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Istanbul: Bathing in a Culture

My Scholarship entry - A local encounter that changed my life

WORLDWIDE | Friday, 20 April 2012 | Views [151] | Scholarship Entry

I zigzag through a menagerie. Vendors guffawing; teasing notes of roasted corn and juicy pings of fat from lamb kebab harmonizing; carpets unfurling in the bazaar, puffing dust. Resisting these Sirens warbling to my shrinking wallet and expanding waist, I vault a sidewalk fissure and vanish into a nondescript structure.

I am ushered to a domed room, wisps of sunshine whispering in, warming the central stone slab in a hushed haze. Via the ministrations and tugs of my wildly enthusiastic guide, I am swiftly divested and perched atop that stone, a goddess luxuriating in clammy heat and mourning the theft of her bikini top. Scents of jasmine flirt with odors elemental and earthy, sweaty and piney. Women, the matrons and patrons of this realm, gently embrace, gesticulate, and murmur while others use the mystic hour to float away, to ponder, to be. I feel tipsy, untethered, in a way last night’s sip of spiced wine could never mimic.

My bikini bandit returns in a flurry, cooing curious words, a forgotten lullaby. Her own body bears age’s furrows and tunnels, her face the sketches of life’s uncertainties, but her carriage is erect, her eyes glittery. She sympathizes as I wince at the onslaught of a vat’s scalding liquid; chortles as I stretch like a Slinky under the kneading of her arthritic, competent fingers; mirrors my sighs as the layers of inhibition and stress with which I gird myself, the cloaks of recent heartaches clinging heavily, peel away with the layers of skin she buffs with lavender. I feel her joy in this work, this work of soothing souls, and her joy becomes mine.

When I emerge, I know, it will be with memories of strength. The strength of this matron’s heart communicated by her hands; the strength of the women communing here, wordlessly teaching me that our bodies are sacred, never shameful; the strength I harbor in me and feel buoying me now. The overwhelming strength that swirls in the steam and cascades with the water in the caverns of the hamam.

Tags: Travel Writing Scholarship 2012

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