AKP's Gordion knot: Ban on alcohol sales during COVID-19 lockdowns in Turkey
I am now a writer in a country where alcohol sales have been fully banned on the weekends due to the pandemic, or rather, the pandemic has been used as an excuse to ban alcohol sales. It may seem that alcohol would be one of the last knots the AKP government would try and untangle, but perhaps it is a Gordian knot. If this knot is so easily cut by pandemic excuses, rather than a sword like Alexander the Great, then we will soon be nostalgic for the role of alcohol in Turkish culture.
The 12th annual World Rakı Week started on Dec. 1, with World Rakı Day being celebrated on the second Saturday of December. This year, the celebration of Turkey’s anise-flavored alcoholic drink sparked waves of joy which spread throughout Turkey and even to remote corners of the world. Rakı Week, which first popped up in Turkey, is well on its way to becoming a universal celebration. It holds an important place, similar to Germany’s Octoberfest, in the agenda of many gastronomy enthusiasts. Because the hotels, pubs/taverns, and grill houses in the southern city of Adana have been fully booked for months, the nearby cities of Gaziantep and Mersin rescued visitors, making sure that tens of thousands of people would not be left in the streets. At this rate of success, even Turkey’s Golden Orange Film Festival may seem less exciting.
Per usual, Istanbul existed in a different universe. This year, the restaurants that lead Istanbul’s gastronomy world captured hearts with their special concept menus centered around the drink. In addition to the food writers and gastronomic giants we are accustomed to seeing at such events, this year, we have also seen several Hollywood stars sipping raki in the cool Bosporus breeze. I would hate to mention the Alcoholic Beverages Congress, which was organized in concurrence with the Raki Week, in this article, as it deserves a separate piece, but alas, I shall. The congress, in which topics spanning science, technology, agriculture, gastronomy, culture, and politics were harmoniously discussed, reminds us that the world of alcohol is not just about drinking. Not only does it remind us, it gives us a manifesto.
Among the events organized for the congress were workshops about Ottoman palace cuisine, boozing under the moonlight, and the intricacies of drinking on the street and sidewalk. Those whose bodies appeared in the throngs of ecstasy and exhaustion from such workshops were able to seek refuge at the old-school Istanbul watering holes, which sponsored the festival. Of course, the local population of Istanbul, from the low-income district of Bağcılar to the distant farming region of Çatalca, to the Bosporus shores of Sarıyer and Beykoz, also reveled in anise-scented festivities, on balconies, in local establishments, and in public squares.
There are so many topics, I could never possibly cover all of them, but I will draw your attention to one of them, which was added to the festivities only this year: the tour of micro-distilleries. Following a new regulation allowing small distilleries to produce raki, a trip visiting the micro-distilleries in Marmara, the Aegean, and the Southeast regions showed those of us in attendance the rakı-lifeblood previously hidden in the bosom of Anatolia. For now, let me end this article saying, even though it has been only two years since these raki micro-distilleries have been fully-functional, they have already made great contributions to agriculture, farmers, small-scale industry locations, local tourism, and gastronomy far more than most state institutions, monetary holdings, foundations, and NGOs ever could. I tip my hat to this rakı revolution that has finally come to fruition after thousands of years of evolution. I hope to see you all next year. Cheers.
I would love to have penned a story like this for this column. But, unfortunately, it has not happened; it cannot happen. I am now a writer in a country where alcohol sales have been fully banned on the weekends due to the pandemic, or rather, the pandemic has been used as an excuse to ban alcohol sales. You may wonder whether a ban on alcohol should be considered a problem in a country where the Interior Minister spits insults like a child, where appointed officials seek revenge against citizens, where unemployment is completely out of hand, where the economy is a runaway train with broken breaks, and where justice and democracy have been all but permanently shelved. It may seem that alcohol would be one of the last knots the government would try and untangle, but perhaps it is a Gordian knot. If this knot is so easily cut by pandemic excuses, rather than a sword like Alexander the Great, then we will soon be nostalgic for the role of alcohol in Turkish culture. If this is the case, stocking on weekdays is not going to save us. Such a move signals that we are headed toward a Turkey in which it is impossible to talk about the gastronomic and sensory features of drinks.
Bars, taverns, and restaurants in Turkey have been closed, but shopping malls are open. Concerts have all been cancelled, but factories are open. The sale of alcohol is banned during the weekends, but the weekend metrobus is jam-packed. There is no need to search for a justification for this imbalance. Nobody is even remotely interested in whether their justifications are believable to us. We can hear the desire for a political system in which justifying actions is unnecessary at podiums and on televisions, sandwiched between cries of ‘destruction and killing.’
People drink to take a breath, to bond with loved ones, to enjoy a day off, to celebrate, to grieve, to find consolation, to express love and passion. And even if none of these reasons exist, people still drink. There is no need for an explanation, as drinking is a personal choice and a right. Unless it is truly hurting others and society in general, it cannot and should not be restricted. These recent alcohol bans on the weekends, when there is already a curfew, and when bars and pubs are already closed, are really just a clear declaration of desire: “I want you to live the way I tell you to. Do not drink alcohol, even at home.”
Political movements or religious ideologies may have dreams of a permanent ban on alcohol as well as other means of policing people’s lifestyles. Institutional barriers and a public backlash usually prevents these absurd fantasies from coming to fruition. However, in Turkey we have struggled for years with the consequences of such visions of the governing bloc.
Our institutional barriers and public backlash have been hit hard and now have gaping wounds. In a society where even the minimum level of democracy does not exist, one should not forget the lasting impact these decisions can have. History looks bitterly upon such incidents.
Raki Week in Adana and Istanbul has not been celebrated for some time. Millions of Turks want to live in a country where a story like the one at the beginning of this article can be written without a second thought. Unfortunately, these people do not exist inside of a homogeneous ideological, political, class, and cultural box, and therefore, do not wield such power. A portion of our population now must face restrictions on their right to consume alcohol. Alcohol isn’t just alcohol. It is an energizing unifying fault line of society. We will now simply wait and see how this knot will be untied.