There are many serious issues facing Turkey, from the crisis in Syria to worsening relations with the central government in Iraq, but lately the country has been caught up in a debate over which beverage can be called the national drink: the anise-flavored spirit raki or the decidedly non-alcoholic yogurt-based ayran?
The debate was first launched by none other than the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who made waves when he declared in a recent speech that Turkey's true national drink is ayran and not raki -- a favorite of Turkish imbibers and of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's secularizing founder. The debate started heating up when, soon after Erdogan's speech, his Islamic-rooted governing party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), announced it would be introducing in parliament new legislation that would limit where alcohol can be sold and consumed and how it could be advertised.
A parliamentary sub-commission today approved a slightly watered-down version of the legislation, but not before the debate over it went from joking to hostile. Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
As the debates on a draft bill restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol kicked off at a parliamentary commission, opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) members offered to serve ayran to their counterparts, mocking the prime minister's promotion of the salty yogurt-based refreshment as Turkey's original "national drink."
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to Washington last week hoping to get Washington to commit to taking a more assertive stance on Syria, but in the end left with very little of what he wanted.
In fact, if anyone changed their positions during the visit, it was the normally strong-headed Erdogan, who came away from his meeting with President Barack Obama in support of Washington's efforts to put together an international conference on solving the crisis in Syria, dubbed Geneva II. Erdogan had previously been dismissive of such a diplomatic effort, calling it a stall tactic by the Assad regime and its supporters, but in Washington he sang a different tune, saying he was now in favor of Geneva II, particularly since Russia -- Assad's main supporter -- and China are now expected to participate.
Veteran Turkish analyst Cengiz Candar, writing for the Al Monitor website, explains how the White House got Erdogan to change positions:
The Americans pampered Erdogan enough to twist his arm without hurting and enabled him to showcase his Washington visit to the Turkish public as a victorious diplomatic fanfare. The meeting of delegations at the White House was unprecedentedly crowded with 1+13, that is in addition to Erdogan and Obama, there were 13 others on both sides. Americans accommodated the Turkish whim for this ludicrous number clearly with prospects of possible profits.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan today heads off to Washington for a two-day visit that will find him and President Barack Obama covering several contentious issues, many of them ones where Turkey and the United States currently don't see eye-to-eye. Turkish-American relations have clearly rebounded from their low point of a few years ago, when the two countries were at odds on a number of fronts, particularly regarding Iran's controversial nuclear program and how to deal with it, but Erdogan's visit will also serve as a test for the two countries' ability to bridge their current disagreements.
Writing in Today's Zaman, columnist Abdullah Bozkurt has a good rundown of what is a fairly extensive list of thorny topics that the two leaders will need to address in their meeting. At the top of the list, of course, is the question of Syria and how to hasten the departure of the Assad regime. As Bozkurt puts it, one thing Obama and Erdogan will have to work through is the Turkish PM's "disappointment" over Washington's reluctance to get more deeply involved -- that is, militarily involved -- in removing Assad.
It's hard to blame Turkish drinkers for being a conspiratorial-minded bunch. Over the last decade, since the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, they have seen taxes on alcohol rise to astronomical levels, bans on outdoor seating for bars instituted in parts of Istanbul and Turkish Airlines, the national carrier, develop a no-alcohol policy for some of its routes.
More recently, Turkish imbibers -- particularly those who like to drink raki, the anise-flavored spirit that many consider to be Turkey's national drink -- got a scare when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that the country's real national beverage was the yogurt-based (and alcohol-free) ayran. Could this be the opening salvo of a new assault on alcoholic beverages, some wondered?
Perhaps so. As Reuters reports, the AKP is now preparing a new bill which would put new limits on how alcoholic drinks are advertised and where they can be served. From Reuters:
The bill, which was sent to parliament on Friday, would also ban companies that produce alcohol from sponsoring events, restrict where alcoholic drinks are sold and consumed, and require Turkish producers to place health warnings on packaging.
"Our aim is to protect society, particularly children and youth from taking up these habits at an early age, and not to limit an adult's alcohol consumption," Yahya Akman, a lawmaker in the ruling AK Party and one of the draft's signatorees, told Reuters on Monday....
....The bill, expected to become a law before parliament recesses in July, would bar venues that allow the sale and consumption of alcohol from openly displaying the products to people outside.
Like in previous years, Turkish police and protesters this year again clashed in the heart of Istanbul after authorities blocked unions and other labor organizations from holding an event celebrating May 1 in downtown Taksim Square.
The excuse for keeping the groups out of Taksim this year was different than in the past, though. This time, authorities said, the square was too dangerous a place to be because of a massive construction project going on there that will redirect car traffic into several underground tunnels and remake Taksim in other ways.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) may have had other motives for closing off Taksim to the labor groups, many of which are fierce opponents of the government, but it's hard to deny that Taksim Square has in fact become one big construction site. Actually, all of Turkey has become a big construction site over the last decade, with cities expanding at a rapid rate and "urban renewal" projects -- most of them initiated by the government-run housing administration, a highly unaccountable body known as TOKI -- changing not only the skyline but also the social fabric of many cities.
The rapid rate of construction is now giving rise to concerns about the "cementization" of Turkey's cities, particularly Istanbul. Writes Bulent Kenes, editor of Today's Zaman, in a very good recent column:
In what could prove to be a historic day for Turkey and the decades-old Kurdish issue, fighters from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) today started withdrawing from Turkish soil and returning to bases in the mountains of northern Iraq.
Turkish security forces manned checkpoints along the mountainous border with Iraq, keeping watch as the agreed pullout started by the first small groups of up to 2,000 Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters.
The withdrawal, ordered late last month by top PKK commander Murat Karayilan, is the biggest step yet in a deal negotiated by the group's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan with Turkish officials to end almost 30 years of conflict.
The PKK has accused the army of endangering the pullout with reconnaissance drones and troop movements they said may trigger clashes. But there was no sign of military activity in the grey skies over southeast Turkey.
"I can say the withdrawal began today based on the information we have," pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) co-leader Gultan Kisanak told Reuters. "Local sources report that the armed PKK militants are on the move."
A cup of the real Turkish coffee, at Mandabatmaz in Istanbul
When water, finely-ground, dark roasted coffee and sugar are put together in a long-handled coffee put and brought to a near boil, is the result "Turkish coffee" or "Greek coffee"? That question, of course, is one that has been vexing the Middle East, Balkans and the Mediterranean for decades.
Inspired by a recent visit to Mandabatmaz, perhaps Istanbul's finest maker of Turkish coffee, reporter Joanna Kakkissis wrote an interesting post for NPR's food-oriented blog, The Salt, in which she took a look at how the politics of Turkish/Greek coffee. From her post:
....Ordering Turkish coffee today doesn't go over well in some Balkan or eastern Mediterranean countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire — even if their preparation of the coffee is remarkably similar.
In Armenia, where the Ottomans led a genocide against more than a million people between 1915 and 1923, it's Armenian coffee. In Sarajevo, Bosnia, I once ordered a "Turkish coffee" only to be corrected by the irritated waiter: "You mean a Bosanska kafa" — a Bosnian coffee. In Cyprus, which the Turks invaded in 1974, it's a kypriakos kafes — Cypriot coffee. (Except in the northern third of the island, which Turkey has occupied since 1974.)
In Greece, where I live and which has a tortured history with Turkey, you order an elliniko — a Greek coffee.
"It wasn't always this way," says Albert Arouh, a Greek food scholar who writes under a pen name, Epicurus. "When I was a kid in the 1960s, everyone in Greece called it Turkish coffee."
Like most other countries, Turkey has no desire to see the current Syrian regime stay in power but also has little appetite for intervening militarily in Syria. At the same time, like many of its neighbors, Ankara is finding itself dealing with a growing Syrian refugee and humanitarian crisis, one that could have a disruptive effect on Turkey's own domestic affairs.
A new report released today the International Crisis Group takes a look at this dynamic, suggesting that Ankara needs to recalibrate its Syria policy if it wants to keep the effects of the conflict in that country from spilling across the border. From the ICG's report:
Turkey has no capacity to solve intractable problems inside Syria alone, and is not considering significant military intervention. Stepped-up arming of opposition fighters seems unlikely to enable them to topple the regime quickly. And Turkey’s wishful thinking about the Ottoman past and a leading historical and economic role in its Sunni Muslim neighbourhood is at odds with the present reality that it now has an uncontrollable, fractured, radicalised no-man’s-land on its doorstep. Meanwhile, the suffering of millions of civilians in Syria continues. Even though Ankara has responded well over the past two years, it will need more support as the refugee crisis becomes larger and protracted. Turkey should allow UN agencies and international humanitarian organisations greater access. EU member states should also show more solidarity by facilitating access to their territory for fleeing Syrians, who should not be turned away at either EU borders and should be granted asylum.
At this point, Turks have become accustomed to having their moralizing Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, offer them tips on how to live. Erdogan has previously urged Turkish families to each have three children and, more recently, asked his fellow citizens to change their eating habits in order to decrease the amount of food they throw away.
Now the PM is wading into an even trickier subject: what should Turks drink. Reuters provides the details:
If you are looking for one sure way to split public opinion in Turkey, just bring up the word alcohol.
That is what Turkey's often divisive prime minister did late on Friday when he pronounced that the national drink was not beer, nor the aniseed spirit raki - choice tipple of Turkey's founding father - but the non-alcoholic yoghurt drink ayran.
Given the setting of his speech - a symposium on global alcohol policy in Istanbul - Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's comments appeared far from controversial, but so sensitive is the topic that the mere mention of it by the pious leader, known for his dislike of alcohol, has Turkey's secularists up in arms.
During the single-party rule of the Turkish Republic's early years by what is now the country's main - and staunchly secularist - opposition party, state promotion of alcohol amounted to propaganda, Erdogan said.
"Beer was unfortunately presented as a national drink. However, our national drink is ayran," he said, referring to the staple lunchtime refreshment of yoghurt, water and salt, usually swilled down with a meaty kebab.
There's no better way to start and end a holiday in Turkey than with a drink, but it appears that some Russian tourists are taking things a bit too far. So much so that Turkish Airlines (THY) is considering making its Russia flight booze-free, according to the Russian Izvestia.
As the publication reported the other day (the photo used to illustrate the article says it all), a THY official told an Izvestiya reporter in Istanbul that the "drunken antics" of some Russian passengers has led the airline to consider taking this action. According to the article, in 2012 some 28 Russians were unruly enough to require police intervention. In the latest episode, a drunken Russian coming back from vacation in Antalya in late March got into a heated on-board argument first with his wife and the, less wisely, with members of a Russian soccer team who where heading back home from a trip to Turkey.
In recent months, THY's alcohol policy was in the news after several Turkish papers reported that the airline is considering ending alcohol service in domestic business class (there is no alcohol served in domestic economy class). This led to accusations that the state-run airline is bowing to the wishes of conservatives in the government of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP). THY already does not serve alcohol on a few international routes, most of them to conservative Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia.
For now, it seems like the Izvestia article was meant to serve as a warning for any hard-partying Russians coming to Turkey to keep their drinking firmly grounded.