The Homoeroticism of an Azerbaijan Bathhouse
Laying flat on my stomach, I feel the hot wood slats of the steamroom benches press against my bare skin. But this will seem tepid in comparison to the searing heat that is about to turn my flesh red.
Standing over me is a muscular, hairy-chested man in tight black shorts that cling seductively to his athletic body. He is about to give me a good thrashing.
The man is named Mohammed, and he speaks just enough English for us to understand the basics from one another. I speak no Azeri, the language of Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic sandwiched between Russia to the north and Iran to the south. Georgia and Armenia border the west, while the great Caspian Sea defines the eastern boundary.
Baku, Azerbaijan's capital, and with nearly two million inhabitants by far the country's largest city, has seen a steady stream of foreigners since oil was discovered here more than a hundred years ago. (Just after the turn of the century, half the world's oil was supplied through this city.)
But 69 years of Soviet rule meant few Westerners, and tourists are still rare enough to excite interest and curiosity from locals like Mohammed. He took me under his wing as soon as he saw me enter the bathhouse as an obviously clueless foreigner attempting communication with the wrinkled, pot-bellied old man in charge, who waved me in and pointed me to my locker.
Similar to Turkey, baths in Azerbaijan are a long and treasured part of the cultural history. This particular bathhouse, called the Old Town Hamam, is located in Baku's Old City, a collection of domed, medieval buildings and mud-brick minarets surrounded by an imposing 14th century wall. The paint inside the bathhouse's domed ceilings is slightly peeling, and there are no brilliant-colored, Islamic-inspired tiles that cover many of the other more affluent bathhouses in the city. But with its marble fountain centerpiece, faded woven carpets strung along the walls, and gaggles of men sitting around sipping lemon tea, no other hamam comes even close to this one for atmosphere.
Or for hot men with dark features and hairy bodies running around in wet shorts or underwear.
And this brings me back to Mohammed, standing over me, about to give me a flogging. We're in the steamroom, and he's holding a spray of leafy oak branches tied together with twine. Supposedly, beating the skin with the soaked oak leaves improves your complexion and circulation.
Mohammed swings the bouquet of leaves, and they sting against my body. He covers my legs, back, and shoulders in strokes, then flips me over and repeats the flagellation to my chest and stomach. Periodically, rather than beating me with the sprigs, he simply lays them gently on my body and slowly presses down. The heat is extreme, and causes me to cry out—as much in surprise as in anything you might call pain. Apparently, it is a test of manliness to see how long you can endure the temperature from such a crush. Mohammed's eyes dance in delight as he watches me squirm under the heat, and he laughs out loud.
The sensation is exhilarating, and wildly erotic. I hope I am not getting an erection underneath my shorts as I watch this muscled man lift and swing the branches across my body.
When we finish in the steamroom, Mohammed grabs my hand and we literally run, in plastic slippers, out of the sauna and across the puddled floor of a large room filled with marble-slab massage tables. At the far end, we climb the slightly rusty rungs of a metal ladder and jump into the chilling water of the shock pool. Mohammed puts his hand behind my head, and force-dunks me under the surface.
The rush I get is partly due to the extreme contrast in temperature between the scorching heat of the oak leaves and the ice cold water. And partly due to the undercurrent of homoeroticism that envelops the whole experience.
Experts on Azeri culture who I interview, both American and Azeri, repeatedly insist that the bathhouse tradition here is not laced with homosexual undertones, that I am simply projecting my narrow, Americanized, maybe homo-centric view of the world onto it.
Maybe. But I prefer to believe that there was flirtation in Mohammed's eyes and in his touch, when he rested his hands on my shoulders in the cold pool. And when I looked up at him in the steamroom, reigning over my body with the oak branches, I had a Tom-of-Finland moment that could be the fantasy stuff of anyone who's ever been to a leather bar.
After several turns at the steam bath and dipping pool, Mohammed and I return to the front room of the bathhouse and sit on tiny square stools to drink our lemon tea. There's a saying in Azeri that is uttered at the end of a particularly good bath: 'Hamiser tamislikhter.'
As Mohammed and I clink our hot tea glasses in a toast, I say it with gusto.