The sun has just risen. Nebahat sits under the largest dome, on the central marble, with her head dropped down. She’s pondering who knows what, wiggling her toes in her plastic slippers. Her eye catches one or two frail hairs on her legs. She attempts to pull them out with her fingers. There’s still time until the arrival of souls that have spent the night in filth.
The employees are just coming in. Nebahat is always the first. She opens up shop and wears her worn one-piece swimsuit. She ties her towel under her breasts. Her slippers are plastic, instead of wooden, to prevent the risk of falling. On busy days, she runs around a lot. She despises the trashy pink slippers, repelled by their cheapness and the darkened indents and ridges on their soles. In fact, she avoids looking at her feet as much as she can.
Every morning, she is surrounded by chatty women’s complaints and the buzz of their gossiping. She rarely wants to say a word. Even if she were to talk, what could she say? How her two-bedroom house was taken away from her after city planning? Or maybe how every living being in her house from her husband to the plants are now crippled? No, the tiring moss of her femininity was far from being good conversation material, speaking of that would make her jump from the nearest place and die, so that she would hear none of that. When one doesn’t have a choice but to find a solution in the midst of intercepting tram rails, complaining isn’t worth much, is it?
Nebahat slowly stands up and moves towards the hall. Those coming in to get cleaned are changing in cabins; in the meantime, she takes a sip from her tea. Then, she puts her hands on her love handles and goes on registering customers.
The exact age of the bath is unknown, but its circular shape with big and small domes contrasts with the ridged and pointy roofs at the other side of the city. Her desperation aside, Nebahat works here because of that tranquility. Every time she enters through the wide wooden door, where honks and dusty air can’t reach, she cares less about the engulfing humidity. Plus, she’s imagining women from the eighteenth century passing through the halls with their clacking wooden slippers. Golden earrings. Bridal parties with singing and dancing, how would henna red look on her hair? She sometimes lies on the smooth central marble and watches the sparkling holes of the dome. She knows about the foul birds outside, trying to catch the warmth coming out from them.
Nebahat whispers the name of a younger woman waiting at the hall. She leads her through three doors, lays down a towel next to a basin, invites her to sit. She gets out of her own towel and pours water on herself. With the gold-ornamented copper bath cup, she then heads over to pour water on the woman. Slowly but steadily, she washes every inch of her arms, legs, and back, speeding the process that will make the filth come off. The woman, in her underwear, has already surrendered to Nebahat. She enjoys that moment of submission. There’s even a tiny feeling of love involved. She takes the woman’s hand and escorts her to the central stone with confident steps, making sure she doesn’t slip. The towel now on the stone, she lays what she thinks of as her baby’s body on it. Women let her take control, and their vulnerability makes them seem like babies in her eyes. She carefully lifts the woman’s head, places a styro-foam pillow underneath and asks if she’s comfortable. All set, she puts on her loofah glove and starts rubbing the skin. Ankles, kneecaps, upper legs. When the skin turns pink and lines of dirty dead skin accumulate, her soul pours down from the drains and the soul of the very first woman to ever wash others in this bath comes in its place. A heavy, layered wisdom sits on her shoulders, strength travels to her thick wrists and floppy arms.
But then, she develops a thirst. For every necessity that comes with being a woman. A halo of steam swirls over her head. She finds herself in a state of shock, as if she never touched a naked woman before. In the heat coming off the stone, pinkish flesh, various moles, birthmarks, peach fuzz, and all sorts of body parts appear. She sees the women of ancient times, swarming the place. In the meantime, she carries on rubbing the back under the loofah. The heat lights a torch in her eyes, she shivers deep within. She starts to sing a song that she remembers in a way that only the woman can hear.
Nebahat, with the tune between her lips, stares at the women dancing around and jiggling their hips. As she’s sending filth clumps away with hot water, she’s searching for a look indicating familiarity in their eyes. But, alas, in vain. So she seeks refuge in the pristine scent coming off the bubbling soap. The skin, now turned almost sheer white, keeps loosening under her hands, and Nebahat is picturing a blade with a golden handle.
If she’s the one washing off all that sin, she should be the purest of all, the most innocent.
At one corner, some girls are having fun, throwing cups of water at each other. Nebahat thinks of the gravity and dignity of women in the olden days and admires them. Large breasts, wet chests, and silver pitches provide rhythm to her tune. She starts massaging the relaxed body and, all of a sudden, she hears the sound of a tambourine. An odalisque with purple bags under her eyes and gray hair ornamented with gold sprinkles of years’ worth of experience taps her shoulder. “You’ve been down for way too much time now, don’t you think?”
Her panicked gaze checks the surroundings to see if anyone else heard the odalisque speaking. The woman is almost dozing off, and others are minding their own business. The tambourine rings again, and strings of lute tremble slowly. The women, all with the same well-behaved expression and weak smiles, are looking at Nebahat. Fans everywhere, green, blue, red, pink. Made of voile, with engraved handles. Gold bracelets jingle on arms. Nebahat continues grooming. She washes the hair of the baby and combs with a mother’s affection. Taste of spicy candy still in her mouth.
It’s as if she isn’t the one to hurry to the ferry making rounds to the other side of the city then get on the bus using the scraps of the day’s tip. As if she’s not going to empty the bedpan first thing when she gets to her house, which, frustratingly, couldn’t be heated in winter or cooled in summer. Nebahat surely isn’t one of those with a husband whose face provokes the same feelings as her pink slippers, she surely won’t count the broken tiles of a kitchen as she cooks amidst pink onion smells. Tonight, Nebahat will pack her tips, which is a heavy sack of gold coins. She will have someone else open the door of a chariot with velvet covered seats. Her skirts will be of silk from Bursa, and her shoes will have pearls attached to them. She’ll get home and eat finger-thin stuffed vine leaves with olive oil and raisins.
She helps the woman get up, wraps a dry towel around her chest, and covers her shoulders with another. “Have fun getting dirty,” she says to her as the woman walks away with baby steps.
Nebahat walks up to the odalisque, snaps the tambourine from her hands. She gets on the central stone and starts swaying her arms.
“Bir dalda iki kiraz, biri al biri beyaz.”
The birds on the dome outside lose balance and fall.
Nazli Karabiyikoglu is a Turkish author, now full-time resident in Georgia, who recently escaped from the political, cultural, and gender oppression in Turkey. She helped create the #MeToo movement within the Turkish publishing industry, from which she was then excommunicated. With an M.A. in Turkish Language and Literature from Bogazici University, Karabıyıkoglu has five published books in Turkish and has recently completed translations of two new books for international publication. Having won six literary awards in her country, she has been actively writing for magazines since 2009.