Friday, July 24, 2009

It's all relative

This week, feeling my out-of-shapedness (because really, sometimes only a made-up word will do) especially acutely due to the pending departure of my pilates teacher, I finally got off my butt and went to check out a couple of Istanbul's overpriced gyms, including a hotel spor salonu that promised a fitness center, outdoor pool, sauna, Turkish bath, and jacuzzi. What I didn't expect it to provide was a culture shock.

But there it was, staring me in the face when the blasé young fellow showing my friend and I around opened the door to the sauna area: A man and a woman, lounging in white robes. Together. In the same room. With almost their entire legs and arms showing.

Every door our guide opened seemed a window onto an almost Caligula-esque scene. A man in shorts pouring water over a swimsuit-clad woman inside the hamam. Men and women mingling freely inside a shared sauna. I couldn't help feeling I was violating their privacy, and my own.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a prude. In general, I'm pretty much a live-and-let-live type, donning long sleeves and a headscarf when entering a mosque and doffing, well, pretty much everything at a hippie California hot springs. And I know that Turkey -- especially in Istanbul -- is hardly the world's most restrictive society.

What amazes me is the rapid adaptability of the mind, how bare shoulders and knees and mixed-gender bathing can come to seem, momentarily at least, shocking. And when the norm you've become used to is even more modest, it takes even less to scandalize.

In the book I'm currently reading, Shadow of the Silk Road, author Colin Thubron describes an overland trip from western China to eastern Turkey. After spending a few weeks in Afghanistan, where the women pass by anonymously, fully shrouded under burkas, he crosses the border by bus into Iran and steps out into the northern city of Meshed, where he writes:

"As for the women, framed in chadors leaving the face bare, they seemed scandalously exposed. I stared at them rudely as they passed. They had feathery brows and dark, swimming eyes and lashes. Many were softly beautiful. Some wore a brazen hint of lipstick or eye-shadow. They might have been naked."

* Photo from the awesomely I-can't-believe-this-is-really-necessary-well-actually-yes-I-can "Put Your Brits Away" responsible-dress campaign by the UK travel magazine Wanderlust.

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