Turkey's musicians challenge alcohol ban during COVID-19 lockdown

The ban on alcohol sales during the current COVID-19 lockdown is just one example of the increasing restrictions on personal liberties in Turkey. Musicians were also quick to express their outrage at the unconstitutional banning of alcohol sales. Maybe a single lyric or a single tweet cannot challenge power, but music plays an important role in keeping cultural memory alive.

On April 26, President Erdoğan announced new measures to curb the extreme rise in Turkey’s COVID-19 cases. There had long been rumors that a full lockdown was coming which eventually proved true. Yet the first question on many minds was what exactly the lockdown would entail. For example, we have all resentfully adapted to alcohol sales been banned during the weekday curfews (7 pm) and the full weekend lockdowns. If Turkey is now locking down for 17 straight days, does this mean that alcohol will also be banned for this whole period? Do we need to start stocking up? Eventually, state representatives clarified the issue: yes, though supermarkets will be open, alcohol sales are banned until after the Ramadan holiday.
 
The ban may be lifted, but what happened next is still instructive.
 
The backlash was swift. Outraged citizens gathered on social media under the hashtag #Donttouchmyalcohol. The president of Turkey’s Liquor Store Platform released combative statements arguing (correctly) that this ban on alcohol sales (a legal product in Turkey) is unconstitutional. Individual liquor stores vowed to defy the ban in an act of civil disobedience and lawyers volunteered to defend them should they receive fines. Meanwhile, regular people still unsure about which way the wind would blow began to stock up on beer, wine, and spirits—just in case.
 
Musicians were also quick to express their outrage at the unconstitutional banning of alcohol sales. It all began when the rock group Duman tweeted “Will I drink tonight?” in reference to their famous song “Bu Akşam.” Duman was then quoted by rock legends Mor ve Ötesi, who tweeted out their lyrics: “Look, this is the final curtain / There is no performance from here on out / There is no light / No nothing.” These lyrics from “Bir Derdim Var” were used to suggest that the temporary ban on alcohol sales is just one in a series of measures interfering in people’s personal freedoms and lifestyles. The problem is not just alcohol but the increasing arbitrariness of what is banned under the pretext of the pandemic. If people continue to accept these bans, pretty soon it will be too late.
 
After those bands on Twitter, Yüksek Sadakat chimed in with a famous lyric about getting drunk. They were followed by Anadolu Rock legends Moğollar with lines from their protest song “Dinleyiverin Gari” about “cannibals eating up the treasury” and how the country has been ruined.  On and on it went, with Hayko Cepkin and Gaye Su Akyol joining the viral chain.
 
For the small segment of the population that is liberal-leaning and “extremely online,” it was inspiring to see a number of famous bands speak out creatively against the alcohol ban. The 163,000 people who liked Duman’s tweet probably felt relief to see their thoughts and worries expressed in this way. However, it is hard not to have doubts about how effective this style of viral, digital protest actually is. Is it anything more than blowing off steam? Surely, the organized struggle of the liquor stores and the lawyers challenging the legality of the ban are the ones at the front lines. What role do musicians have to play in all of this?
 
Not very much of a role at all, according to BirGün music critic Barış Akpolat. He took to twitter to write that it was disappointing to see that so many thought this form of digital protest had any sort of effect at all. “We passed this point 10 years ago,” Akpolat wrote. “Challenging the trampling of our basic rights and freedoms with screams of ‘I’m going to drink tonight’ is so tragicomic that one must cringe.”
 
Akpolat is correct up to a point. The echo-chamber of online activism has little effect on the halls of power. No politician is quaking in their boots and deciding to retract a piece of legislation because a tweet got one thousand or even one million likes. Certainly, it can provide an emotional release to express one’s discontent and rage online with the kind of sarcastic wit characteristic of the young opposition. But we also saw this charming form of humor back in the protests of 2013 and we all know what became of that movement. Wit and humor are necessary, but they are not sufficient.
 
At the same time, musicians in general and artists more broadly do have a role to play in challenging the increasing interference into people’s lifestyle. And this role is to insist on the critical importance of things as seemingly trivial as getting drunk when and how one wishes.
 
Let me explain. It is highly unlikely that this country will ever formally announce that it is switching to Islamic law, though some Islamist circles in Turkey are currently salivating with excitement. Similarly, the old secularist cries of “Turkey will be the next Iran” are still comical, though one can perhaps appreciate the all-too-real fear that lies at the bottom of this sentiment. The truth is that the alarming changes in lifestyle and social norms that have been occurring in Turkey since the early 2000s is much more incremental.
 
Again, alcohol provides a good example of this. First you raise the taxes so less and less people can afford to drink. Then you ban alcohol from advertising, television, and campuses so that it seems more and more marginal. Then you ban it on weekends, then on weekday evenings, and then a practice run where its banned (along with restaurants) for the entirety of Ramadan. And you can guess what comes next.
 
Again, alcohol is just one example of the increasing restrictions on personal liberty. The process is usually tested out on more isolated communities. For example, some argue that the ancestor of this alcohol ban is the ban on Istanbul’s Pride March since 2014. Though LGBTIQ+ people and their allies have continued to fight for visibility and gather for Pride despite police repression, the lack of wider solidarity has shown that it is easy indeed to take away freedoms.
 
But what about musicians and getting drunk? The role of artists can be to refuse the normalization of bans, restrictions, and the erasing of public memory. Some of you will remember the “Vardar Ovası” incident in 2013. Then-deputy prime minister Bülent Arınç objected to the performance of this Balkan folk song at a cultural event he attended because it references saving up for “rakı money.” Then there was the fiasco over the Adana Rakı and Şalgam Festival, which was banned by the Adana Governor. This decision was defended by Süleyman Soylu who claimed that “rakı has no place in our culture.”
 
Of course, there is extensive documentation of the consumption of alcoholic beverages in the Ottoman Empire. The incredible regional variety of meze alone is enough to show how long rakı has been enjoyed across the geography of Thrace and Anatolia. Yet these arguments remain somewhat academic. It is in songs that we see alcohol’s important place in these lands: from old folk songs like “Vardar Ovası” to modern classics like Dario Moreno’s “Her Akşam Votka Rakı ve Şarap” and even contemporary favorites like Duman’s “Bu Akşam.” (For the relationship between music and drinking, I recommend taking a look at music critic Murat Meriç’s wonderful book “Hayat Dudaklarında Mey.”)
 
The point is not that a single lyric or a single tweet can challenge power, but that music plays an important role in keeping cultural memory alive. It is essential not to give a single inch on the question of memory. Something can be banned, but is only when even the memory of it has been altered or erased that there is no hope left.

April 02, 2021 Aegean off-season