Visiting the hammams of Istanbul was like taking a rigorous course in pleasure itself, a syllabus committed to exploring the granular texture of bodily enjoyment, and to proving that pleasure holds its own pathways to meaning, that it might matter most at precisely those moments when it seems most out of place. Life finds unexpected ways to make this argument. In line at the grocery store a few weeks after I returned from Istanbul, just a few days before lockdown, with my own cart full of diapers and Pedialyte, I admired the cart of the elderly woman standing in front of me. It held nothing but cookies and beer. Her cart seemed to be telling me, You’ll need those diapers, but that’s not all you’ll need. She had so many years of living under her belt. I bet she knew a fair amount about pleasure, and also about endurance — how each permits the other, and how impossible they are to separate.
Pleasure demands presence. It invites you to inhabit your body more fully; no part of you is held at remove. For centuries, the Turkish bath has embodied the seductive prospect of seeing other people’s bodies not simply physically exposed but also psychically exposed, caught inside the particular vulnerability of enjoyment. There can be a radical honesty to pleasure, a profound nakedness in surrendering fully to unguarded, un-self-conscious states of enjoyment. It’s harder to hide or dissimulate when you’re enjoying yourself.
Describing the baths in her 18th-century Turkish Embassy letters, Montagu was not only struck by them as spaces of exposure but by the fact that they functioned as a protected social space for women: “In short, it is the women’s coffeehouse, where all the news of the town is told, scandal invented, etc.” She was a foreigner describing intimacies she had no access to — spoken in a language she could not speak, fitted into narratives of her own design. What she was describing in her letters wasn’t so much the culture itself but her own fantasy of a certain kind of intimacy and female society.
Pleasure demands presence. It invites you to inhabit your body more fully; no part of you is held at remove.
But beyond the screen of those projections, a robust culture of public bathing has been thriving for centuries. Over lunch one day in Istanbul, Sabiha Çimen, the Turkish photographer who took the photographs that accompany this article, told me about the Mihrimah Sultan, a hammam she used to visit. It always felt like a retreat from the city’s frenetic bustle, she told me, another world within the ordinary world of the streets and crowds. A few hours later, I found its nondescript entrance above a staircase tucked beside a gas station on Fevzi Pasa, a busy road that took me past an evening-gown shopping district and a bridal-gown shopping district and a special micro shopping district that seemed to specialize exclusively in silken bathrobes.
The Mihrimah Sultan hammam had a different aesthetic than the tourist hammams in the old city: less elegance, more comfort. The lounge had a big-screen TV and three drooping purple balloons tied to the plume of a potted fern; a big plastic column full of multicolored drugstore luffas stood like a sentinel in the corner. Two attendants smoked at the top of the staircase; another emerged from the office with a tub of hummus in one hand and a plastic bag of simit in the other. Inside the hammam itself, most of us wore only the plain black underwear we had rented for five lira apiece. Instead of fairy-tale mounds of shimmering white bubbles from the torba, we squirted drugstore shower gel across our backs. The staggering grandeur of the old-city hammams had been replaced by something humbler, the dusky sky visible through portals cut into the stucco dome, its curves streaked with rust-red trails of dripping water.
The pageantry of luxury had been replaced by genuine sociability, and the women gathered all around me with their friends and sisters and cousins and daughters, perhaps talking about some of the same things I spoke about with my friends back at the 10th Street baths: the hourly exhaustion of taking care of children; the guilt and weariness and gratitude of showing up for work and motherhood; and never having enough of ourselves to do justice to either one. In that heat, it was always harder to hide anything. We were wrung-out and woozy, blissfully depleted; there wasn’t much energy left for dissimulation or sugarcoating. We were “stark naked, without any beauty or defect concealed.” At the Mihrimah Sultan, the women conspired and consoled all around me, chatting about the smallest minutiae of their lives and resting their tired thighs and exposing their C-section scars, testifying with their very presence to our collective faith that taking care of our physical bodies could help alleviate their psychic burdens.