It’s hard enough to impress a potential mother-in-law when it comes to your behavior at her holiday dinner table, let alone in the departments of Body Mass Index and personal grooming. What exactly are the older woman looking for anyway? Diligent waxers? Tight tummies? Unorthodox body art?
And how do these moms know what their sons are into? I tried to imagine a Turkish son reminding his mom that it was his older brother, Mustafa, who was into great racks and that he was way more of an ass man. “Okaaaay, Ali" she'd respond knowingly. "Now run off to the mosque, and I’ll see if any sweet booty shows up today.”
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