Hammam

Public bathing is a part of many cultures, from Scandinavia to East Asia. (I grew up going to public baths and love a good scrubbing.) Perhaps the most famous bathing culture, however, is the Roman one (I and many others probably have been in almost as many Roman bath ruins as actual functioning modern baths), which survives today all over the Middle East (though, as far as I know, not in Italy). In this post, I thought I would describe the experience of visiting an Arab hammam (pretty similar to Turkish hamams, at least from my limited experience).

In Syria, hammams are located all over the older parts of cities, sometimes just blocks from each other. Some hammams, especially the older and nicely refurbished ones located in central areas, attract some tourists and are accustomed to our relative inexperience with bathing protocol. Although some hammams have occasional hours for women, public bathing is more a masculine habit.

You enter the hammam, which is often located a few steps under street level, into a large open room (in Latin, apodyterium), which has platform seating lining the walls. This is the room in which you start and finish your hammam experience, in the beginning by removing your clothes. A hammam attendant furnishes you with a towel that you use to cover yourself at all times in the hammam (despite the fact that you are in a male-only environment, being completely naked is forbidden–more on this below).

From that open room, you go through a series of sequential rooms, ranging from cool (in Latin, frigidarium) to warm (tepidarium) to hot (caldarium). There are small rooms branching out, where you do most of your washing by scooping water from drainless basins that you fill with faucets. There is usually a steam room as well. In the Turkish baths I have been to, there is a large (often octagonal) marble platform in the central domed chamber, on which you can rest, and be scrubbed and massaged by attendants. In the Syrian baths I have been to so far, there is no such platform, the scrubbing and massaging being done on the floor in a separate area. [Some Syrian baths date from the Ottoman period, but many are much older.] When you’re done, you go back to the main room at the entrance, where your wet towel is replaced by a dry one, and additional dry towels draped on your torso and wrapped around your head. There, you sit and relax, drink tea, smoke nargileh, watch television, read a paper, whatever, until you are ready to leave.

Back to nudity, or the prohibition thereof. The strangest thing to me about the Arab/Turkish bathing experience is that you are always partially covered. In Turkey, at least in my experience, this is done with a relatively small piece of cloth (“pestemal”), which remains at least partially on (covering your genitals) but still gives you sufficient access to clean effectively. In Syria (and presumably other parts of the Arab world), the cloth is closer to a full-fledged, large (though thin) towel, making clean your nether regions a little trickier (though still doable). To someone coming from a nude bathing culture, to be naked while washing seems somewhat obvious. (I have not been to a Scandinavian bath, but I imagine in the enlightened north they even have nude co-ed bathing facilities–but I could be wrong.) Even in the non-bathing West, public nudity is something we grow accustomed to in lockerrooms and does not cause undue anxiety. (One hotel gym we saw had private changing stalls within the men’s lockerroom–I assume this is universal in the Arab world as well.) I do not know the history, but presumably the Romans (even if they did not love nudity as much as the Greeks) bathed nude. Perhaps the towel was a Christian Byzantine invention (although I believe that in the Byzantine period bathing as a whole was viewed as something of a pagan excess) or a Muslim one (lovers of modesty).

I think staying covered eliminates suggestions of homosexual curiosity and activity, which might otherwise be associated with an all-male environment. It is as if it is feared that, were the towels to come off, the hammam would turn into one huge orgy, people unable to contain themselves. And such fears are not totally unfounded. In Ottoman times, Turkish hamams were so well-known for offering (on a pay basis) same-sex sexual services that gay men are still called, in Turkish, “bath boys.” We heard from one Arab man that his parents told him when he was young not to go to hammams. He didn’t realize it at the time, but he knows as an adult that it was because they feared him being exposed to “inappropriate” sexual activity, which is apparently surprisingly common. When we discreetly revealed to a shopkeeper in the Aleppo souk that we were a couple, one of the first things he said was to ask whether we had visited a hammam, as though it were something we particularly would find of interest.

Keep your distance! Painted on a wall outside a hammam in Damascus.

And, perhaps the most revealing and surprising story: Back in 2001, when we were visiting Turkey, we met a ferry captain who was very friendly to us, largely because he had had positive experiences with my compatriots. Now, this middle-aged man was clearly heterosexual–he was married with children and kept sharing with us (in a typically macho Turkish manner) his various sexual exploits while sailing the world. He let us ride in the front of his boat in Istanbul and offered to take us around with his wife around his neighborhood, an offer we did not take him up on. As part of his neighborhood tour, he said he could take us to a hamam, a real good one that wouldn’t rip us off (some do, offering tourists really substandard service for inflated rates) but provide full service for (I believe it was) about ten dollars. The shocking part was the hand gesture he made when he said that the service would be complete–the universal motion for male masturbation. He sort of laughed it off afterward, but it was not at all clear that he was joking. Ever since then, we were wondering–do middle-aged, straight Turkish men really go get handjobs in hamams? The more I learn about hammams/hamams, I think the answer may be yes.

9 thoughts on “Hammam

  1. Three of us in Turkey went to our first hammam and took it all off. It was in Urgup, and nobody else was there, so we had no idea that the supplied towel was supplied to cover one’s self. I believe the Lonely Planet didn’t say anything about it either, or, at least, we didn’t read it if it did. I wonder if the employees (to the extent they saw us — I don’t remember their coming into the room with the octagonal table) thought of us as ugly Americans.

    Later, in Istanbul, we ran into three American girls (who, coincidentally, happened to be students at our same school, also on Spring Break), who told us that, in the Istanbul women’s hammam, there were girls running around naked (IIRC, they used the word “nympho”). I suppose that, assuming Turkish women don’t generally bathe at hammams, there would be no local protocol for the touristy women’s hammam, and so Western and/or Far Eastern bathing standards would be in effect there.

  2. I made many hammam experiences in turkey and I can say that the “rules” with regard to men are not so strict as they are described in travel book guides. There you find always the same instructions: Men never take off the towel.” But in reality you find the whole range from strict keeping to this rule to a relaxed part-time nakedness. There are also “family”-hammams in turkey that can be visited together by men and women. I was astonished how “naked” it was, when I visited the first time such a hammam in the old town of Antalya.

    Now another topic: Homosexuality under turkish men. I quote Paul:

    “Now, this middle-aged man was clearly heterosexual–he was married with children and kept sharing with us (in a typically macho Turkish manner) his various sexual exploits while sailing the world.”

    Sorry, I had to laugh when I read these lines. I can tell you from my experiences and also from reports: Turkish men marry like all turkish men do, but that has nothing to do with their sexual orientation. They never would call themselves “gay” and also I think thats not the right term for them. Turkish men are just hot and horny and they use all opportunities to “relax”. Even a family father may try to make sex with a male tourist or visit a hammam at the weekend where he can have some fun with men. I had sex in turkey with all kind of men: young single men, men with girlfriends, middle-aged family fathers. What I learned from my experiences and reports from other men is: The dualism of “gay” and “straight” which is used so often in the western world is totally naive! For me its clear: Most men are not “gay” or “straight”, they just “behave” straight or gay, depending from the setting and the situation. Men are good “actors” and you always have to look behind the curtain. Bad news for all the romantic women in the world!

  3. I agree that it’s not always helpful using the terms gay and straight for men in the Near East and north Africa. Some people do use the terms about themselves but their attitudes are different from gay men in Western countries. They see things in much more active/passive terms. Taking the active role means you keep your masculine identity. That’s what matters.

    I think the issue of male nudity at the baths follows on from this. If a man exposes himself to you it means he wants to take the active role in sex. I’ve known masseurs who will expose themselves to you but who will disapprove if they think your pashtamel is about to slip. Covering up is not about modesty, it’s about decorum ie behaviour that won’t cause a problem. (Eye contact works in the same way. It expresses interest and desire and for this reason people all over the region often avoid public eye contact.) Charles

  4. The article is very interesting but there are more question that answers for me i guess.

    just to make a few general comments.

    i was curious to know how strictly people follow the “no nudity” rules, whether male or female.it seems there is levels of relaxations in strict. this is a sigh of relief actually because when i bathe i prefer to be nude…the feeling of a wet towel rubbing on skin is not comfortable.

    anonymous made an interesting point. now that i think about it, it makes sense that there is this unspoken dominance/masculinity involved in turkish society. and i don’t think the hammams are excluded from it too.

    I have heard personal accounts about the tellaks. Such as they may purposely pull away the towel of a foreign guy while giving the massage, is this true? if so, i’m guessing its from curiosity.

    also the article’s author’s rephrasing of his Turkish sailor friend’s comments on getting a complete massage( with a handjob) was preformed by a tellek, i’m guessing. curious. how and where would you arrange that in a hammam? if others see wouldn’t they tell the people at the front counter?

    About the tellaks in general, how do you know if he is trying to come on to you? is a eye contact, a physical gesture? i ask because there is a certain level of curiosity here.

  5. Nudity in Syria is quite diverse. Sometimes you find somebody who is naked at the hammam, even in front of same sex partners

  6. I lived in the Antalya region of Turkey for 6 years. I love the hammam experiences I had there and that includes many sexual encounters though I must have spent longer talking and drinking tea with masseurs than I did being putty in their fingers.

    As has been said, the hammam is essentially a male-only domain, especially out of the tourist season. I would not describe myself as gay but just open minded and often short of close company while I lived in Turkey. Sexual acts were offered so disarmingly casually and in friendship rather than passion.

    The massages were often incredibly physically close and a masseur who got hard seemed to like me to know about it by pressing it against me during the massage. If I looked into his eyes, that would be my invitation for more. Sometimes more than I wanted. I had full penetration once and did not like it. There were a few other attempts from other masseurs that I always managed to refuse without any issue. The masseurs I got to know well knew how to push all my buttons without penetration or masturbation and they did it relentlessly.

    I have never experienced anything like it before or since. I still don't know whether these experiences were sexual, physical, soulful or a mixture of all three. They were what they were.

  7. I've been to a hamam in Saudi Arabia where a filippino guy washes you and masturbates you. I like the experience and I assume all you have to do with the Turkish guy washing you is caress his penis and he'll take care of you. I just don't get it why everybody writes in such an enigmatic way, just say exactly what happened rather than give hints.

  8. I have been to a morrocan bath in Saudi Arabia at one of the hotels in Riyadh and a filippino guy touches your dick to clean and gets it erect and then masturbates you. Another one at the same place, giving me a massage a bit sensual at the end mentioned that he never seen an uncut cock before and I asked him if he wanted to touch it, it was probably the most sexual touch of my dick I ever encountered and then he told me to lie on the massage table and he’ll masturbate me. I started touching his dick as well and it was tiny. From what I found out later this is a typical practice in the gulf area, when you see moroccan bath or massages for men only offered by men then they will even penetrate your ass if you want. Some other instances in Dubai, the situation is the same, an arab guy starts massaging my ass and then when I responded by moving my ass up in the air it was the green light to start touching my dick

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