Lentils in Paradise
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 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
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
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
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'
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
(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
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
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
And the doors clanged shut behind us.
And though Sophie, determinedly took us back several times, we
were never again granted admission.