Bad Tourist Gets Well: Fancy Fish Food or Miracle Cure?

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Those first moments in the water convinced me that this would be no ordinary treatment.
Ron Alcalay

Issue #21, September 1995


Miles add up. After thirteen years, days before they were to expire, I cashed mine in for a free round-trip to Rome. Planned to see Italy, Greece, and Turkey over two months. I didn't plan to get well, though I thought the vacation — especially the beach days I imagined — might do me good. Few knew of my affliction; I appeared fairly healthy (if not a tad thin) to the world of well-fed family and friends. Certainly strong enough to hoof it around Venice, or haul my backpack to the hostel on Santorini. But beneath the flower print shirt, and spotting my limbs like a leopard, numerous red, scaly patches colonized my skin, itching sometimes and spreading imperceptively. Psoriasis: a word I had read with faint disgust on the labels of dandruff shampoos until a dermatologist pinned it on me. That was about eight years ago, a couple of months after entering grad school, around the time of an endless small-claims affair with a deadbeat "landlord" who later skipped town (but that's another story). This is the story of how, after years of ointments, creams, liquid prescriptions that scalded my scalp with their high potency steroids, ultra-violet light boxes, tar shampoos and applications, surfing therapy, and denial, I landed in a place called Cermik, or Balikli Kaplija, near a city called Sivas, in middle-Eastern Turkey (farther East than I planned to go); and how in this remote place I sat for hours in large pools with Turks, Bahrainis, Saudi Arabians, Libyans and a few Europeans while small fish came to me, biting, nibbling, sucking, and cleaning away my psoriatic skin, healing it, as I later imagined, with their kisses.

I arrived in Turkey tired from the Greek ferry and worn out by the almost compulsory partying I encountered on the "romantic" island of Santorini. Found a hostel with a cheap rooftop bunk, spent an hour with a country map at the Kusadasi tourist office planning the next three weeks, and decided I'd visit a Turkish bath to relax before dinner. I had never been to a Turkish bath before and I worried a lot. "Should I take off my underwear or leave it on?" The young man spoke no English. He led me, a towel wrapped around my naked waist, into the empty chamber, told me to lie belly down on the marble slab, then left the room. Hot marble smelled of accumulated sweat. I imagined germs, diseases entering through porous skin. Tried to relax, breathe it in, accept the odor as part of the experience. Even wondered if it wasn't my own underarm that smelled so powerfully. Breathed that in too, Whitmanian, then worried: "Am I supposed to let him know when I'm ready?" Debated whether to get up or wait. Waited, got up, opened the door an saw the masseuse playing backgammon. Told him I was ready, didn't know what for. He waved me away, and I returned to the slab. By the time he came in, a moustached masseuse was sponging down a German woman on the opposite side of the marble; her husband sat on the perimeter watching (this was not a traditional hamam).

The young masseuse working on my backside paused and I felt maybe he had stopped because of the psoriasis on my shoulders or the spots on my back. I turned and tried to reassure him, as I had done at the outset with other masseuses or lovers, saying, "Don't worry. It's not contagious. It's like dry skin." But he remained skeptical, spoke in Turkish to his friend across the table. A burst of recognition, the word Sivas. "You, Sivas!" Then it passed as though resolved; the young man slapped my ass, and after a brief anxiousness, I gathered that he meant for me to turn over (which produced another awkward moment until I arranged the soaked towel comfortably around my groin).

In the darkened cell upstairs one man dried me, and another served me tea. Downstairs the masseuses played backgammon, but paused when I descended the staircase, feeling luxurious. The young man hopped up, escorted me down, showed me a seat. The moustached one pointed to the red patch in the center of my furry chest and again repeated the magic word "Sivas," making presto motions with his hands as though the word might erase the mark. The owner of the hamam, a youngish, roundish, fair-skinned Turk, limped over to us and explained in English "There is a place near the town of Sivas. If you go there, you will be cured. There are special fish there, only from there. You go in the water and they come and make puck puck puck." Smiling, he pinched at my forearm. The young masseuse grinned. He repeated confidently, "You, Sivas." I thought, "What a curious cure. I may have to visit, if only to see." I thanked them. And then I continued my vacation.

I saw ruins; I saw mosques; I became an expert in accepting the generosity of Turkish rug merchants, who offered me tea unceasingly, though I had not yet managed to buy more than a single kilim vest. Strangely, the spell of Sivas did not dissipate, and I'd find myself being reminded of this purpose in unlikely ways. One afternoon in Istanbul, my third tourist destination, I entered the garden of the Blue mosque, only to be stopped by a dark-eyed young man in a light blue shirt, who stood with a grey-bearded elder wearing a sort of turban. The young man drew me aside and explained graciously that because this was a time of prayer I was not allowed in the mosque; however, if I wished to return after four, he would gladly show it to me. Seeing that he did not appear to want to sell me a rug, I agreed, thanked him, and returned at four. I found him at the same corner entrance and we greeted each other warmly, but before walking across the garden toward the main entrance to the building, he took hold of my arm, pointed to some dry patches on my neck and said emphatically, "You must go to Sivas." I told him that two weeks before some people had told me the same thing. "And you did not go? Why did you not go?" Slightly ashamed now, I told him that I had never been to Turkey before and of the many places I wished to see, and how far away the place appeared on the map. "This does not matter!" Almost angry, he pleaded, "This is your body. If this was my body, I would go now. Allah says, `I would give away all the riches of the world to be rid of my toothache.'" I laughed a little and nodded, imagining Allah with a toothache. Remembered the lines of Confucius I used to quote to my overweight Bulgarian dad: "Let health be represented by the number one. Family, friends, success can all be represented by the number zero. Without the number one, you have nothing. With the number one, each additional zero increaseth your happiness." (I always loved the "increaseth" part. Dad loved the zeros.)

My guide showed me the mosque, and the boy inside who was kneeling down praying because he was to become a man that day. I wasn't sure whether that involved circumcision, but he was praying pretty intensely. I looked around the mosque undistracted by figures of suffering Jesus, solemn Saints, pedantic Popes, or miserable Marys. No Michelangelo masterpieces in that room, just the calming complexity of mesmeric blue tiles and the radiance of ancient chandelier light. Islam was pretty cool, I thought, a remarkable moment for an American Jew.

In Cappadochia, I met another member of the Hebrew tribe, a twenty-six year old, curly-haired M.B.A. named Dan, from Miami, who quit his real-estate developer's job to travel without itinerary. One day while wandering through the smaller streets of Goreme, a young man called out to him. "Do you have the time?" Dan looked at his watch, and answered: three forty-five. The young Turk said, "I'm glad you didn't say `quarter to this' or `half past this,' because that I don't understand." "Here, let me show you," my friend volunteered, and with a stick drew a clock in the dust of the road. Then the young man said, "I must go meet my family. Would you like to come?"

He met the family near the outskirts of town. They had gathered in what appeared to be a small cemetery. The young man explained that the town planned to turn the graveyard into a park so the family had to move their grandmother. The uncles were already digging, mothers and daughters stood around in shawls. Dan offered to help, but before giving him a shovel, an uncle took a copy of the Koran from his wife, found a page and told the American, "First you must repeat after me." He read some words and Dan dutifully repeated. "There," he said to Dan, "Now you are Muslim!" Handed him the shovel. Soon the family members were digging with their hands, pulling out bones one by one, holding them up to their own bodies and wondering what part they were. An uncle pulled out her skull and held it up against the afternoon sky. The aunt took it from him and showed it to the others, caressing the dirty scalp and lamenting in Turkish that the young man later translated, "Remember her lovely hair. She used to be so proud of her hair."

"That would never happen in the States," Dan said, removing his baseball cap, smoothing back his curls and replacing the cap, "we're too afraid of death." Telling this story to me as we walked back to the hostel along Goreme's main road, we heard the last of the daily calls to prayer. Dan stopped, opened his fanny pack, took out a compass, looked at its face, turned to face East, and said, "Praise be to Allah." I looked at him, perplexed. "I'm a Muslim, remember?" I knew he was joking, but I think part of him had become Muslim, and he knew it too.

I was still a tourist when I got off the train a few mornings later near Kangal, the town an hour from Sivas, where everyone said I'd find the fish. With a week left of my vacation, I figured I'd give the fish cure a quick try, cancelled my plans to see the southern coast, gave up the chance to raft a Turkish river and caught a bus East. The place was desolate. I made my way across a dry grass field to the road. An elderly man with a cane came and stood next to me, speaking Turkish. I told him I didn't speak Turkish, but he kept talking to me. I wondered what he was doing there on the road, but I was too tired to communicate. After the long trip East, I just dropped my pack and started practicing tai chi. Must have looked like a cartoon American in my straw cowboy hat and sunglasses. Didn't care. Just wanted to arrive somewhere, anywhere, even if the springs were dry and the fish were dead.

Every five minutes a car passed packed with men in the front seat, veiled women and children in back. I wondered where they were going, decided to hitch-hike. Chose a direction, somewhat randomly. Eventually three men picked me up, going to Cermik at last. At the gate a guard collected cash, thirty thousand for the normal people, three-hundred thousand for the sick. Thought I'd save some money. "I'm not so sick," I said. Inside I learned that each group went to different pools, and I wanted the most effective treatment so one of my drivers took me to the office where I paid for two days, full sick man's price. Mustafa included a tepee in the bargain. So I was paying about seven bucks for the spa, including tepee lodging. When I entered the outdoor pool area, fifty dark-skinned men looked up from the water. A few raised their voices in anger when I attempted to get right in, and I understood that I must shower first so I did, thankful for the concern with cleanliness.

Those first moments in the water convinced me that this would be no ordinary treatment. I descended the steps into the hexagonally shaped pool, and immediately saw and felt the fish around me. Some nibbled, tickling at my back as I moved slowly across the pool to an empty space near the far wall. Others waited until I came to rest, then pecked again and again at my chest. A fair number gathered at a red oval on my ankle and fluttered between my toes. I watched a silvery one bite a psoriatic patch on my forearm. Mostly I was too shocked to watch. I let out little yelps and squeals. A black man with a reckless smile laughed, imitated me and asked me where I was from. "California." "California!" He told his friends across the pool. A ripple of general approval. "My name is Ibrahim," he said. "Relax, the fish are good; they will not hurt you." "It sort of tickles," I said. "Yes, some tickle, and some will bite you hard, but don't worry, you'll learn. How long are you here?" "I only planned to stay a couple of days, maybe a week." "Well, you will feel better. Still, you must stay three weeks, two weeks minimum, and then you will be cured." Ibrahim spoke matter-of-factly, and he became my friend. An international telephone operator from Bahrain, he knew everyone in the pool, and joked with Saudis and Libyans in Arabic, Westerners in English, and Turks in bits of Turkish, smiles, and emphatic gestures. The Turkish kids especially loved him, hung on his strong arms, and sponged the warm water over his close-shaved head.

Many of the men had shaved, and I saw that their scalps were clear of psoriasis. I had medium-length hair, had always had medium-length hair except for a time in the seventies when my Mom let it grow medium-long. The hair covered over the psoriatic skin on my scalp, but flakes always found their home on the shoulders of dark blue shirts, black jackets, green sweaters, and scarves. Close friends and girlfriends brushed them away; the rest of the world didn't notice, or as I conceived, took notice and remained silent, swallowing their appraisal like excess saliva that one finds distastefully in one's own mouth. I wasn't averse to shaving, but the occasion took me by surprise. On the third day (for I had extended my vacation two more days), I entered the indoor pool late in the morning. A roar echoed across the pool and out through the open windows below the roof, where the air circulated and doves would occasionally mate before our eyes. A Turk who would later call me "Mister Spock" led me to the old barber and introduced us.

I had seen the old guy before. He visited every couple of days, wearing grey pants and suspenders over a puffy white shirt, looking like an eighty-year-old Turkish version of Charlton Heston in a beanie cap. He'd stand at the rim of the pool and deliver nationalistic political speeches, and everyone would cheer, though I suspected half did so to satisfy the guy so he'd be quiet. Lots of us liked the quiet; we'd arrive early, close our eyes and sense only the intermittent nibbles of the fish (there were less fish in the indoor pool, and they ate less after cleaning you the first couple of days). Anyway, I guess the men in the pool liked to keep the old barber employed, so when the dark-haired American sauntered in they immediately saw a customer, and I was unknowingly volunteered for the barber's chair. When we shook hands the barber took my other hand and began to dance with me, slowly, in a circle; and with each step he'd call out "Da-" so that we circled to the sound of "da-da-da-da-da." Once in awhile he yelled "Whoopa!" and we circled faster until our tight grip was the only thing that kept the centrifugal force from casting us across the marble deck or into the pool with the bathers.

At last I sat and he shaved away manually at the months of thick black growth, a bald highway appearing down the middle of my scalp, expanding to three lanes, the "Happiness" scissors made in China doing their work efficiently, with little pain. After it was over, I relented to shaving my chest and back. At last I stood; we danced again and I removed his beanie, placing a hand atop his baldness. He put his hand on my fresh head and we jumped up and down like kids to the joy of the crowd. Looking around at the smiling faces in the pool, I felt I had joined their club. Not only did our illnesses bind us together as fellow sufferers (and some suffered terribly, their bodies encrusted like barnacles), but now we were also committed to healing ourselves, without concern for appearance or fashion. As Ibrahim said when I balked at getting my chest shaved, "Don't worry man, we're not here to look good." He was right, but in another sense all of us were there to look good, and we often showed each other the signs of our improvement, comparing battle wounds and their miraculous transformation into normal (though slightly darker) skin.

Even the women, who we would meet at the restaurant during meals — since when we were in one pool they were in the other — would comment quite openly about our improvement or their own, showing us patches that had gone away or that remained. Whereas before I had lost faith in a cure for my condition and had capitulated to the dermatologists' pessimistic predictions that the psoriatic skin would never disappear, though the symptoms could lessen if I tried yet another treatment, everyone at Cermik believed, as I began to believe, that his place could cure us, completely.

The people who came to Cermik (or "Balikli Kaplija" — since I'm still not sure which name I prefer, nor what they mean, if anything) participated in a wonderful ritual each time someone finished their treatment. On the last day of their stay, they would buy bags of sweets, enough for everyone, and we'd distribute them in the pool, chewing taffees as they stood on deck voicing their farewells. Sometimes men would deliver short speeches, or wacky re-enactments from the previous night's soccer match; sometimes they would cry. Often people would get out of the pool and embrace the ones who were leaving. Those were happy moments. Sometimes the man would be cured, like the young Tunisian French guy who couldn't wait to get back to the women of Nice; or other times they'd simply be better. Perhaps they couldn't stay any longer.

I extended my stay to two weeks, moved in with a young Belgian named Olivier, who had a spare bed. Soon I was moving freely in both pools. The fish still came to me and I welcomed them like friends. The kids also liked to hang around the American, and I guess I scored some points for teaching them some silly hand games. I joined the hold-your-breath underwater contests with the teenagers, and talked about the causes and cure of sedev (psoriasis) with the adults, for whom the topic never lost its interest. All had tried the doctors' expensive drugs, and the Western ways had failed them. Desperation, or hope (or in my case, the impulses of a bad tourist) led them to Cermik, and here in the presence of miracles, our faith in another method of treatment grew. Sometimes a man with a particularly bad case would appear, his body eighty-percent covered with thick, inflamed, cracked, and bleeding skin. He would lower himself into the pool, the fish would swarm around him, devouring the feast of his skin. He'd wear a coat of fish. Though he might not have been able to move, or even open his eyes when he arrived, being aided in all things by a dutiful son, after three days this man would be bobbing up and down in the pool, sponging the clear water over his own head. We could see the transformation.

Most weren't so ill. In fact the people from the nearby villages came even though they didn't have sedev, but most would hang out by the river, where the fish also swam in numbers. After sharing a family picnic underneath some trees, family members would soak their feet in the river, some wearing their shawls or turbans — modesty being expected among religious Muslims — and the fish would nibble at their feet. Of course within the walls of both pools, the men sometimes let their bathing suits drop to their ankles, and the women were rumored to remove their tops. I admit to bathing naked with the fish, and though I may have experienced a few perverted moments, feeling aroused by their nibbling, I maintain that it was all in the interest of my health, and deny any lingering fetish for fish.

I gave away apricots when I left Cermik, and said, "Goodbye Sedev!" It's mostly clear now, and I believe it will never return so badly. If some reappears, I'll visit my friends again. Doctors will send me to the pharmacy, but I'll go to Turkey.

Ron Alcalay teaches at UC Berkeley, where he is writing a dissertation entitled "Adamant Immaturity," on narrative in the nineteen fifties. He can be reached by email at: ronal@uclink.berkeley.edu.

Copyright © 1995 by Ron Alcalay. All rights reserved.

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