Roisin and I arrived in Istanbul on the last Wednesday in August. It was hot and muggy, sea salt in the air, and the noise was palpable; everywhere there were Turkish men yelling at each other (well, just conversing but the Turkish language is a passionate one).

As a reward for our big trek in the Kyrgyz Republic, we decided to treat ourselves to a Turkish Bath.

The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque

Cemberlitas Hamami: bath house on the tram line, at the Cemberlitas stop, just off of Sultanamet square (the Blue Mosque). A little on the pricey side, but not as expensive as some.

Through a nondescript door, the old stone building opens up into cavernous oasis, a reprieve from the outside heat. A water fountain tinkles gently, and people in towels and white rubber sandals pad around like Hindu cows.

If Kyrgyzstan was a physical challenge, this was to be a challenge to our modesty. 

We were given what was essentially a small, plaid table cloth and white sandals, and were instructed to disrobe. We passed through a doorway and into the main bath house, a steamy, circular room with a large marble stone in the centre. There were naked women everywhere. We found a space to lay down on the stone; it’s warm, like a sauna, and there are a bunch of tiny holes in the vaulted ceiling that let in the sunlight. 

A squat and hirsute Turkish woman came over wearing only a bra and underwear. She stripped us of our tablecloths, indicated that we should lay on our stomachs, and then she tossed a bucket of water on Roisin, and began to scrub her down with a small, rough cloth. When she was done with Roisin, she turned her attention to me. She’s brusque, business-like and didn’t miss an inch of skin. It was about as personal as a car wash, and felt like one too. When she was done washing my hair, and I was scrubbed pink, she ushered me into a second room with a shower and more women lounging in white, fluffy towels. From there, I was brought into yet another room for an oil massage. There was no place for modesty during the massage there, either; the masseuse was nothing if not thorough. Including the security woman at the Bishkek airport who needed some extra training in the pat-down department, I had been groped by three strange women that day. 

Afterwards, while waiting for Roisin’s massage to finish, I fell asleep in my towel. In spite of it all, relaxation mission: accomplished.

This is another experience that I will file into: glad I did it, will probably never do it again.

On being a Western woman in Turkey 

In a lot of places, being a Westerner, especially a female Westerner, invites a lot of attention. And why not? I stick out like a beetle in a bowl of rice. In Taiwan, the people would wave and smile, or if I caught them staring, would redden and look at their feet bashfully. In Bali, the school kids would swarm us, asking to take pictures with us and to practice their English; we were like celebrities. In Argentina, the men would make lots of noise when a woman walked by; each time, it was as though they’d never seen one before.

The public spaces in Turkey are all dominated by men: men work in the shops, hostels, restaurants, drive the cars, and they outnumber women on the street by 10 to 1. The men not only stare, they stop you and ask a million questions, and take you to drink tea either in a cafe or in their carpet shop (the shop clerks play the long game in sales). They are very friendly, helpful and kind, but there is always an underlying motive. Either to sell you something, or for something in the romantic vein. Wearing a ring or telling them you have a boyfriend does little to help, it only invites questions as to why he allowed you to come to Turkey alone, and what could be if your new Turkish friend were your boyfriend.

In the few days I spent in Istanbul, I was asked to dinner and/or lunch countless times, drank loads of tea, got a couple of job offers and a handful of marriage proposals. And there was never a break — even while eating dinner, Roisin and I gathered a crowd. 

While we were having drinks one evening, the group of men next to us joined our table. Immediately after one of them lamented Istanbul’s “man problem” (complete with a hilarious miming of a cartoon-ish cat call), with no trace of irony whatsoever, he went to pick flowers off a nearby tree to give to us. When I went to put the flower in my hair, he jumped up from the table like a man possessed, and ran off down the street. He returned minutes later with flashy gold and green hair clips for each of us. Turkey is like Kyrgyzstan in that way — if you indicate that you like something, they’ll give it to you. 

When I went to buy a bus ticket a few days later, the man at the ticket counter was incredibly friendly (and incredibly attractive; the men in Turkey are by and large pretty good-looking). Before we conducted any business, we had apple tea, shared our life stories, and he asked me out to dinner three times. Only then could I actually buy the ticket. Afterwards, I asked him if he could point me to a good hair dresser, and he jumped up, brought me across the street to a salon, and translated between me and hairdresser. 

Once I was ensconced in the salon, wet haired and engaged in a mime conversation with the hairdresser, another woman entered the salon and closed the door behind her. She had her young daughter in tow, a timid girl with huge brown eyes and the kind of curly hair I’ve always wanted, who cried when the hair dryer was turned on. For the first and only time in my Turkey experience, there were no men around. 

The woman, who was wearing a head scarf and long sleeves, asked the hair dresser: “no men?” The hairdresser responded in the affirmative and the woman unwound her scarf, shed her layers, and sank comfortably into the seat. The three of us didn’t share a common language (the other woman spoke Arabic, I think), but we spent a really pleasant hour together, unravelling from the testosterone-overloaded streets, and enjoyed a quiet, intimate space just for us girls.

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