After hearing about backbreaking massages and scrubbing that leaves people bloody and bruised, my friends and I decided Turkish baths would be a relaxing way to spend our last night in Istanbul. We arrived at a 16th Century bathhouse, split up according to gender and received goody bags with sandals, soap and an oven mitt labeled “scrubber.”
A man handed me a plaid wrap and pointed to a tiny room with a large glass window. “Change,” he said. There was no curtain so I strategically put on the wrap without giving the tourists in the lobby a free show.
Little did I know, I had to walk straight through them, nearly naked, to reach the main room. I avoided eye contact and opened a heavy wooden door. My glasses fogged immediately. With blurry vision I could see twenty large men draped in plaid scattered across an octagonal platform.
An elderly man grabbed my arm and pushed me towards them. I found a spot in the middle and cozied up next to two large and hairy men. My friend Zach arrived, but was quickly summoned to the octagon’s edge for his massage. I closed my eyes for a moment and when I opened them there was nobody in the middle of the octagon. Along the perimeter bodies were being twisted and stretched and I quickly realized I was going to be sacrificed. Having never expected to end in such a Biblical way, I closed my eyes and tried to relax.
A few moments later, someone tapped my foot. “Lie down,” said the mustached man as he pointed to an open spot on the edge. He put the oven mitt on his hand and stared me right in the eye.
“This your first time?” he asked.
I nodded as he violently scrubbed my arms. Suddenly he stopped and leaned over me. “Barack Obama good?” he asked. I carefully considered my answer. The stakes were high: I was nearly naked, seriously disoriented from the heat, virtually blind and he was holding my arm above my head.
“Remember the Wikileaks,” I thought to myself. I know Turkey and America are allies, but those cables were pretty nasty. He did not seem like a news junkie so I banked on him missing The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer. “Yes,” I said and held my breath.
“Hillary Clinton good?” he asked. Apparently, I passed and we were now going through the entire cabinet. I nodded and waited to be questioned on Secretary of Agriculture, Interior and Transportation. With a firm push on my side I realized the test was complete and it was time for me to flip over.
My arms and legs got a thorough scrubbing before he sat me up straight and pinched my nose. Before I knew it, he poured a bucket of water over my head. Like a baptism.
After what may have been a religious renewal, he slapped my back and motioned at something on the floor. “Silly Pey,” he said. I stared at him blankly. “Silly Pey! Silly Pey!” I was rather mature through the entire experience so I did not know where this “silliness” accusation came from. Also, who was Pey?
Finally he pointed to my silly peys, my slippers. I put them on and he sat me next to what looked like a toilet. Whatever was next, it seemed like a bit much.
He pushed me closer to it and washed my hair with a bar of soap. “Shower,” he said as he pointed to the bathroom behind him. I nodded and he slapped the palm of his hand and pounded his chest. My blank expression gave away my confusion so he did it again. “You understand?” he asked. “Of course,” I said.
I rinsed off and found Zach sitting next to a washbasin in the main room. “Do you mind if I meditate?” he asked. I gave him the go ahead and he went for it. With crossed legs and both hands doing the “OK” sign he hummed a long note. I poured water over my head and listened to the strangely peaceful sound of my Jewish friend humming a Buddhist tradition in a Muslim country.