As the child of Hippie parents and a graduate of college near Portland, Oregon, one thing is certain: I’m no prude. I don’t pay much attention to movie ratings. I’m not offended by nudity in the slightest. I didn’t even blink twice whenever I saw that strange ad with the huge naked boobs on every streetlight while I was in Prague earlier this year. And flashing the entire audience of a midnight showing of a production I was in in college with the other female members of the cast now seems like small potatoes compared to parading around in my skivvies in front of half my hometown for “Rocky Horror” last year.
But even for free-range Hippiekids with a history of being semi-naked onstage like me, the hammam is quite the intercultural adventure.
A hammam is a public bathhouse. Hammams can be found in Islamic cultures, as well as Islamic communities across the world (for example, I saw several while living in Marseille, France, which has a large population of Middle-Eastern immigrants). The word “hammam” means “spreader of warmth,” and the institution revolves around hot water and steam.
While in Istanbul, my traveling companion and I went for her first hammam experience. I had been once before, on my first trip to Turkey. The first hammam I went to was a much more down-to-earth, local bath than this one, but since it was my friend’s first time, we decided to go to one of the nicer hammams in the city. We paid at the door and received a towel, a pair of simple black underwear bottoms to wear (no bikini top), and a loofah-like scrubber, and headed into the bath.
What did we find?
Boobs. Lots and lots of boobs. Huge boobs! Tiny boobs! Boobs as big and flat as saucers, boobs as small and round as under-ripe lemons! Old boobs! Young boobs! An entire “One Boob, Two Boobs” Dr. Seuss book could have been written about the experience, except there were no red or blue ones to be found. Other than that, it was the boobie parade variety hour in there, and it was quite the sight! Amazingly, it still felt like a totally safe space. I never once felt uncomfortable lying there topless with all those other women I’d never met.
Quite honestly though, as a 23 year-old American woman, I had never seen so many naked breasts at once in my entire life. American culture simply doesn’t do nakedness. Heck, even when we have all our clothes on, we have the famous American “personal space bubble” to deal with!
…Which made the next part of our hammam adventure all the more interesting. Before my turn, we were told to lie down on the large stone platform in the center of the room with the other
boobs women. After sweating and steaming my way to total relaxation, I was called over by one of the attendants and told to lay face down on my towel. The attendant then used the scrubber and some luxuriously soapy lather to scrub me down all over. And when I say all over, I mean all over. I don’t know the name of my Turkish bath attendant that day, but I still feel like I know her very, very well. You might say we’re bosom buddies! Har, har.
Actually, that may be the best way to describe it, based on what happened next. After the scrub-down, the attendant gave me a short massage of my arms, hands and shoulders. Upon feeling the tension in my shoulders, she apparently decided to focus there and try to get a little leverage.
By smushing my face directly into her chest.
As I sat there topless, with my face buried between two enormous Turkish breasts, and a stranger’s hands digging into my shoulder muscles, I was absolutely bewildered. It wasn’t a feeling of uncomfortableness, really; rather, it was just total surprise, and a shocking wonder at how I should react.
And that is precisely what I will miss most about living abroad. The constant surprise, the constant challenge, the constant interaction with the “other” that inevitably leaves you contemplating the familiar. Why are Americans so modest? What are the pros and cons of such a culture? How does it affect our notions of sexuality, and feminism too?
What do you think?