Every Tuesday afternoon, when I take my bath in Cağaloğlu Hamami, Mustafa Ozkan appears fatter than I remember him from the week before. How my masseur manages to develop that corpulence despite his strenuous profession – all day long he pummels and presses and twists and kneels and steps up and down on his customers, in all that heat in the sauna room – puzzles many bathers. “It’s the baklavas.” Mustafa will say, with a carefree smile. Yet fattening Mustafa more than the sweet pastry is the melancholic abandon that has bound him since the day Seifka Pamuk left
I lie face down, my chest on the marble slate heated by the steam circulating in the octagonal room. Mustafa takes off his T-shirt, revealing his hairy chest and pear-shaped belly. He puts his hands on my back. “It’s tense here.” he says, as always, and starts to rub along my spine. Mustafa has very strong hands, which is why I choose him for my massages. He presses his fingers deep into my flesh, and I can sense his almost sadistic pleasure of inflicting the transient pain on another man. After the pressing comes the pummeling, and then the twisting backward of my arms as far as they will go without dislocation. In the culminating act, Mustafa steps onto my back with both his feet and walks from my waist to just below my neck and then down again. Soon we are both covered in sweat, Mustafa’s sweat. I feel a little disgust, but soon enough soap comes in and dissolves it.
Mustafa steps out of the room – it’s tea time – leaving me wash off the soap myself. The afternoon sun pours in through the star-shaped windows in the domed ceiling, and, when shining on my skin, it elicits a different sensation of warmth than the moist steam. I turn the faucets fully open, and wait until water has filled the marble basin. I reach in and touch the bottom, just as I touched it when the bath first opened its doors in 1741. I let my fingers register how the stone has become polished by two hundred and sixty six years of running water. Sultan’s subjects, rich and poor, have cleansed themselves under this same roof. Now it caters to the city’s well-heeled residents and Western tourists. The place has otherwise changed little, like me.
The place where a man truly belongs is where he wishes to die. My city is Istanbul – I have peregrinated the world but have always come back to the banks of Marmara – yet I cannot die, not since my fateful encounter with Shabalba when the crushing snow cut off the pursuing Russian cavalry but also stranded me for a week in the high Urals. I will live my endless days of ennui, in this city of solitude and melancholy.
I take a stroll through the Grand Bazaar. In the northwest quarter of the labyrinthine complex of shops, I drop in No. 49 to buy a pouch of oleander that I place next to my pillow at night. Bahar, fifteen-years in age, with a smile that can sweeten earl tea and long eyelashes that pierce like Cupid’s arrows, persuade me to buy a pack of rosehip tea and get the oleander for free. Turning away to greet her next customer, she never notices the resigned sadness in my eyes, the shaking of my hand at the touch of her fingertips when she gives back my change, or the tremor in my voice as I say good-bye. How she resembles her grandmother, Yelda Seyh, the courtesan whose chamber I frequented after returning from the bloodbath on the shores of
I walk by cafés where people are smoking hookah and playing backgammon. I walk by restaurants where American tourists applaud Dervish dancers. I don’t stop. I pass by a small mosque in disrepair adjoined by a dilapidated wooden house, in front of which a wrinkle-faced woman is hanging her washed clothes. In an ice cream stand, a man in white robe is performing the traditional trick of serving Turkish ice cream: his swift wrist keeps the ice cream at the tip of a long rod tantalizingly close to yet always out of reach of his customer's grasp. The onlooking Chinese backpackers laugh in amusement, but I walk on. Oh, the simple delight of seeing something for the first time! Now, I am cursed with a jaded memory, like a film that has been exposed so many times that on it only blank remains.
I spend the rest of my evening sitting on the north wall of