Performance in the raw:
some aspects of the ritual of the
Victorian Turkish bath

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Victorian Turkish Baths: their origin, development, and gradual decline

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6. The hand-clapping ritual

Urquhart’s encouragement of politeness, of not disturbing other bathers, was fundamental. Trollope again:

The true devotee to the Turkish bath will, we think, never speak at all; but when the speaking is low in tone, just something between a whisper and an articulate sound, the slight murmuring hum produced is not disagreeable. We cannot quite make up our mind whether this use of the human voice be or be not oriental; but we think that it adds to the mystery, and upon the whole it gratifies.

Even today, one private members’ club in London has strictly enforced Silence notices in every area of the bath. The London Hammam merely encouraged quiet behaviour and bathers summoned attendants in the received eastern manner.

Though undoubtedly exaggerated, Trollope’s account of the hand-clapping ritual shows his awareness of the sparks which occasionally flew between those who enjoyed the bath for its beneficial effect irrespective of its origin, and those for whom the oriental mystique, customs and manner were a major fascination.

Very much will depend on the manner in which he claps his hands, and the hollowness of the voice in which he calls for water. There should, we think, be two blows of the palms. One is very weak and proclaims its own futility. Even to dull London ears it seems at once to want the eastern tone. We have heard three given effectively, but we think that it requires much practice; and even when it is perfect, the result is that of western impatience rather than of eastern gravity. No word should be pronounced, beyond that one word,—Water.

Two claps of the hand and a call for water, and that repeated with an interval of ten minutes, are all the external signs of life that the young Turkish bather may allow to himself while he is stretched upon his marble couch.

This page reformatted 29 October 2018

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