Photos by Leonie Lohwasser
Istanbul; neon clings to the crumbling facade of the city. By day you visit a 1000 year old mosque where the passage of time is completely incomprehensible until much later, a fluorescent club provides some context by playing last year’s Rhianna. (like ,as if)
Feeling somehow debaucherous and grotty within my first 12 hours spent in the city, I went with my friend Ceci to a Hamam, a traditional Turkish bath.
After some confusion about which part we could enter ( a shopkeeper saved us from striding into a room full naked men) we found a women’s Hamam, somehow convinced them to stay open overtime and made our way to the change rooms.
We both confidently stripped our clothes and inhibitions, assuring each other that it’s not a real Turkish experience if we left our underwear on.
Imagine our embarrassment when our huge masseuse strode in wearing underwear. The kind of underwear you see at the back of the lingerie section and hold up to your girlfriends, tittering and wittily asking who, aside from a lactating elephant, needs a bra that size? God help you when you meet exactly the kind of person who needs a bra that size – a heaving mass of total womanhood that crushes any feminity you thought you had and leaves you feeling slightly ridiculous in your lace bra with the love heart charm hanging off.
Flesh coloured material clung to her heaving breasts and her grey underwear were the kind that probably should have been saggy, but instead stretched snugly across her butt and disappeared deep between two rolls of fat.
All of a sudden I found myself making a mental note to buy more beige, functional underwear. And that’s really something, when a huge, obese, hairy, sweaty, old woman makes you; a slender, smooth twenty two year old, feel kind of unladylike.
Like a pair of wet socks, Ceci and I clung to the walls of the huge marble dome, before being led one by one by the huge to the sacrificial alter – a hot slab of marble in the middle of the room where we were to be scrubbed down and massaged. Ceci bravely lay down first (not entirely sure she had a choice in the matter) and promptly jumped back up again.
“It’s really hot!” she pleaded. But our harsh mistress was having none of that and, grabbing Cecis stringy legs in her meaty hands,she judo flipped her onto her stomach.
Ceci yelped and I watched with a mix of horror and awe as the masseuse scrubbed her entire body with a textured, scratchy black glove of doom.
Moments later i was whipped onto the scalding marble and the glove that I had just watched vigorously scrub Ceci’s butt cheeks was rubbing up and down my face. I held my breath as an entire layer of dirty skin was peeled off before being sent to wash myself off while Ceci was massaged.
I call it a massage, i’m pretty sure no one else ever did. The ladies at the bath, with their three words of English certainly didn’t. At least if anything, the torturous procedure that followed wasn’t false advertising. Less of a massage, more a part of a meat packing factory line.
I sat, naked and rubbed red raw, trying not to feel weird as I watched Ceci being steamrolled by a fat Turkish woman’s huge, soapy belly. Steamrollering is probably the correct term for it. Ceci is 5 foot nothing and with each push of the massuese’s sturdy fingers, her tiny soaped slip of a body went skidding down the marble until she almost fell completely off.
Not wanting to make the poor girl feel awkward I concentrated on the trickle of sweat running down the massuese’s arse crack and collecting in a small, dark pool at the very bottom of her underwear. I was so mesmerized I almost didn’t notice it was my turn and didn’t get the chance to mentally prepare.
Sweat drippping from her creased brow, the masseuse kneaded my mottled red skin. On more than one occasion I wondered what soapy limb or body part was touching me. “Is that two arms or her stomach she’s using right now?” I wondered.
With a body now resembling a wet lettuce leaf, i was directed to sit on the ground as she sat on a ledge and, head firmly clenched between her thighs, began to wash the living shit out of my hair. There was something so incredibly maternal about having someone wash your hair. When she finally released me I was sorry to see her go.
Waving goodbye in the foyer, all of us now fully clothed I couldn’t help but feel a little cheap. Only minutes ago I was clasped between this woman’s naked thighs, but now she barely extended her hand for an informal wave goodbye.
Strutting through Istanbul’s streets would have felt like a walk of shame, if I didn’t feel so god damn good. That night we would take our baby soft bodies out to a bar where the staff
would push the tables to the walls and we would jump on chairs in an impromptu dance-off.
In the following days I would fall in love with Istanbul. It’s hospitality- shopkeepers bringing us ice cold lemonade or sweet tea as we tried on sneakers. It’s shops- hours spent in tiny shoestores ordering custom fit, handmade brogues. It’s friendliness- the time Leonie asked a fisherman where he got his thick raincoat and, not speaking a word of English, he led us down alleyways and into a cramped lift where, four floors later, we would emerge in a tiny wholesale store for fishing gear. Or when we attempted to go market shopping for vegetables outside the tourist area and every stall holder wanted a photo with us. The incredibly generous, but also incredibly business savvy attitude of everyone was brilliant. But most of all, definitely most of all, i loved the Hamams.