Lentils in Paradise
A true and nostalgic account of my visits,
as a little boy, to the Women's Baths in Ankara

by Moris Farhi


Paradise was Sophie's gift to Selim and me. She took us there frequently. I was about seven; Selim a year or so older. Paradise was the Women's Hamam -Turkish Baths - of Ankara. Sophie cherished us as if we were her own; and we loved her just as much. In fact, I can now Moris Farhi admit, we loved her more than we loved our mothers. We reasoned that since she was under no obligation to hold us dear, the fact that she did, meant we were worthy of affection. Consequently, we never believed the loose talk from parents and neighbours that, given the law of nature whereby every woman is ruled by the maternal instinct, Sophie, destined to remain unmarried and childless, needed, perforce, to treasure every child that came her way, even curs like Selim and me. Sophie was one of those young women from the Anatolian backwoods who, having ended up with no relatives and no home, found salvation in domestic service in the sizeable metropolises, Istanbul, Izmir, Adana, and the new capital, Ankara. Often payment for such work amounted to no more than the person's keep and a bed in a corner of a hallway; wages, if they existed, seldom exceeded a miserable lira or two a month.

But, in the early 1940s, when Turkey's policy of neutrality in the Second World War, had brought on severe economic problems, even this sort of employment was hard to find. My parents, I am glad to say, paid a decent wage despite the constant struggle to make ends meet. For Sophie was an Armenian, a member of a race that, like the Jews, had seen more than its share of troubles. Sophie herself, as her premature white hair and the scar that ran diagonally across her mouth testified, was a survivor of the passion suffered by the Armenians at the hands of the Turks and the Kurds during the First World War. Selim and I never accepted the distinction that Sophie was a servant. With the wisdom of young minds we dismissed the term as derogatory. We called her "abla", "elder sister".

At first - since Selim was not my brother, but my friend who lived next door - I insisted that she should be known as my "abla", but Sophie, who introduced us to everything that is noble in mankind, took this opportunity to teach us about true justice. Stroking our foreheads gently, she impressed upon us that since Selim and I had been inseparable since our toddling days, we should have acquired the wisdom to expel from our souls such petty impulses as greed and possessiveness. She belonged to both of us, what was more natural than that? The event that led us to Paradise occurred the moment Sophie set foot in our house. She had arrived from the Eastern Anatolian province of Erzurum. The journey, mostly on villagers' carts, occasionally, using up her few kuruon dilapidated trucks, had taken her about a week. And for another week, until she had heard on the grapevine that she might try knocking on my mother's door, she had slept in cold cellars procured for her, often without the owners' knowledge, by sympathetic countrywomen. She had washed in the drinking fountains of the open-air market where she had gone daily in search of scraps; but, lacking any spare vestments, she had not changed her sweat-encrusted clothes. Thus, when she had arrived at our flat, she had come enveloped in the pungent smell of apprehension and destitution. My mother, seasoned in matters of disinfestation - she had attended to my father whenever he had come on leave from the Army - immediately gathered, from her own wardrobe, a change of clothes and guided Sophie to the shower, our only fixture for washing. We had hardly settled in the sitting room - I remember we had visitors at the time - Selim's parents, some neighbours and, of course, Selim - when we heard Sophie laughing.

My mother, who had taken to Sophie instantly, looked well satisfied, no doubt interpreting the laughter as a happy omen. Moments later, the laughter turned into high-pitched giggles. Giggles became shrieks; and shrieks escalated into screams. As we all ran to the hallway fearing that Sophie had scalded herself, the toilet door flew open and Sophie burst out, wet and naked and hysterical. It was Selim's father who managed to contain her. Whilst my mother asked repeatedly what had happened, he threw a raincoat over Sophie and held her in a wrestler's grip until her screams decelerated into tearful, hiccupy giggles. Eventually, after sinking onto the floor and curling up, she managed to register my mother's question. As if relating an encounter with a djinn, she answered, in a hoarse whisper: "It tickles! That water tickles!" The ensuing laughter, manifesting as much relief as mirth, should have offended her; it didn't. Sophie, as we soon learned, believed that laughter had healing qualities and revered anybody who had the gift of humour. But it had never occurred to her that she herself could be comical. The revelation thrilled her. And, as she later admitted to me, her ability to make us laugh had been the factor that had convinced her to adopt us as her kin. The afternoon ended well. When Sophie, hesitantly, asked whether she could finish washing by the kitchen tap, my mother promptly took her, together with the women visitors, to the Hamam.

Thereafter, Sophie became a devotee of the Baths. And she used any excuse, including the grime Selim and I regularly gathered in the streets, to take us there. My mother never objected to this indulgence: entry to the Hamam was cheap - children went free - and Sophie, Selim and I, sparkling after so much soap and water, always appeared to confirm the adage: "only the clean are embraced by God." In those days, Turkish Baths had to struggle hard to maintain their Ottoman splendour. The travail was particularly evident in Ankara. This once humble townlet which, with the exception of an ancient castle on a hillock, had barely been touched by history, was rising fast as the symbol of the new, modern Turkey. As a result some "progressive" elements saw the Baths as totems of oriental recidivism and sought to reduce their popularity by promoting Western-style amenities.

Yet, here and there, the mystique prevailed. After all, how could the collective memory forget that, for centuries, Istanbul's spectacular Hamams had entranced and overawed flocks of discerning Europeans. And so the tradition survived; discreetly, in some places, openly in others. And when new Baths were built - as was the case with most of the establishments in Ankara - every attempt was made to adhere to the highest provision. Two cardinal standards are worth mentioning.

The first predicates that the primary material for the inner sanctum, the washing enclave itself, must be marble, the stone which, according to legend, shelters the friendly breezes and which, for that very reason, is chosen by kings for their palaces and by gods for their temples.

The second standard stipulates the following architectural features: a dome, a number of sturdy columns and a belt of high windows, a combination certain to suffuse the inner sanctum with a glow suggestive of the mystic aura of a mosque. Moreover, the high windows, whilst distilling apollonian light, would also deter peeping-toms.

Our Women's Hamam, having adhered to these standards, was the epitome of luxury. Let me take you in, step by step. The entrance, its most discreet feature, is a small, wrought-iron door located at the centre of a high wall like those that circumvent girls' colleges. The foyer is lush. Its dark purple drapes immediately promise exquisite sensual treats. To the right of the foyer there is a low platform with a kiosk. Here sits the manageress, "Teyze Hanim", "Lady Aunt", whose girth may well have coined the Turkish idiom, "built like a government". She collects the entrance fees and hires out such items as soap, towels, bowls and the traditional Turkish clogs, nalins.

At the bottom of the foyer, a door leads into the spacious communal dressing room. As if to prolong your anticipation, this is simply trimmed: whitewashed walls, wooden benches and large wicker-baskets for stacking clothes. Another door opens into a passageway which has boards on its floor. Here, as you walk, the clogs beat an exciting rhythm. Ahead is the arch which leads into the baths' marbled haven. The next moment you feel as if you are witnessing a transfiguration. The mixture of heat and steam have created a diaphanous air; the constant sound of running water is felicitous; and the white nebulous shapes that seemingly float in space profile kaleidoscopic fantasies in your mind. This might be a prospect from the beginning of days - or from the last. In any case, if you adore women and crave to entwine with every one of them, it's a vision that will remain indelible for the rest of your life. Thereafter, slowly, your eyes begin to register details. You note that the sanctuary is round - actually, oval. You are glad.

Because had it been rectangular, as some are, it would have emanated a masculine air. You note the large marble slab that serves as a centrepiece. This is the "belly stone". Its size determines the reputation of the particular establishment; a large one, as that in the Women's Hamam, where people can sit and talk - even picnic - guarantee great popularity. You note the washing areas around the "belly stone". Each is delineated by a marble tub - called kurna - wherein hot and cold water, served from two separate taps, is mixed. You note that the space around each kurna accommodates several people, invariably members of a family or a group of neighbours. These people sit on stocky seats, also of marble, which look like pieces of modern sculpture, and wash themselves by filling their bowls from the kurna and splashing the water onto their bodies.

Sometimes, those who wish to have a good scrub, avail themselves, for a good baksheesh, of one of a number of attendants present. You note that, beyond the inner sanctum, there are a number of chambers which, being closer to the furnace, are warmer. These are known as "halvet", a word which implies "solitude", and are reserved for those who wish to bathe alone or to have a massage. For the elite customer, the latter is performed by Lady Aunt. But, of course, above all, you note the bathing women. Wearing only bracelets and earrings, they look as if they have been sprinkled with gold. Tall or short, young or old, they are invariably Rubenesque. Even the thin ones appear voluptuous. Covered with heavy perfumes and henna, they carry themselves boldly, at ease with their firm-soft bodies. They are, you realize, proud of their femininity - I am speaking in hindsight - even though - or perhaps because - they live in a society where the male rules unequivocally. But if they see or think someone is looking at them, they are overcome with shyness and cover their pudenda with their bowls. You note little girls, too, but, if you're a little boy like me, you're not interested in them.

You have already seen their budding treasures in such outworn games as "mothers and fathers", "doctors and patients". I feel I have related our entry to Paradise as if it were a commonplace occurrence, as if, in the Turkey of the 40s, little boys were exempt from all gender considerations. Well, that's only partly true. Certainly, over the years, I came across many men of my generation who, as boys, had been taken to the women's baths either by their maids or nannies or grannies or other elderly female relatives - though never by their mothers; that taboo appears to have remained inviolate. In effect, there were no concrete rules on boys' admission into Women's Hamams. The decision rested on a number of considerations: the reputation of the establishment, the status of its clientele, the regularity of a person's - or group's - patronage, the size of the baksheeshs to the personnel and, not least, the discretion of Lady Aunt.

In our case it was the last consideration that tipped the scales in our favour. We were allowed in because the Lady Aunt who ran the establishment had been well-versed in matters of puberty. She had ascertained that our testicles hadn't yet dropped and would convey this view to her patrons when necessary. The latter, always tittering cruelly, accepted her word. Mercifully, dear Sophie, incensed by this artless tresspass on our intimate parts, would lay her hands over our ears and hustle us away. Selim and I, needless to say, were greatly relieved that our testicles were intact. But the prospect that they would drop off at some future date also plunged us into great anxiety. Thus, for a while, we would inspect each other's groins every day and reassure ourselves that our manhoods were not only still in place, but also felt as good as when we had last played with them that morning, on waking up. We would also scour the streets, even in the company of our parents, in the hope of finding the odd fallen testicle. If we could collect a number of spare testicles, we had reasoned, we might just be able to replace our own when calamity struck. The fact that, in the past, we had never seen any testicles lying around did not deter us; we simply assumed that other boys, grappling with the same predicament, had gathered them up. Eventually, our failure to find even a single testicle bred the conviction that these organs were securely attached to the body and would never fall off; and we decided that this macabre "lie" had been disseminated by women who had taken exception to our precociousness in order to frighten us. And precocious we were.

We had had good teachers. Selim and I lived at the very edges of Ankara, in a new district of concrete apartment blocks designated to stand as the precursor of future prosperity. Beyond, stretched the southern plains, dotted here and there with Gypsy encampments. Gypsies, needless to say, have an unenviable life wherever they are. Historic prejudices disbar them from most employment. The same condition prevailed in Ankara. Jobs, in so far as the men were concerned, were limited to seasonal fruit picking, the husbandry of horses, road digging and the portering of huge loads. Gypsy women fared better; they were often in demand as fortune tellers, herbalists and faith healers; and they always took their daughters along in order to teach them, at an early age, the intricacies of divination. The occasional satiety the Gypsies enjoyed, was provided by the boys who begged at such busy centres as the market, the bus and railway stations, the stadium and the brothels. The last was the best pitch of them all.

Situated in the old town, at the base of the castle, the brothels consisted of some sixty ramshackle dwellings piled on each other in a maze of narrow streets. Each house had a small window on its door so that customers could look in and appraise the ladies on offer. Here, on the well-worn pavements, the beggars set up shop. They knew that, after being with a prostitute, a man, particularly if he were married, would feel sinful; and so they offered him instant redemption by urging him to drop a few kuru into their palms to show Allah that, as the faith expected of him, he was a generous alms-giver. Some of these wise Gypsy boys became our friends; and they taught us a great deal. Above all, relating all the causerie they had overheard from punters and prostitutes, they taught us about the strange mechanics of sex: the peculiar, not to say, funny, positions; the vagaries of the principal organs and the countless quirks which either made little sense to anyone or remained a mystery for many years. And this priceless knowledge served as the foundation for further research in the Hamam. Breasts, buttocks and vaginal hair - or, as was often the case with the last, the lack of it - became the first subjects for study. Our Gypsy friends had instructed us that breasts determined the sexuality of a woman. The aureole was the indicator for passion. Those women with large aureoles were insatiable; those with what looked like tiny birthmarks were best left alone as they would be frigid. (What, I wonder today, did frigidity mean to us in those days?) For the record, the woman with the largest aureole we ever saw was, without doubt, the prototype of lethargy; nicknamed "the milkman's horse" by Lady Aunt, she always appeared to be nodding off to sleep, even when walking. By contrast, the liveliest woman we ever observed - a widow who not only allowed us generous views of her vagina, but also appeared to enjoy her exhibitionism - had practically no aureoles at all, just stubby, pointed nipples like the stalks of button mushrooms. And buttocks, we had learned, were reflectors of character. They were expressive, like faces. Stern buttocks could be recognized immediately: lean cheeks with a dividing line that was barely limned, they looked like people who had forsaken pleasure. Happy buttocks always smiled; or, as if convulsed by hysterical laughter, wobbled. Sad buttocks, even if they were shaped like heavenly orbs, looked abandoned, lonely, despairing. And there were buttocks which so loved life that they swayed like tamarind jelly and made one's mouth water. Regarding vaginal hair, there was, as I mentioned, little of it on view.

In Turkey, as in most Muslim countries, the ancient Bedouin tradition whereby women, upon their marriage, shave their pubic hair, has almost acquired the dimensions of a hygienic commandment. Our research into vaginal hair, in addition to its inherent joys, proved to be a lesson in sociology. A shaven pudenda not only declared the marital status of the particular woman, but also indicated her position in society. To wit, women who were clean-shaven all the time were women wealthy enough to have leisure - and the handmaids to assist them - therefore, were either old aristocracy or nouveau riche. Women who carried some stubble, thus betraying the fact that children or household chores or careers curtailed their time for depilation, were of more modest backgrounds.

To our amazament, as if the chore proved less of an inconvenience if performed in company, there was a great deal of shaving going on in the baths. No doubt the fact that, for a small baksheesh, a woman could get an attendant to do a much better job, thus liberating her to gossip freely with friends or relatives, contributed to the preference. Our main study - eventually, our raison d'etre for going to the Baths - centred on the labia and the clitorises. Both these wonders, too, possessed mythologies. Our Gypsy friends apprised us. The myths on the labia centered on their prominence and pensility. The broad ones, reputedly resembling the lips of African peoples were certain to be, like all black races, uninhibited and passionate. (What did those adjectives mean to us? And what did we know of black races?) Lean labia, because they would have to be prized open, indicated thin hearts. Pendulous ones represented motherhood; Gypsy midwives, we were assured, could tell the number of children a woman had had simply by noting the labia's suspension. Those women who were childless but did possess hanging labia were to be pitied: for they found men, in general, so irresistibly attractive that they could never restrict their affections to one individual; consequently, to help them remain chaste, Allah had endowed them with labia that could be sewn together. The perfect labia were those that not only rippled down langourously, but also tapered to a point at the centre, thus looking very much like buckles. These labia had magical powers: he who could wrap his tongue with them, would receive the same reward as one who walked under the rainbow: he would witness the Godhead.

As for clitorises, it is common knowledge that, like penises, they vary in size. The Turks, so rooted in the land, had classified them into three distinct categories, naming each one after a popular food. Small clitorises were called "susam", "sesame"; "mercimek", "lentils" distinguished the medium sized ones - which, being in the majority, were also considered to be "normal"; and "nohut", "chick-peas", identified those of large calibre. Women in possession of "sesames" were invariably sullen; the smallness of their clitorises, though it seldom prevented them from enjoying sex to the full, inflicted upon them a ruthless sense of inferiority; as a result, they abhorred children, particularly those who were admitted to the Baths. Women blessed with "lentils" bore the characteristics of their namesake, a staple food in Turkey. Hence, the "lentilled" women's perfect roundness were not only aesthetically pleasing, but also extremely nourishing; in effect, they offered everything a man sought from a wife: love, passion, obedience and the gift for cooking. Those endowed with "chick-peas" were destined to ration their amorous activities since the abnormal size of their clitorises induced such intense pleasure that regular sex invariably damaged their hearts; restricted to conjoining only for purposes of conception, these women were to find solace in a spiritual life. And they would attain such heights of piety that, during labour, they would gently notch, with their "chick-peas", a prayer-dent on their babies' foreheads thus marking them for important religious duties. I can hear some of you shouting, "Pig - clitorises have hoods. Even if you find a clitoris the size of an Easter egg, you'll have a tough time seeing it! You've got to, one: be lucky enough to have your face across your lover; two: know how to peek past the hood; three: have the sang- froid to keep your eyes open; and four: seduce it into believing that, for you, she is the only reality in life and everything else is an illusion." So, let me confess, before you take me for a liar, that, in all likelihood, neither Selim nor I ever saw a single clitoris. We just believed we did. Not only the odd one, but, by that unique luck that favours curs, hundreds of them. And the more we believed, the more we contorted ourselves into weird positions, peeked and squinted from crazy angles, moved hither and thither to fetch this and that for one matron or another.

We behaved, in effect, like bear cubs around a honey pot. Of course, I admit, in hindsight, that what we kept seeing must have been beauty spots or freckles or moles or birthmarks and, no doubt, on occasions, the odd pimple or wart or razor nicks. Naturally, when we described to our friends all that we had feasted with our eyes, they believed us. And so we felt important. And when we went to sleep counting not sheep but clitorises - we felt sublime. And when we woke up and felt our genitals humming as happily as the night before - we basked in ultimate bliss. An aside here, if I may. We never investigated Sophie's features. She was, after all, family, therefore, immaculate, therefore, non-sexual. Now, looking back on old pictures, I note that she was rather attractive. She had that silky olive-coloured skin that makes Armenians such a handsome race. Moreover, she had not had children, hence, had not enjoyed, in Hamam parlance, "usage".

Consequently, though in her mid- thirties, she was still a woman in her prime. (Sophie never married. When my family moved from Ankara, soon after my bar-mitzvah, she went to work as a cook in a small taverna. We kept in touch. Then, in 1976, she suddenly left her job and disappeared. Her boss, who had been very attached to her, disclosed that she had been seriously ill and presumed that she had gone home to die in the company of ancestral ghosts. Since neither one of us knew the exact place of her birth, our efforts to trace her soon floundered.) Alas, our time in Paradise did not fill a year. Expulsion, when it came, was as sudden and as unexpected as in Eden. And just as brutal. It happened on July 5th. The date is engraved in my mind because it happens to be my birthday.

In fact, the visit to the Baths on that occasion was meant to be Sophie's present to me. As it happened, on that particular day, the Women's Hamam was exceptionally full. Selim and I were having an awfully hard time trying to look in many directions all at once. Such was our excitement that we never blinked once. It was, in effect, the most bounteous time we had ever had. (Given the fact that it was also our last time there, I might be exaggerating. Nostalgia does that.) We must have been there for some time when, lo and behold, we saw one of the women grab hold of an attendant and command her, whilst pointing at us, to fetch the Lady Aunt. It took us an eternity to realize that this nymph of strident fortissimo was the very goddess whom Selim and I adored and worshipped, whose body we had judged to be perfect and divine - we never used one adjective where two could be accommodated - and whom, as a result, we had named "Nilufer" after the water-lily, which, in those days, we believed to be the most beautiful flower in the world. Before we could summon the wits to direct our gaze elsewhere - or even to lower our eyes - Nilufer and the Lady Aunt were upon us, both screaming at lovely Sophie, who had been dozing by the kurna.

Now, I should point out that, Selim and I, having riveted our eyes on Nilufer for months on end, knew very well that she was of a turbulent nature. We had seen her provoke innumerable quarrels, not only with Lady Aunt and the attendants, but also with many of the patrons. The old women, comparing her to a Barbary thoroughbred - and, given the ease with which she moved her fleshy but athletic limbs, a particularly lusty one at that - had attributed her volatility to her recent marriage and summed up her caprices as the dying embers of a female surrendering her existence to her husband, as females should; one day, a week hence or months later, when she would feel that sudden jolt which annunciates conception, she would become as docile as the next woman.

And so on that 5th July, Selim and I had been expecting an outburst from Nilufer - though not against us. She had seemed troubled from the moment she had arrived. And she had kept complaining of a terrible migraine. (The migraine, Sophie wisely enlightened us later, shed light on the real reasons for Nilufer's temper: for some women severe headaches heralded the commencement of their flow; what may have made matters worse for Nilufer - remember she was not long married - might have been the disappointment of the passage of yet another month without conception.) It took us a while to register Nilufer's accusations. She was reproving us for playing with our genitals, touching them the way men do. (I am sure we did, but I am equally sure we did it surreptitiously. Had she been watching us the way we had been watching the women, seemingly through closed eyes?) Sophie, bless her dear heart, defended us like a lioness. "My boys," she said, "know how to read and write. They don't have to play with themselves." This non sequitor enraged Nilufer all the more. Stooping upon us, she took hold of our penises, one in each hand, and showed them to Lady Aunt. "Look," she yelled, "they're almost hard. You can see they're almost hard!" (Were they? I don't know. But, as Selim agreed with me later, the feeling of being tightly held by her hand was sensational.) Lady Aunt glanced at the exhibits dubiously. "Can't be. Their testicles haven't dropped yet..." "Yes. Thanks for reminding me," yelled Sophie. "Their testicles haven't dropped yet!" "They haven't!" Selim interjected bravely. "We'd know, wouldn't we?" Nilufer, waving our penises, shrilled another decibel at Lady Aunt. "See for yourself! Touch them! Touch them!" Shrugging like a long-suffering servant, Lady Aunt knelt by our side. Nilufer handed over our penises like batons.

Lady Aunt must have had greater expertise in inspecting the male member; for as her fingers enveloped us softly and warmly and oh, so amiably, we did get hard - or felt as if we did. We expected Lady Aunt to scream the place down. Instead, she rose from her haunches with a smile and turned to Sophie. "They are hard. See for yourself." Sophie shook her head in disbelief. Nilufer celebrated her triumph by striding up and down the Baths, shouting: "They're not boys! They're men!" Sophie continued to shake her head in disbelief. Lady Aunt patted her on the shoulder, then shuffled away. "Take them home. They shouldn't be here." Sophie, suddenly at a loss, stared at the bathers. She noted that some of them were already covering themselves. Still confused, she turned round to us; then, impulsively, she held our penises. As if that had been the cue, our members shrank instantly and disappeared within their folds. Sophie, feeling vindicated, shouted at the patrons. "They're not hard! They're not!" Her voice echoed from the marble walls. No one paid her any attention.

She remained defiant even as Lady Aunt saw us off the premises. "I'll be bringing them along - next time! We'll be back!" Lady Aunt roared with laughter. "Sure! Bring their fathers, too, why don't you?" And the doors clanged shut behind us. And though Sophie, determinedly took us back several times, we were never again granted admission.