Belly Dancing in the Cemberlitas Hammam
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Article reposted with permission from Rayne Hall. This article was first published in Mosaic, a magazine for lovers of oriental dance.
“What are we supposed to do?” my friend Helen whispered. “Does the guidebook say anything about that?”
The bathhouse receptionist had handed us towels and keys to lockers, but no instructions what to do or where to go.
Helen – a student from my belly dance class in England – and I were on a winter holiday in Istanbul. The hammam seemed the most likely place to get warmed up a cold February night. We chose the most spectacular hammam of all, the Cemberlitas. By Turkish standards, the admission fee was expensive, which explained why this hammam was frequented mostly by wealthy Turks and foreign tourists.
Following the guidebook’s advice, we had paid for a massage, but had no idea where this would take place.
In a narrow, bench-lined corridor we consulted our guidebook again, and learned that the Cemberlitas was built on the orders of a Sultan’s wife sometime around the fifteenth or sixteenth century, and that it consists of two identical huge domed sections, one for women and one for men. Interesting – but what we needed was a map of the place, and hints on bathing etiquette.
Wandering on through a maze of rooms, we found a chamber where the air was saturated with damp and garments hung on hooks.
“We must be getting close,” I rejoiced. The labyrinth appeared to end here… but alas, with nowhere to go. Where was the actual bath?
Suddenly a hidden door snapped open and released a cloud of white steam like the plum of an old locomotive. So that’s where we were supposed to go. We’d better get ready for the action.
“Bathing in a hammam is naked,” I informed Helen, based on what I had read in the guidebook’s chapter on Turkish etiquette. “We’ll have to leave our clothes here.”
We quickly stripped off our clothes and acted as if our nudity was the most natural thing in the world. The keys fitted in the lockers. Leaving our garments and guidebook behind, taking nothing but a towel each, we followed the trail of steam.
As soon as I could see anything at all in the steamy cloud, I found that everything was made of white marble: the huge platform on which bathers lay, the walls, the basins, the gigantic dome above.
“And now?” I looked to Helen for support.
In the absence of the guidebook, she pointed to a multilingual instruction sign: ‘Do not bathe naked.’
Uh-uh. Here we stood, clad in nothing but steamy mist.
A hot wave of embarrassment rose into my cheeks. Sweat poured from my pores, and not just because of the steamy heat. We should have brought swimsuits.
“Uh – every hammam has different customs,” I said, but that didn’t help.
Should we dash back into the ante-chamber and don our shorts and shirts? Or perhaps underwear? I glanced around at the other bathers who lay stretched out on the central platform. Were they staring at us in our offensive nakedness?
None of them even glanced up at us two arrivals. And they were all nude, even the woman ladling water over her body right next to the ‘Do Not Bathe Naked’ sign.
I squared my shoulders, raised my chin and marched on.
Taps over marble basins provided constant fresh water. I remembered reading that washing over basins is taboo: you use the plastic bowls to pour water over your body well away from the basins. But I no longer trusted a guidebook’s instructions on bathing etiquette and resolved to quietly watch what the locals did.
They didn’t do much, except lie on the hot marble.
We looked around for our ‘massage’ but there seemed nobody around providing this service. So, we just stretched out on our towels, and let the heat soak into our winter-chilled bones.
Suddenly half a dozen women marched in and shouted commands. Old women and young ones, fat and skinny – all clothed in nothing but black lace briefs, their bare breasts jutting forward. Had we mistaken the location, or the kind of service provided here?
The masterful women snapped their fingers and ordered everyone to lie down.
They were the masseuses. Apparently, each of them had her own patch on the platform and her own basin allocated. Any bather lying in an unauthorised spot received filthy looks and angry gestures until they vacated the place.
What could we do? We obeyed.
Helen’s attendant was a cheerful girl who sang while she soaped and massaged.
Mine was an over-muscled brute. Her black lace brief was ripped and frayed, held up by a single intact rubber band.
“Sit!” she barked at me. I obeyed, and rose, only to be pushed back onto the surface. Grimly, she rubbed soapy foam into my face, so my eyes stung with pain.
I just managed to open my eyes for long enough to see how the soaping was done. She dipped a huge flannel bag into a bucket of soapy water, filling it up, then placed it on my body and squeezed the liquid out slowly. This oozing foam felt lovely like velvet, but was accompanied by forceful handling as the dominatrix boxed and pushed me into a series of submissive positions
A bucket of water poured out over me indicated release. “Good?” the dungeon mistress asked while towering over me with a threatening fist. I didn’t dare to do anything but nod.
In the meantime, the receptionist who had handed out the towels entered the steam room, fully clad, swishing her skirts. I recognised the tune, a traditional song in 9/8 rhythms. “Karsilama, karsilama,” I said. She responded with a little hop, and I countered with a small shoulder shimmy.
This signal was immediately taken up by the other bath attendants. Helen’s launched into a loud song; others clapped. My dungeon mistress grabbed her water bucket and drummed out the karsilama rhythm. She was a remarkable percussionist. I was glad her hands found something to beat other than my feeble flesh.
The girl in the skirt danced and was joined by another in just briefs. The drummer pointed at me, snapped her fingers, commanded me onto the platform.
She wanted me to dance up there? I’m not shy about improvising a belly dance, and had often performed for English Women’s Institutes, in restaurants and at village fetes. But in the nude? Wobble my bits without a costume on?
I glanced around. My audience were all female, as naked as I – or clad in nothing but lace briefs – so it should be OK, but it wasn’t. I needed something to wear, so I picked up my soaking wet towel and tied it around my hips.
Then I obeyed the command and stepped onto the platform.
Tentatively I made my first steps on the slippery wet marble. Shoulder shimmies, karsilama hops, one-legged hip circles, hip lifts, step-tips, all the traditional Turkish belly dance movements. ‘Opah!’ the masseuses shouted.
The rhythms became wilder, karsilama alternating with chiftetelli, maqsoum, ayub and other rhythms I’d never heard before. I felt like I was transported back four hundred years in time, or maybe placed into one of those orientalist paintings by Victorian male artists who indulged their favourite fantasies about eastern women in the bath.
A masseuse in slippers and lace briefs came to partner me in my dance. Hot steam, hot rhythm, hot dancing. Opah!
When the rhythms finally subsided into a slow sensuous chiftetelli, the masseuses requested to see what cosmetics we had brought with us. They showed a childlike delight in trying them all out, from the perfume I’d bought at the Duty Free to Helen’s special herb shampoo.
Later that night, on our way back through the cold, polluted-smelling air of Istanbul, I handed my guidebook to Helen. With her hair still damp, she stood in the neon lights of a nightclub to read: “A visit to a hammam will refresh both body and mind…”