Mark Twain Takes a Turkish Bath

Mark Twain and the Turkish Bath Experience.


When I think how I have been swindled by books of Oriental travel, I want a tourist for breakfast. For years and years I have dreamed of the wonders of it; for years and years I have promised myself that I would yet enjoy one. Many and many a time, in fancy, I have lain in the marble Turkish bath, and breathed the slumbrous fragrance of Eastern spices that filled the air; then passed through a weird and complicated system of pulling and hauling, and drenching and scrubbing, by a gang of naked savages who loomed vast and vaguely through the steaming mists, like demons; then rested for a while on a divan fit for a king; then passed through another complex ordeal, and one more fearful than the first; and, finally, swathed in soft fabrics, been conveyed to a princely saloon and laid on a bed of eider down, where eunuchs, gorgeous of costume, fanned me while I drowsed and dreamed, or contentedly gazed at the rich hangings of the apartment, the soft carpets, the sumptuous furniture, the pictures, and drank delicious coffee, smoked the soothing narghili, and dropped, at the last, into tranquil repose, lulled by sensuous odors from unseen censers, by the gentle influence of the narghili's Persian tobacco, and by the music of fountains that counterfeited the pattering of summer rain.

Mark Twain American Writer Creator of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain American Writer Creator of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry FinnPhotographic Print
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That was the picture of a Turkish bath, just as I got it from incendiary books of travel. It was a poor, miserable imposture. The reality of a Turkish bath is no more like it than the Five Points are like the Garden of Eden. They received me in a great court, paved with marble slabs; around it were broad galleries, one above another, carpeted with seedy matting, railed with unpainted balustrades, and furnished with huge rickety chairs, cushioned with rusty old mattresses, indented with impressions left by the forms of nine successive generations of men who had reposed upon them. The place was vast, naked, dreary; its court a barn, its galleries stalls for human horses. The cadaverous, half nude varlets that served in the establishment had nothing of poetry in their appearance, nothing of romance, nothing of Oriental splendor. They shed no entrancing odors --just the contrary. Their hungry eyes and their lank forms continually suggested one glaring, unsentimental fact--they wanted what they term in California "a square meal."

I went into one of the racks of the Turkish bath and undressed. An unclean starvelingwrapped a gaudy table-cloth about his loins, and hung a white rag over myshoulders. If I had had a tub then, it would have come natural to me totake in washing. I was then conducted down stairs of the Turkish bath into the wet, slipperycourt, and the first things that attracted my attention were my heels.My fall excited no comment. They expected it, no doubt. It belonged inthe list of softening, sensuous influences peculiar to this home ofEastern luxury. It was softening enough, certainly, but its applicationwas not happy. They now gave me a pair of wooden clogs--benches inminiature, with leather straps over them to confine my feet (which theywould have done, only I do not wear No. 13s.) These things dangleduncomfortably by the straps when I lifted up my feet, and came down inawkward and unexpected places when I put them on the floor again, andsometimes turned sideways and wrenched my ankles out of joint. However,it was all Oriental luxury, and I did what I could to enjoy it.

They put me in another part of the barn and laid me on a stuffy sort ofpallet, which was not made of cloth of gold, or Persian shawls, but wasmerely the unpretending sort of thing I have seen in the negro quartersof Arkansas. There was nothing whatever in this dim marble prison of the Turkish bath butfive more of these biers. It was a very solemn place. I expected thatthe spiced odors of Araby were going to steal over my senses now, butthey did not. A copper-colored skeleton, with a rag around him, broughtme a glass decanter of water, with a lighted tobacco pipe in the top ofit, and a pliant stem a yard long, with a brass mouth-piece to it.

It was the famous "narghili" of the East--the thing the Grand Turk smokesin the pictures. This began to look like luxury. I took one blast atit, and it was sufficient; the smoke went in a great volume down into mystomach, my lungs, even into the uttermost parts of my frame. I explodedone mighty cough, and it was as if Vesuvius had let go. For the nextfive minutes I smoked at every pore, like a frame house that is on fireon the inside. Not any more narghili for me. The smoke had a viletaste, and the taste of a thousand infidel tongues that remained on thatbrass mouthpiece was viler still. I was getting discouraged. Whenever,hereafter, I see the cross-legged Grand Turk smoking his narghili, inpretended bliss, on the outside of a paper of Connecticut tobacco, Ishall know him for the shameless humbug he is.

This prison of a Turkish bath was filled with hot air. When I had got warmed upsufficiently to prepare me for a still warmer temperature, they took mewhere it was--into a marble room, wet, slippery and steamy, and laid meout on a raised platform in the centre. It was very warm. Presently myman sat me down by a tank of hot water, drenched me well, gloved his handwith a coarse mitten, and began to polish me all over with it. I beganto smell disagreeably. The more he polished the worse I smelt. It wasalarming. I said to him:

"I perceive that I am pretty far gone. It is plain that I ought to beburied without any unnecessary delay. Perhaps you had better go after myfriends at once, because the weather is warm, and I can not 'keep' long."

He went on scrubbing, and paid no attention. I soon saw that he was reducing my size. He bore hard on his mitten, and from under it rolled little cylinders, like maccaroni. It could not be dirt, for it was too white. He pared me down in this way for a long time. Finally I said: "It is a tedious process. It will take hours to trim me to the size you want me; I will wait; go and borrow a jack-plane." He paid no attention at all. After a while he brought a basin, some soap, and something that seemed to be the tail of a horse. He made up a prodigious quantity of soap-suds, deluged me with them from head to foot, without warning me to shut my eyes, and then swabbed me viciously with the horse-tail. Then he left me there, a snowy statue of lather, and went away. When I got tired of waiting I went and hunted him up in the Turkish bath house. He was propped against the wall, in another room, asleep. I woke him. He was not disconcerted. He took me back and flooded me with hot water, then turbaned my head, swathed me with dry table-cloths, and conducted me to a latticed chicken-coop in one of the galleries, and pointed to one of those Arkansas beds. I mounted it, and vaguely expected the odors of Araby a gain. They did not come. The blank, unornamented coop had nothing about it of that oriental voluptuousness one reads of so much. It was more suggestive of the county hospital than any thing else. The skinny servitor brought a narghili, and I got him to take it out again without wasting any time about it. Then he brought the world-renowned Turkish coffee that poets have sung so rapturously for many generations, and I seized upon it as the last hope that was left of my old dreams of Eastern luxury. It was another fraud. Of all the unchristian beverages that ever passed my lips, Turkish coffee is the worst. The cup is small, it is smeared with grounds; the coffee is black, thick, unsavory of smell, and execrable in taste. The bottom of the cup has a muddy sediment in it half an inch deep. This goes down your throat, and portions of it lodge by the way, and produce a tickling aggravation that keeps you barking and coughing for an hour. Here endeth my experience of the celebrated Turkish bath, and here also endeth my dream of the bliss the mortal revels in who passes through it. The Turkish bath is a malignant swindle. The man who enjoys a Turkish bath is qualified to enjoy any thing that is repulsive to sight or sense, and he that can invest a Turkish bath with a charm of poetry is able to do the same with any thing else in the world that is tedious, and wretched, and dismal, and nasty.

Slip on over to Mark Twain's main travel page after reading about his disappointing Turkish Bath.
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