Chapter IX: Istanbul

Istanbul, Turkey

November 2015

My mom offered to pay me not to go to Istanbul. It had recently been described in the news as a major gateway for commuting ISIS members, and the incident in which a Russian fighter plane had been shot down at the border of Turkey had happened only about a week before, creating a climate of uncertainty. She asked just about everyone in my hometown if they thought it was a good idea (they didn’t), so she could list their names in a kind of petition. I didn’t want to excessively worry my mother- I really didn’t - but my mind was made up. I had wanted to visit Istanbul for a long time. In my imagination, it was in every way the blurred border between East and West, a mystical city of Whirling Dervishes and Bond-esque espionage. I was also ready to escape Jerusalem’s constant stream of sirens and stabbings for a while. I argued to her that every major city was a terrorist target these days. Besides, it was easy and affordable to visit, and I was going. Thanksgiving in Turkey. What could be better?

My five classmates and I stepped off the brief flight and into a waiting van. Outer Istanbul was a massive expanse of modern buildings pocked with huge, identically built Ottoman-style mosques that had a metallic sheen in the rain. As we made our way across the long bridge that straddled the Bosphorous, we crossed into Europe and saw the Old City ahead of us, looking something like a slate-gray Oz. For the first time in a while, I felt truly giddy. We all exchanged cheeky smiles like we were little kids getting away with something. This persisted as we checked into our rental, which was a three-room, designer-decorated flat, centrally located on a cobblestone side street between Istiklal Street and Taksim Square. It was also right above one of the best traditional restaurants in Istanbul. Needless to say, were in good shape.

As the sun began to lower, we visited our fair share of candy shops and took a boat ride down the Bosphorous. We spent the evening sipping Turkish coffee out of tiny cups in a café across from the Russian Embassy and watching a bus full of well-armed police waiting for a riot that was clearly not going to happen.

On our last evening, we ate a large dinner beside the Galata Tower. We were all exhausted, but there was one more thing I firmly believed we had to do: visit a Turkish hammam. Unfortunately, I could only convince one of them, Ryan, to come with me. We only had a twenty-minute window of time to get there on foot, so we took off from the restaurant and ran across the Old City, up and down steep hills, across a few busy, multi-lane streets, over a long bridge lined with night fisherman, and finally, up the steepest hill of all and into the reception hall of the 18th century bathhouse. We ran up to the man at the desk, sweaty and gasping for air. “Are you open?” I inquired. I must have yelled it because he said ‘yes’ and that we could ‘calm down’. He pointed Ryan towards one door and me towards another. “See you on the other side,” I said, and we warily went our separate ways.

The door opened into a dimly-lit marble corridor, and, in stepping through it, I crossed into another time. Through one of the ajar doors ahead of me, there was the pounding of Arab drums and celebratory ululation calls. I passed by the doorway quickly and saw a flash of scantily-clad women in colored veils belly dancing. I wondered vaguely what I had gotten myself into... The hallway opened up into a large square chamber with a fountain in the center and bordered by two levels of wood-paneled changing rooms. There were two old women in towels sitting around the fountain drinking tea, and one of them gave me a towel. She didn’t speak English well, but gestured to take all my clothes off in a dressing room. “All my clothes?” I asked.

All of them,” she indicated clearly. So, I did as she instructed and wrapped myself in the towel, slipping my feet into a pair of ridiculous wooden clogs that were provided. She pointed to the next room, directing me to stay in there for a while and come find her when I was done. I shuffled in my clogs and towel into a steamy marble chamber with grand pillars and fountains lining the walls, and a large, circular marble slab beneath a domed ceiling. It looked like something out of a Renaissance painting, except for the three naked old women washing in the fountain and an even older one being vigorously scrubbed by an elderly attendant (also naked) on the center slab.

I had seen naked women before, but never this naked or this shameless. I had learned in my very brief education about Turkish baths that the center slab was called the “hot stone” and that I was supposed to lay on it. I had never been openly naked around people before and wasn’t particularly comfortable with the idea. But it seemed to be the norm here, and my competition wasn’t too fierce. I gingerly removed my towel, spread it on the stone, and laid down.

There was no applause; no looks even. It was just me, naked, staring through the steam at the engravings on the dome ceiling. I began to feel very relaxed and sleepy, and was enjoying the sound of the running water and the tingling sensation of the hot steam. I felt like a imperial concubine - in all the best ways.

When I finally sat up, I was startled to find that everyone had left. I ventured out to find the first old woman. She took my hand and led me back into the steam room. She took off her towel and poured buckets of water from a fountain on herself. Then, she spread out my towel on the hot stone and gestured for me to lie down on my back. She then began to scrub every inch of me with a rough piece of cloth. “So, how long have you been working here?” I asked, because what else are you supposed to do when an old lady with her boobs hanging out is thoroughly scrubbing your naked body? I was very thankful that this question launched her into a monologue in broken English of her life’s story, from her children, to her deceased husband, to her twenty years at this bathhouse. I told her that must be why she had such nice skin, which made her laugh, and it felt less awkward from then on.

After the scrubbing, she poured cool water on me from the fountain, which felt very nice. As she massaged me with soap, I was starting to understand the enduring joy of the bathhouse experience. She then took my hand and led me over to a fountain, where she shampooed my hair and poured buckets and buckets of water on me. I felt like I was being water boarded for a few seconds, as I had never been this thoroughly washed in all my life. Since I was a little kid, no one but myself had attended to my cleanliness, and it felt comforting to be taken care of by another person. I pondered the importance of bathhouses in the societies of antiquity and thought that maybe a revival would do some good in this impersonal modern age.

As I changed back into my clothes, I felt wonderfully relaxed and cleaner than I had ever been. Ryan had enjoyed an equally fulfilling experience, and as we melted into the seats of the Metro that was carrying us home, we both agreed that there was no better form of bathing.

I did not want to leave Istanbul. On our last night, I was awoken at 2 AM by what sounded like the Star Wars cantina scene rising from the alleyway outside. Instead of grumbling something about noise and shutting the window, I wish I would have gone out into the soft night rain, found the source of the music and danced to that Turkish jazz all night long….

***

The day after we left Istanbul, there was a terrorist incident at Taksim Square. It was minor, but just enough for a great big “I told you so” from my mom. I regretted nothing.

A couple weeks later, there was another attack, more major, next to the Obelisk of Theodosius. I stared at the pictures of the ragged, bloodied bodies lying just where we had stood. It was not the first nor the last time that I would shrink into the darkness of my own mortality, and that I would thank God profusely while also doubting Him entirely. Still, I regretted nothing.