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Tarlabaşı’s “Hürriyet Hamamı”

December 17, 2011

[Published in Today’s Zaman (19th Jan 2012): http://www.todayszaman.com/news-269046-tarlabasis-getaway-hurriyet-hamami.html ]

It might come as a surprise to know, but after two years of living in Turkey I had yet to visit a Turkish bath until very recently. The fact is that hamams don’t really figure in the everyday lived experience of most Turks these days, so perhaps it isn’t strange that they also haven’t figured much in mine. During the Ottoman period hamams were considered important social centres, where the men got themselves washed and the women spent hours meeting friends and gossiping about the latest social news. Since this heyday they’ve been steadily closing down. Now only a fraction remain open, and those – particularly around the tawdry touristic theme park district of Sultanahmet – cater largely for foreign tourists. Number one in all the guidebooks is the Çemberlitaş Hamamı, an impeccably-restored historical hamam, built by Mimar Sinan in 1584, featuring in D.K. Publishing’s 1000 Places To See Before You Die. The price is the highest in the city, and I wouldn’t be surprised if its employees wore quaint period dress as they went about their work – you want the “authentic experience”, don’t you?

I certainly did, but was in the market for something a little earthier, something – to my own prejudiced mind – a little more “authentic”. I’ve always been intrigued by an imposing-but-exhausted-looking red building near my apartment on Kapanca Sokak, in the central district of Tarlabaşı, on the European side of Istanbul. This is the “Hürriyet Hamamı”, (or “Freedom Bath”), and if you try to find it in your guidebook you’ll be disappointed. Where better to have one’s first hamam experience? For that authentic historical deal there can’t be many more suitable places – the entrance is sandwiched between two bay windows protruding out into the street, underneath which outside are original signboards written in the Greek, Armenian and Ottoman Turkish that were once common currency around Tarlabaşı. If, however, it’s the authentic experience that I got, it’s certainly not one experienced by many locals these days, as the place was almost entirely deserted during my visit. With the planned “renewal” of Tarlabaşı continuing apace, it’s difficult to see how the place could survive. I’d put a regretful 10 lira on it not being there in a year’s time.

I walked in from a chilly December afternoon, and was greeted by the sight of a corpulent, grey-haired old man facing the entrance, snoozing on a bench. He lay horizontally on his side, his head propped up on a pile of white rags, a stained polo shirt barely stretching over a rotund paunch. He gave off a stale pong as he stood to welcome me in – not the greatest advertisement for a public bath you might think. Hasan was his name and, from the moment I handed over the 25TL for a bath and massage (“everything”, he said), he was fishing for a tip. I resisted, telling him: let’s see how it goes first.

Not being particularly well-versed in hamam etiquette, I was pretty tentative throughout my visit. I’m glad I took the time to sit in the “sauna” just before entering the bath though, as this was something unique. Despite the tray of hot stones sitting atop a dog-eared metal box in one corner (just for appearances), the only heat was produced by three industrial radiators, hidden underneath each bench and turned up to their fullest. Surprisingly enough the room didn’t smell too bad, although ominous patches of mossy dampness hung from the roof and down the walls.

The main bathing area however, (known as the sıcaklık), was splendid. A wide dome stretches above your head, studded with tiny windows like the diamond-encrusted lid of a jewellery-box. Of course – like Istanbul itself – they’re rough diamonds, but – also like Istanbul – that’s mostly where the charm comes from. The room is bathed in a half-light cast from these windows, and the tinkling of water drips steadily from the sink basins that surround the heated göbek taşı, or “‘belly’ stone”, in the centre. I stepped inside – still wearing my red shroud and sandals – and saw just one, solitary bather. That timeless image of the lithe, naked male, sitting bent-legged, bent-backed and dripping in soap, remained indistinct as it emerged through the steam from across the room. Whether out of arrogance, or absorption in his own toilette – this stranger didn’t so much as look at me throughout my entire stay. Brazen male nudity always comes as a shock, even when it is in a bathing context. I get exactly the same feeling of surprise in the changing rooms of a public swimming pool back in the UK. Nevertheless, off came my shroud, and my sandals: when in (new) Rome and all.

After washing myself once over with the sink, soap and bowl, Hasan emerged through the entrance and waddled over to my section to begin the service. He started by soaping me up and rinsing me down, before bringing out the dead skin remover. I may have been a neophyte in hamam procedure, but I’d heard rumours about this implement, and here I can only corroborate what I’d been told before: it was brutal. He scrubbed the infernal thing all over my skin, my whole body, over and over the same parts, hammering each before moving on to the next tender area. I closed my eyes in silent agony. It felt less like he was removing dead skin, more like he was ripping off layers and layers of quite healthy, quite live skin.

I dare say this torment lasted for rather less time than it felt, and once it was over Hasan rinsed the flakes of newly-dead skin from my red-raw body, before struggling across to the göbek taşı, and beckoning me over for my massage. I followed, gingerly lay myself face down on the edge, and tried to find the most comfortable position on the hard stone for my head. Things started fairly pleasantly: some gentle prodding here, some cautious probing there. Predictably enough though, things soon got rather more robust and rather less comfortable. All over my back, my legs, every pressure point was hammered relentlessly. Make no mistake: no concession was made to the inexperienced foreigner. I tried as best I could to stop myself wriggling around in discomfort, and found myself sliding uncontrollably around the göbek taşı, almost slipping off the edge because of the soap that was being slapped all over my body. Hasan manoeuvred me around like a helpless children’s toy: onto my back, seated, standing, arms up, arms down, legs crossed, arms crossed. At one point my face was squeezed against his own beefy göbek as he pushed his fingers mercilessly and methodically into the small between my shoulders, cracking my neck in both directions.

After drying off and cooling down, I sat down to talk with Hasan and one of his friends over tea in the lobby. I tried to draw them out on the history of the place, but I couldn’t get far. Apparently it was built in 1908, and from the look of it I can’t imagine the building having ever been anything other than a hamam. Hasan couldn’t tell me, as despite appearances he’s only been working there for 11 years: a relative greenhorn. He certainly felt like a confident, authoritative old hand though, and had well-earned the tip that he’d previously been fishing for. As with all massages, it wasn’t until an hour or two later that I really began to feel the benefit. I also felt a lot cleaner than I did before I went in, which itself couldn’t be taken for granted as I considered the “Hürriyet Hamamı” from outside.

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