Four days after a suicide bomber killed 10 tourists and injured 15 at the most popular tourist destination of Istanbul, I took a good friend visiting from Kabul and my two girls to Sultanahmet Square for a Turkish bath and then dinner with chai. Tourism is suffering because foreigners are afraid to visit Turkey. Tours have been canceled and vendors complain of low profits and few customers.
But we live here and my friend Palwasha, who endures weekly bombings in Kabul, is fearless. We decided to support business in the area but more importantly, to delight in a Turkish bath and Thai massage. It was my girls’ first time. I grew up with bathhouses in Herat, Afghanistan for the first nine years of my life.
It was a weekly ritual with my mother. Herat’s bathhouses aren’t as well-kempt but they boast a similar history with blue tiles and the best “keesamaals,” the female attendants who scrub and rub every customer anxious to rid the dust and dirt from their body. In Istanbul, bathhouses are a luxury that can cost a $100 but in my birthplace, it was the only place with running water for many households, including ours. In both places, the trip to the bathhouse is an all-day event.
Afghan women in my mother’s generation filled square scarves embroidered in silk thread made for the bathhouse with clean clothes, towels and toiletries. They knotted the corners of the scarf and gave the “bokhcha” resembling a stuffed pillow to their daughters to hold. We took a horse wagon from our compound to the bathhouse. Women bared down and gossiped, it was a weekly venting session about husbands, daughters-in-laws and dinner parties. Their children reveled in the endless supply of water and warmth. My mother was the happiest in the bathhouse. The partial nudity (many kept on their undergarments) evokes an emotional openness the women didn’t feel outside the bathhouse.
After my mother washed and untangled my hair with an heirloom comb belonging to my grandmother, she dressed me in the sundry of outfits she had tailored. Then she removed a fresh piece of flat Afghan bread from a plastic bag hidden in the scarf and handed it to me. I devoured the bread and sat near the receptionist of the bathhouse waiting for my mother to finish her routine. I can still smell the sweet aroma and taste the lightness of the bread.
Our retreats to the bathhouse were an escape from the bullets ricocheting across the sky during the Soviet invasion. For that day, I could replace the harsh cacophony of war with splashes of water.
After the terrorist attack in Istanbul, it was the first place I thought of taking my children. The Cemberlitas bathhouse is a 16th century landmark of the Ottoman Empire. You breathe history inside the steamy halls. Turks love children and as soon as the female attendants saw them, they cooed and hugged them. They handed us our own hemp glove and towels. Locker rooms, hair dryers, plastic sandals, hair gel, skin moisturizer and robes were neatly placed in the changing area. I smiled thinking back to the limitations of my childhood.
Inside the bathhouse, my girls were hesitant and at first, uncomfortable with all that skin. But it didn’t take long for them to enjoy the water and warmth.
“This is like swimming,” my 4-year-old shrieked as she tossed the copper bowl of water over her head. My 8-year-old took more time but was fascinated by the female attendants who scrubbed the dead skin from women’s bodies and used a large loofah with bubbles to clean it off. Palwasha and I were in heaven. After the scrub down, we went to a different room for a massage and took turns entertaining the kids. A Thai massage means the masseuse can walk all over you and well, beat you up. I opted for a softer massage after my muscles resisted.
We spent three hours and nearly $200. My mother paid $1 for both of us in Herat. But that was the early 1980s in a war zone. Istanbul will remain a bustling, magical city with birds flying overhead, not bullets.
Then it was time for dinner and chai.