Growing up in the Istanbul of the 60’s, we were accustomed to shortages of basic necessities as a way of life. Included among these was running water and electricity. These services were not continuous. The city was rapidly growing beyond its capability to provide infrastructure. The country was relatively poor, still reeling from its turn of the century wars, and the deprivations of the Second World War it had deftly avoided. Modernization was along the way, but in fits and spurts. The European side of Istanbul was the most modern; still utilities were a constant headache..
As a child, I naturally was unconcerned about the socio-political origins of our predicament. It was simply a fact of life. Everyone was experiencing it; so, no one felt particularly disadvantaged. But this did not prevent my mother for cursing the government when services got interrupted unexpectedly.
Running water was on only during daytime work hours, eight-to-five. At night, we cleaned with bowls of water, but could not take showers or baths. Our bath schedule was once a week, on Thursdays. As I look back, the choice of Thursday was, most likely a Jewish consideration. As the week approached the Sabbath, all cleaning occurred on Thursdays, and all cooking on Fridays. There was one little problem with this scheme that now dawns on me as an adult: we were not observant Jews. We did not even so much as light a candle on Friday nights, let alone go to the synagogue, or observe the various prohibitions of the Sabbath.. It was simply tradition that descended from prior generations, unmoored from its pious origins. To be sure, there were plenty of observant Jews in Istanbul. Yasef and Sara Senegor, my parents were not included. Nonetheless Sara still yelled at our cab driver Karakash Bey, who shuttled me and Yomtov back and forth to school, to make sure we were back home before five for our weekly Thursday bath, before the water shut off.
I found nothing peculiar about weekly baths, nor weekly change of socks and underwear. Like the interrupted water and electricity, it was our way of life. Indeed, I once read in the paper that Germans changed their underwear every day. I was so surprised that I read it out loud to my parents, and we all got a good chuckle out of the habits of those crazy Germans. As our Thursday bath approached, Yom and I had layers of dirt and dust caked on such areas of our bodies as the neck, wrists and especially ankles. Our socks did not protect our young ankles from the filth of dusty schoolyards. Playing soccer almost daily did not help either. A dark grey ring on our ankles was a familiar mark of active childhood.
When Turks conquered Byzantium, they adopted some Roman customs. Among them was the Roman Bath, that morphed into the Turkish Hamam. There actually is very little difference between the two. Most Turks went into hamams once a month, or on special occasions like before a wedding, in Ramadan etc. You can imagine the layers of dirt that accumulated by the time these infrequent visits came along. One of the most important instruments of the hamam was something called a ‘kese”, a rough piece of cloth that fitted into one’s hand like a glove with no fingers, and functioned as sandpaper on the skin. There were hamam attendants who cleaned the customers. One of their most important functions was vigorous kese work, peeling off thick layers of dirty skin accumulated between infrequent baths. At home this job belonged to my mom. She was as adept at the kese as any professional in a good hamam. After she was done with us, the bath floor was covered with little black skin droppings, akin to hair falling around the barber chair, surrounding us on all sides. She would then utter a satisfied “ohhh!’, your pores are all open, you are clean now”. Since our ritual was more frequent that that of the average Turk, I suppose we had better hygiene when it came to bathing.
In my teen years my father took me to an actual Turkish hamam. It was supposed to be a coming of age experience, teaching me something about adult customs. I suppose it substituted for his avoidance of that all important other subject that he never broached. In any case, it was a small hamam in Tophane, near Karakoy, a working class place. We sweated well in a steam room wearing nothing but towels, along with other hairy men with various sized bellies and other loose imperfections. A worker promptly came along sanded us with a kese with a professional masculine vigor. Afterwards we relaxed in a cool room where refreshments for our dehydrated bodies were provided by a busy waiter. We drank gazoz. It was my only time ever in a Turkish Bath. The experience was devoid of the lurid Western imaginations regarding the custom, and certainly different than the bath-houses of San Francisco that became famous decades later in the AIDS crisis.
Another aspect of our hygiene was the weekly visit by the housecleaner. This, again occurred on Thursdays. In our Istanbul apartment, we had an assortment of Armenian cleaners with names like Meryem (Miriam), or Elmas, typical Turkish versions of Armenian names. They were young, hard working, peasant like women with kind dispositions. They were also loyal like family dogs. Meryem, our housecleaner from the ’60’s, eventually became my Aunt Victoria’s terminal caretaker as she slowly declined in health as a lonely widow in the early ‘90’s living in Tesvikiye . My mother had high praise for her loyalty.
Those Thursday cleanings were major affairs. The house was torn apart and reassembled as all flecks of dirt, small or large, were eradicated. Usually my mother worked as hard, if not harder than the cleaners. It was a two person affair. There were few household appliances; everything was done by hand. Whole carpets (large Turkish rugs) were lifted out to the balcony ledge or the window and vigorously beaten. Floors were scrubbed on knees, hardwood polished carefully as though it was newly installed. As kids, if we happened to be home on such occasions, we found ourselves in a constant game of dodge the cleaner. No room in our apartment was a safe haven for child-play. We found cleaning day unpleasant and disruptive to our childhood games.
I remember one of my earliest sexual awakenings, at the end of one such Thursday. I still carry a photographic image of a few seconds when Meryem came into the bathroom to change from her work clothes to her street clothes. I happened to be sitting on the pot. I was quite young,. so she did not feel it was inappropriate to expose herself to me as she hastily ended her workday. I still remember her perky breasts, the first pair I had ever seen nude. She quickly slipped a sweater over them, smiled and said good-bye. It was a fast but shocking glimpse that I carried with me for the rest of my life.
In our summer place, our mountain retreat in Yakacik, we had Pembe Hanim (literally translated, “Pink Lady”), a true Turkish peasant, complementing the rustic character of our surroundings. The more refined Armenian maids would not come to this remote, rural outpost. Pembe Hanim was loud, and spoke Turkish with a heavy rural accent. She wore shalvars (pantaloons very wide in the hips), and covered her head with scarves characteristic of peasants. She called my mother “Madam Teyze”, much to our amusement. “Teyze” means aunt; so she was calling mom “Aunt Madam” as though my mother’s name was “Madam” instead of Sara. Madam was a common prefix , like Mrs. or Miss, given to non-Muslims by Turks. It didn’t matter to Pembe what my mother’s name was. She was a generic “Madam”, another non-Muslim from the nearby big city. The clean-ups in Yakacik were not as vigorous. The place was smaller, and we were all in a vacation mode. Plus there were fewer tough items to clean like heavy carpets. The experience went along with the more laid-back nature of our childhood summers.
I cannot omit any description of Turkish hygiene without mentioning teeth. Looking back, tap water in Istanbul was probably not fluorinated. Flossing was unheard of. In fact, I did not discover this until many years after my move to Chicago. My parents did enforce tooth-brushing, but only in the mornings, to get rid of bad breath. The effect of sugar on children’s teeth seemed unknown. If known it was certainly kept secret from us. It is thus not surprising that I developed my first cavities at around age 14, and lost two or three adult molars at ages 16 and 17. Afterwards, when we moved to the U.S., one of our early endeavors in Chicago was to get the gaps in my gums replaced with gold teeth, sold to us by a fast-talking, stocky Iranian dentist, a friend of my uncle Yako. He was a far cry from Dr. Mushbak, the Armenian dentist in Harbiye who had extracted my prematurely decayed teeth a year or two earlier. Mushbak was avuncular, soft spoken and aloof. In contrast the fast-talker in Chicago (funny I forgot his name, but I remember the Turkish one), was clearly all about money, charming, energetic and slimy.
I spent many hours in front of American TV sets as a new citizen marveling at numerous commercials. Among them were countless toothpaste ads, all emphasizing the importance of no cavities in children. I watched these puzzled. Americans were so strange. They seemed to pay too much attention to their teeth, as they did to their pet dogs and cats, the commercials for which were also fascinating. To me teeth were as superfluous as pets. That was Turkish hygiene transported to America.
My aunt Victoria had spent some time as a dental assistant to an uncertified Armenian dentist. He practiced without a license. His clinic was somewhere near Taksim Square. Her brief career had ended when I was still a baby, but this guy was still the favorite tooth doctor for both my mother and her beloved sister. They referred to him as a “nalbant”, a horseshoe smith. He apparently had the same finesse as a practitioner of this ancient profession, and cared about as much about inflicting pain as a smith does on horses. Any visit to this dentist was an exercise in masochistic pain, local anesthesia being unheard of. Why these two women still preferred him I have no idea. I suppose there were plenty of quacks like him in those days.
In the ‘80’s, during my internship in surgery, I lost those gold teeth the fat Iranian had installed in Chicago. They developed abscesses one by one. The final tooth erupted with exceptional pain on a call night during my equally painful Thoracic Surgery rotation. I asked my buddies in oral surgery, inexperienced fellow residents, to open their clinic at 1 a.m. and pull out this last one, as it was giving me hell. It turned out this abscess was tougher than the others. The gold tooth would not budge. Maybe it was the novice nature of my impromptu dentists. Several of them worked on me through that long night unable to extract the Iranian’s tooth with standard equipment. They had to break into the O.R. and steal some orthopedic bone cutters reserved for long bones and chipped away at my jawbone in the early hours of the morning.. I sat at the dental chair for a large portion of that sleepless night wondering if my mouth would ever be the same again. This was the long legacy of Turkish hygiene. In the end I survived, and so did my mouth.
Left behind were a number of stories about skin droppings, week old underwear, and large rongeurs to remove teeth, that fascinated those who heard them. I savored these stories, recounting them with gusto. Everything I went through was well worth it, just to see the shocked expressions of my refined American listeners.