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If you see naked women staring at each other’s bodies, faking a relaxed mind and nervous about what comes next…Congratulations! You are about to be laundry-dried in a Turkish Hamam.
We were holidaying in Jordan and after an exhausting 11 kilometre trek through the Petra mountains, every bone in my body was howling for a massage. My husband had booked an authentic Turkish Hamam in downtown Petra. As the name suggests, Hamams find their roots in the ancient Constantinople, modern day Istanbul; a cultural amalgamation of Ottoman Turks and Eastern Byzantine, at the geographic confluence of Europe and Asia.
Architecturally the Turkish Hamam is a cross-breed of Anatolian grandeur and Roman opulence – stone masonry, monumental arches, towering pillars and a magnificent central dome located right above the göbektaşı (a huge marble platform). Generally they have three rooms – sıcaklık or the hot room; ılıklık or the warm room which also hosts the göbektaşı; and soğukluk or the cool room.
Traditionally designed to perform the Ghusl, the full body Islamic ablution prior to prayers; they follow strict gender norms to conceal the opposite sexes from each other’s vision and touch, as it may incite vulgarity before worship. So, my husband and I parted ways with a passionate hug at the end of the long corridor where it read in Arabic – “please be dressed modestly”; only to find later that Hamams have starkly different standards of modesty.
Imagine my plight: in a conservative country, separated from my husband, and about to take bath with some complete strangers. At the reception I was pleasantly greeted by a beautiful woman, clad in a Hijab and the Abaya. After the booking formalities, she handed me a piece of paper which contained elaborate details about the ordeal which lay ahead. Even before I could begin reading, she served a hot cup of herbal tea and asked to hurry as the slot for my massage was nearing time. Her assistant literally hurled me into a changing room which had some nicely kept towels and a white long cloth. Recalling the ‘dress modestly’ caution, I wore hot pants and a tank top with undergarments (UGs) intact. The paper she gave me had pictorial instructions to put on that white drape, and I did so, covering every inch of my skin.
The moment I was out, the devilish assistant pushed me through a door; it was the hot room. Visibility was barely a few inches because of the dense steam and it was hard to fathom the layout of the room. Suddenly a hand-like thing came piercing through the fog and pulled me by the drape; and along came the first shriek of the day – Aaaa…aaaah..! Whoever she was, she made me sit on a marble slab and asked me to ensure steaming of every portion of the body as if I was a Chinese momo.
It was almost five minutes when I started noticing the Mediterranean-skinned naked mammas and grand mammas in the room. The horrendous sight of sacks of rotund melons and semi-naked groins scared me and came the second muffled guff of horror – Ohhhh! In the extreme right corner there were some well-chiselled European dames lying in a state of nirvana, in their birthday suits. I soon realized that it was the other way round and everyone else in the room was staring at my bizarrely overdressed self. I flung open the white drape, only to shock the audience with my tank top and hot pants. My modesty and modernity were both conflicting for the scene and it appeared as if I was the lone gladiator standing in the middle of the Colosseum, entertaining a skin thirsty crowd demanding more.
The following 30 seconds were the longest hour I had ever endured. I carefully got rid of those extra pieces of clothing and dared to be bare in my UGs. This marked the epitome of my nakedness in front of strangers and I wasn’t ready to go beyond this, whatever may be the TRP of the show. While the crowd was enjoying my striptease, once in a while someone came shouting a name, and that person would then disappear into the clouds forever. Longer than expected, someone called Basudah (Vasudha) and I knew it was me as Arabic has no ‘V’ alphabet. The gentle hands guided me to the warm room which had the huge marble platform and the central dome. The room was intermittently scattered with strands of sunlight coming from the perforated dome and completely naked women being rubbed ferociously by middle aged hefty wrestlers on top. There came the third petrified exclamation– OMG!
My attendant indicated a spot on the platform with her long fingers and asked me to lie down flat on my stomach. The platform was burning hot and while I was carefully acclimatizing my exposed skin to the heat, someone opened my bra and pulled my undies down to the knees. The act literally froze me on the hot marble and I couldn’t even scream. She covered my posterior with the white drape and removed the remnants of the brassiere. It was a while when I realized that she was asking me “are you ok ok ok?” and my nod communicated my submission to her. My fate was now in the hands of a half-naked woman who was kneading me down into a pulp and swirling my breasts like a washing machine. Apart from lying naked on the sacrificial top, I was also surviving the embarrassment of inadvertently staring at the nude rituals of my fellow martyrs.
She spent the next 20 minutes or so scraping and cleansing every secret part in my body with water, foam, scrub, a loofah like glove and some solutions kept in steel pans, having an uninterrupted supply of water. Someone said, “Masseurs are men of few words” and she wasn’t any different : A woman of only one word – “OK” and an infectious smile. One was surprised at the quantum of dirt she peeled off those unexplored corners.
The orgasmic climax came when she plugged my nose and then poured a cold burst of water right over my forehead. After some thorough mopping I was re-draped and left to dry in the cool room with a much needed cup of herbal tea.
The process was over and I had the luxury of time to cool down and dress up. Reliving the episode, the whole process seems to be scientifically designed to rejuvenate the living cells and de-skin the unwanted dead ones. In hindsight, if I remove the horror of being naked and afraid, the Turkish Hamam was a wonderful experience which relieved me of all the pain I had after the long trek.
Top image via Graphicstock