Is It Strange to Say I Miss the Bodies of Strangers?

By Leslie Jamison

Bathers socialize at the Cemberlitas hammam in Istanbul in March.
Bathers socialize at the Cemberlitas hammam in Istanbul in March.Credit...Sabiha Çimen for The New York Times

The Voyages Issue

Weeks before lockdown, I made a whirlwind tour of Istanbul’s public baths. It was a crash course in pleasure that helped me understand what we’ve lost since.

Bathers socialize at the Cemberlitas hammam in Istanbul in March.Credit...Sabiha Çimen for The New York Times

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The last time I went to the Russian and Turkish Baths, tucked into the basement of an old tenement in the East Village, it was early March — right before the end of the world as we knew it. In retrospect, I’m sure the virus was down there with us, in that warren of saunas and steam rooms; in that blue-tiled plunge pool of icy water and that primeval nerve center called the room of radiant heat, a dark cave with a huge oven seething behind its rough walls, lined with wooden benches which had absorbed the sweat of thousands of strangers for more than a hundred years. This was no small part of the holiness of the baths, for me, the way they brought together strangers, past and present: the tattooed hipster with a handlebar mustache who dunked his head under the icy water of the cold plunge with performative nonchalance; the impossibly thin old woman who looked like a once-ballerina or a once-junkie, her skin steaming in the darkness; and the swarthy Russian man with salt-and-pepper hair who moaned under the sway and crack of oak branches slapped across his back.

That winter evening I was a year into my separation — poised at the cusp of divorce, at the cusp of pandemic, at the cusp of my city’s shuttering — but that night my body was close to the bodies of these strangers, whose stories I would never know. We didn’t need to speak; we were sharing the heat and the darkness, tucked away from the chill. We were sharing our very bodies, sweating and exhaling into the same thick air we were all breathing. A few weeks later — once the virus filled our hospital wards and the city plunged into quarantine — everything about that night would come to seem not only impossible but unthinkable: that closeness and casual touch, all that mingled breath and sweat. That night would eventually seem like the distillation of what we lost. But back then, it still belonged to us, our bodies shrugging and sighing, our toes curled and our foreheads beaded, our bodies leaking tears of ache and release. We were part of something together, something big and silent and many-headed. It held us all.

ImageOranges are a tradition at the Cemberlitas hammam in Istanbul.
Oranges are a tradition at the Cemberlitas hammam in Istanbul.Credit...Sabiha Çimen for The New York Times

Just a week before that final trip to the East Village baths, at the end of February, I flew to Istanbul to visit its legendary hammams. Turkey is home to some of the most stunning bathhouses in the world, and I was hoping that visiting these Old World ancestors of the East 10th Street baths might help me understand why I loved their descendants as deeply as I did.

Late February was the last moment when it still seemed possible that everything might not change; that for Americans, Covid-19 could remain a problem on the other side of the world. Coronavirus cases had recently peaked in China, and epidemics were blooming elsewhere — South Korea, Italy, Iran. The Istanbul Airport was decorated with now-ominous tourist banners that read “Gateway to Asia,” with immigration officers checking all our passports for stamps from China. Passengers in blue masks kept their distance from one another and warily eyed anyone who coughed or sneezed. But Turkey hadn’t yet been hit by the pandemic, and in the hammams of Istanbul, I spent time in a world where it was still possible — still natural, still untroubled — to get close to the bodies of strangers. In those marble dens scattered across the city — Cemberlitas, Cagaloglu, Kilic Ali Pasa — there was no social distancing, only the humidity of collective exposure, naked skin on marble. Other people weren’t yet seen primarily as potential disease vectors, but as subjects of pleasure, tender animals, hungry for care and touch, all of us lying side by side in the radiant heat.

The first hammam I visited was Cemberlitas — one of the oldest baths in the city, commissioned in 1584 by the head of the Imperial harem — near the labyrinthine alleys of the Grand Bazaar and the old Ottoman arcades of the Misir Carsisi spice market, its crowded aisles lined with cases full of sugar-dusted Turkish delight and amber perfume bottles. Often built near mosques to allow for ablutions before prayer, hammams have deep roots in holy traditions, and the central chamber at Cemberlitas itself felt like a place of worship: an octagonal marble slab under a stone dome that showed the sky through round portals. Lying across that marble slab, my skin striped by the wavering shafts of sunlight, I felt less like a worshiping supplicant and more like an offering laid across an altar.

A woman named Gamze rubbed down my body with the kessa, a rough glove made from woven goat hair, and then draped my raw skin in the cascading bubbles of the swinging torba, a fine mesh towel dipped in copper tubs of olive-oil soap to heap shimmering white hills along the knobs of my spine, feathery and fizzy against my scrubbed skin, silken and gentle where the kessa had been vigorous and bracing. It was an experience of sublime submission, yielding to the kneading hands of a stranger, that was close to the opposite of the ceaseless bodily vigilance that would follow during quarantine and its containments: measuring my body’s distance from other bodies, trapping my breath with a mask, caring for other people by staying away from them.

Male bathers at the Cagaloglu hamman in Istanbul in March.Credit...Sabiha Çimen for The New York Times

When the hammam arrived in the Western imagination, largely by way of 18th-century European travel narratives, it was a breathlessly described, Orientalist fantasy — a seductive, elusive cloister, a sexualized sanctum of intimacy and indulgence. In a letter dated April 1, 1717, the aristocrat and epistolary scribe Lady Mary Wortley Montagu describes visiting in the city of Sofia a set of baths “that are resorted to both for diversion and health” where “sofas of marble” are full of women reclining totally exposed: “all being in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked, without any beauty or defect concealed.” More than a century later, “Le Bain Turc (The Turkish Bath),” a now-famous oil painting completed by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres between 1852 and 1859, brought Montagu’s portrait to visual life in its crowd of nude women reclining beside a tiled bath. They are curvy and bejeweled, naked save their golden bracelets, ruby-studded necklaces and pearl-drop earrings. The world of the painting is at once sensuous and coy, simultaneously yielding to the gaze of a viewer — by proffering these naked bodies — and refusing it, by offering a glimpse into an ultimately inaccessible world beyond the viewer’s reach and understanding.

Of course the Western fantasy of Turkish baths was always underwritten by racism disguised as veneration. David Urquhart, who became one of the most influential architects of the Victorian “Turkish bath movement” after returning from his service in the British Embassy in Constantinople at the end of the 1830s, described the ancient Turks as the “filthiest of mortals,” who initially discovered public baths as a “practice of their enemies” before adopting and perfecting them. Eventually, Turkish baths came to represent a space of loosened bodily inhibition that was always largely a projection of desires that Victorians had trouble claiming for themselves. Part of the fantasy of the baths has always been about the grace of purgation — this urge to slough away the lesser parts of ourselves and let our better selves emerge instead: rarefied, whittled, purified. As the surgeon Erasmus Wilson wrote, “I hardly know a more curious or more beautiful sight than that of the healthy skin of a practiced bather, spangled over with limpid drops of perspiration like dewdrops on the petals of a rose.”

The zealotry of these Victorian Turkish bath enthusiasts often reads like an investment in pleasure — the pleasures of proximity, thrilling contact, physical extremity — trying to cloak itself in the more serious clothing of medical necessity. During their surge of popularity across Britain and America in the mid- to late 1800s, Turkish baths were attributed with nearly mystical powers. They were not only purported to treat the symptoms of an impressive array of conditions — including rheumatism, leprosy, eczema, acne, gout, insomnia, constipation, opium craving, barrenness, night sweats, dropsy, dyspepsia, diabetes, St. Vitus’s Dance, herpes, bronchitis, paralysis and insanity — but capable of elevating our souls. “As the sun benefits the whole animal and vegetable creation, so does the Bath greatly renovate our whole physical nature, and, thus purified, renders us more capable of appreciating our higher or spiritual nature,” wrote Charles Shepard, the Brooklyn physician who built the first Turkish baths in America in 1863.

When Shepard opened his Turkish baths on Columbia Street, in Brooklyn Heights, however, business was slow. On the first day, “but one bather came,” he wrote. “After four days there came four more, though one of them had been brought in by dint of persuasion.” But Shepard advocated tirelessly his so-called “Improved Turkish bath,” including an inspired pamphlet telling the story of how a depressed Cupid — drawn as a gnomelike man with wings protruding from his tunic and spurs on his boots — had been “persuaded to try a Turkish bath” and ultimately “was both cured and converted, and is now one of the heartiest champions of the hammam.” By their fifth year, the Columbia Street baths were giving over 15,000 baths annually, and were soon joined by other baths across the city. “ ‘Open the pores of the skin and let out the impurities,’ is written by the very finger of God upon every human body,” wrote the American doctor — and savvy entrepreneur — E.P. Miller in an 1870 pamphlet titled “The Improved Turkish Bath: What Is It, Who Should Take It, Why, When, How and Where.” (On the last question, he was happy to suggest his own newly opened baths on West 26th Street.)

Bathers on the central “navel stone,” a marble platform for sweats, scrubs and massages, at the Cemberlitas hammam in March.Credit...Sabiha Çimen for The New York Times

My favorite baths have always been the ones on East 10th Street, built in 1892 and housed for decades beneath three dormitory floors full of boarders. By the time I became a regular, more than a hundred years later, they were still tucked into the same basement, though it was no longer the same 10th Street; now there was a kava bar and a crystal store across the way. Downstairs, however, the primal intensities remained unchanged: the room of radiant heat still nearly 200 degrees, like a callused body barely containing an incredible fever. (In 1993, one resident of a neighboring building complained that the heat from the saunas was so intense he could fry an egg in his own bathtub.)

It was during my early years of sobriety, a decade ago, that I first found solace in communal baths. In the absence of other forms of extremity, I was drawn to the quiet thrill of pushing my body to the edges of what it could stand. In the baths, I got so hot I couldn’t think about anything but the heat, and in truth, I found relief in the discontinuity between the tangled abstractions of my own interior afflictions — a faltering relationship, a new life without booze — and the brute physicality of the baths, their steamy mists and icy plunge.

“The skin is what you live in; it is your habitation,” Urquhart wrote in his 1865 “Manual of the Turkish Bath.” “There is an intoxication or dream that lifts you out of the flesh, and yet a sense of life and consciousness that spreads through every member.” A century and a half later, when I stood in the room of radiant heat, pouring the ice-cold water over my body, relieving an unbearable heat with a nearly unbearable chill, it made me — briefly, gloriously — a stranger in the habitation of my skin, and then at home more fully than before. I could feel every part of myself in that heat, sweating and alive — an animal among animals, full of all the ordinary aches and hopes. My body wasn’t something to be starved or cut or filled with booze until I blacked out; it was something to be taken care of. I found myself newly alive to my own pulse, seized by a pleasure that could hold discomfort in its open palms.

One winter night a year ago, I went to the baths with my friend Anna. I was just a few months into my separation and still struggling with the two nights a week I spent apart from my daughter. Anna and I both had babies who were somewhere else; at every moment they were not drinking from us, our breasts were filling up for the next time they would. We put on our plastic slippers and went underground, sat in the room of radiant heat, with a trough full of cold water and the skeletal ex-ballerina, who looked as if maybe she lived underground, as if she needed that hot room like God needed a holy book to live inside of. The heat was nearly unendurable, but that wasn’t the problem so much as the point. I thought of something my friend Harriet had said: That we were always trying to call experiences either bearable or unbearable, as if they had to be one or the other, when they were often both at once. Which is one way to describe letting myself get impossibly hot, and then standing to dump the cold water over my head: How good it felt to need something so badly, then reach for it.

Bathers in the main area of the Cagaloglu hamman.Credit...Sabiha Çimen for The New York Times

In Istanbul, I visited six hammams in 36 hours. The vaulted stone atrium, trickling fountain and low couches full of lounging pillows at the Kilic Ali Pasa hammam, originally built by the 16th-century Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, felt far removed — in their poshness — from the building’s origins as a bathhouse for the royal navy. At the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan, constructed in the shadow of the Hagia Sofia by the same architect for the Emperor Sultan Suleiman’s wife, Roxelana, there were partially excavated fragments of the original plumbing system visible under transparent floors. (Roxelana was enslaved early in life but ended up becoming a woman of unprecedented political power in the Ottoman Empire, and her bathhouse was the first in which the men’s and women’s areas were constructed as mirror images of each other.) At Cagaloglu, the most luxurious of all the hammams I visited, an elegant man greeted me at the door and asked if it was my first time at a hammam; when I told him the ones I had already visited, he looked at me as if I’d just said something utterly irrelevant and said, “This is your first time at a hammam.”

The pleasure at Cagaloglu came at me from every direction: glass lanterns illuminating the sauna walls in jeweled shades of tangerine and cobalt; the clouds of bubbles from the torba touching me like something from another realm; my body, scrubbed and tingling and laid out on a warm towel, served strong black tea and fed dried apricots and almonds, sugared squares of Turkish delight presented on a silver-lidded platter. It felt less like a Turkish experience than the perfected version of a Western fantasy of a Turkish experience, as if Ingres’s 19th-century painting had been brought to life.

My attendant, Ayten, smiled at me with a care that felt genuine as we transitioned from one pleasure to another, gently holding my elbow to move me between them, clasping my hand as we walked across the slippery marble floor of the central chamber. Our dynamic felt simultaneously absurd and strangely, unplaceably familiar, until I eventually realized it reminded me of caring for my toddler daughter back at home, except I had become the child. For an hour, Ayten was my mother, making sure my feet were carefully tucked beneath the striped maroon robe before she fed me tea and cherries, just like I always made sure my daughter’s little legs were covered by our fuzzy blanket when we snuggled together on our couch at home to read books. “Get cozy!” she would say, less request than command.

It can be easy to believe pain has a monopoly on profundity, that we access truth or salvation through suffering, from the story of Christ’s crucifixion to the mundane ravages of our own daily lives. But perhaps the Western obsession with Turkish baths, in all its fantasizing and fetishizing, has been in part an attempt to claim pleasure as something more than indulgence, more like a mode of survival. Pain claims so much of us; why not give pleasure its due when we can?

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.

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.

The central navel stone at the Cemberlitas hammam.Credit...Sabiha Çimen for The New York Times

Gazing at the ghostly Brooklyn streets from my apartment window three weeks later, in the early days of quarantine — watching my toddler daughter try to feed my mother strawberries through a cellphone screen — the memory of those baths ached like a ghost limb, the memory of that way of being with strangers, brushing against their skin, sweat mingled with their sweat. During these past six months of isolation, as we have learned to keep our bodies at a distance — six feet away from one another, or homebound — I have found myself thinking frequently of the hammams of Istanbul, across an ocean, and the 10th Street baths, just across the East River, their crowded, humid rooms so much the opposite of our sparse streets. Communal baths offer a microcosm of the promises of urban living: How does sharing spaces of pleasure help bind people together? What do we lose when we lose the ability to live among the bodies of strangers? The baths distill the dream at the core of inhabiting a city: to feel connected to something larger than yourself.

The baths ask us to recognize in brute, visceral, undeniable terms the truth that every stranger’s face conceals hidden layers of wariness and fragility: bad days at work, fights at home, kids who won’t go to bed; and sudden pockets of joy: the weekend paper in bed on a lazy morning, a burger grilled in the park with a friend of many years, a child’s glee at crafting a sandwich from two wooden slabs of bread and a wooden tomato. We can know intellectually that everyone we see contains multitudes, but it’s easier to feel it in the baths, where everyone’s impassivity is cracked open — at least in brief glimpses — by physical extremity and pleasure.

On the sidewalks these days, I’ve grown familiar with furtive, apologetic moments of eye contact with strangers, measuring the distance between our bodies and then apologizing to each other — with resignation, without language — for transgressing the margin. Whenever I see someone instinctively recoiling at unintentional contact, I find myself hoping that even as we keep our bodies far apart, we still find ways to tell one another, “You deserve to be touched.”

During the early stages of reopening New York City — when curbside retail returned in Phase 1, or outdoor dining in Phase 2 — I would sometimes joke with friends that the 10th Street baths would only reopen once we reached Phase 300. Though Istanbul’s hammams reopened in June — many with temperature checks and attendants wearing face shields — it still seems far from a possibility here in New York. This way of being with strangers seems like the last one we’ll get back.

But the question of whether we will ever return to the baths is more than simply logistical. Wondering whether we can ever truly return to them is a way of wondering whether we’ll ever return to a state of bodily ease with strangers. How long will this muscle memory endure — the part of us that’s wary of any kind of bodily proximity, that’s wary of our own bodies and the bodies of others as vectors?

In the way that absence illuminates desire, and breakage illuminates function — you don’t notice the doorknob until it twists off in your hand — quarantine has made it plain to me how much I miss the daily, unspoken, casual company of strangers, the people whose names and lives I’ll never know, who populate my ordinary urban days with their bodies on the subway, their glances on the sidewalk, their stray comments at the A.T.M., their hands holding whole milk and gummy bears in front of me in the bodega line.

It was in the early months of my separation that I started to become acutely aware of this gratitude for the peculiar anonymous company that urban living offers — for the cafe just downstairs from my new apartment, where many of the same regular customers gathered each morning: the amiable elderly man chain-smoking and mansplaining trans-Atlantic politics; the mom-friends with their parked bassinets; the 20-something boys reading Bakhtin and Heidegger who never offered to help me carry my stroller up the stoop stairs. In the aftermath of my household unraveling, it was an acute and unexpected comfort to find this daily ragtag cohort just downstairs — a looser household, but a household nonetheless.

Walking late at night on Flatbush Avenue, I appreciated all the anonymous strangers I passed for the ways they suggested, even if I didn’t know their stories, how many different ways it was possible to craft a life. The man buying mangoes at the bodega just before midnight? Maybe he was a father of five. Maybe he was a single father of five. Maybe he and his husband were trying to adopt. Maybe he and his wife had been trying to have a child for years. Maybe he and his wife knew they didn’t want a child; maybe they were saving up to travel the world instead. Maybe he lived alone with his aging mother. Who could know his story? I never would. But I didn’t need to. I only needed to know, through his presence on that sidewalk, that so many plotlines for a life were possible.

When we lose the ability to live among the bodies of strangers, we don’t just lose the tribal solace of company, but the relief from solipsism — the elbow brush of other lives unfurling just beside our own, the reminder of other people’s daily survival, the reminder that there are literally seven billion other ways to be alive besides the particular way I am alive; that there are countless other ways to be lonely besides the particular ways I am lonely; other ways to hope, other ways to seek joy.

During the first five months of quarantine, the cafe below my apartment stayed shuttered. The sidewalk beneath its awning was littered with cigarette butts and the occasional empty beer bottle. Rats scuttled across the pavement at night, as desperate and confused as the rest of us. At one point someone propped a plastic wreath against the locked cafe door. It looked like a grave site. But at the end of August, nearly six months after quarantine began, the cafe reopened. My pleasure at its return was acute and bodily, like chugging ice water on a hot day. The people were once again gathered on the sidewalk — enjoying their coffee, the sunlight, the voices of their friends and the voices of strangers.

When we finally return to the baths, our ease won’t be the same. It will always hold the memory of this virus and the collective isolation it has plunged us into. But perhaps the intimacy of our reunion won’t be compromised but sharpened by deprivation, and it will be with deepened hunger that we find our way back into one another’s company again.

Leslie Jamison is the author, most recently, of “Make It Scream, Make It Burn.” She last wrote for the magazine about being a single parent during quarantine.