Turkey: Parliament Debates What is the National Drink
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.
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."
The move to have ayran served to the commission members led to general witticisms being exchanged at the Planning and Budget Commission session. Some CHP deputies demanded "a pint" of ayran, while members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) reiterated that they considered the refreshment to be the genuine national drink.
During the ayran service, one CHP deputy asked for a glass of rakı, the aniseed-flavored alcoholic drink usually consumed with mezzes and a must in traditional meyhanes. "Our national drink is water. Mix it with yogurt, you have ayran. Mix it with rakı, it's a bayram [feast]," CHP Ankara deputy İzzet Çapa joked, before stating his opinion that the bill under consideration was an attempt to curb individual rights. "Personally, I don't drink alcohol or smoke, but this is not an alcohol bill; this bill decides what people can and can't do," he said.
Another CHP deputy, Mahmut Tanal, accused the AKP deputies of hypocrisy, saying levels of alcohol consumption were highest in the party's heartland of Central Anatolia. "This means that you also drink secretly," Tanal said.
I was particularly struck by one of the changes made to the proposed legislation after members of the opposition complained. Instead of saying “Alcoholic beverages cannot be sold to children,” the rather paternalistic law's language was modified to say: “Alcoholic beverages cannot be sold to children under 18.” Which begs the question: at what age does the Turkish government believe its citizens stop being children, and thus, treated as such?
[UPDATE -- Columnist Kadri Gursel, writing in the Al Monitor website, has a very good piece about the thinking and some of the politics behind the AKP's new alcohol legislation. The column can be found here.]
[UPDATE II -- The contentious new legislation on alcohol sales and promotion was passed by parliament on Friday, May 24. Among the new provision added to the bill is a ban on alcohol sales between 10pm and 6am, which will certainly end any late night beer runs in Turkey. More details here.]