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Prohibition in Turkey: No Shirt, No Grey Hair, No Service

February 7, 2011

Maria Eliades is a Greek-American writer based in Istanbul. She has written for Time Out Istanbul among others and has joined us to write the following about the new Alcohol Law in Turkey.

A cartoon in Radikal (30/01/11) reacting to Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinç saying, "Life is not only about drinking and sex."

The invitation had said, “25 and up” but no one checked to see whether I or my plus one were indeed of the “legal age” at the door of a alcohol company-sponsored party early last week.  No one asked for ID when we queued up at the bar  for the free and limitless alcohol.  The attending restauranteurs, members of the media and the three 16 year old girls I spotted on the dance floor all had equal access, no questions asked.  Less than a week later in front of Babylon, Elif Ekinci, a 23 year old writer for Radikal, was refused entrance.  The club had posted sign reading “24+” and its bouncers were checking IDs.  Welcome to Turkish-style prohibition.

Turkey has been consistently reported to have the lowest drinking rate when counted amongst European countries, with a consumption of 1.4-1.5 liters to the

average European 10-12 per year and the national drinking rate from even decreased between 2003 and 2008, perhaps spurred by rising taxes on alochol.  The most recent tax has risen to 30%.

In typical fashion, people are protesting the law by taking to the street while drinking in movements like the January 29 Facebook organized, “We drink to AKP” (“AKP’ye İçiyoruz…”).

No one seems to remember in this first for the republic the case of the religiously influenced constitution amendment in the United States which from banned the sale, creation and transport of alchohol from 1919 to 1933.  “Prohibition,” as it is known to Americans, was also intended to better the lives of US citizens and make them morally better.  Though it was successful in lowering the rate of alcohol consumption, it didn’t actually halt drinking entirely.  In fact, the flux of binge drinking encouraged by Prohibition era drinks, like the Luigi, the Princeton and the White Lady which were heavy on gin and vermouth, was fairly common.  If one had the money, they went to a mafia-run speakeasy or got the liquor privately, but they drank it quickly before the police came knocking.

Lower down, people manufacured their own gin in basement distilleries.  In the case of my family, the alcohol produced in the tub was ouzo -drinking was too connected to ethnic customs to be completely stamped out for many groups, but the brewing was not always safe, nor were other illegal means of procuring booze.  After the deaths of seven people in the St. Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929 did the country realized that the ban wasn’t working.

An evening out in Istanbul is hard to imagine without that glass of rakı in a meyhane or an ellilik of Efes in Nevizade.  The ban hasn’t been taken that far, but young people and liberals project that the 24+ public event restriction is only a step away from turning Turkey dry.  AKP official repeat that the restrictions on drinking are an effort to “protect the youth from a dependence on alcohol,” but the law is interpreted as an imposition of Islamization.  In the words of a university student, “They are trying to do their best to turn the country to Iran with all the power they have and they won’t stop till the next election.”

At the moment, the ban only heavily affects venues like Babylon, which would face a fine of 36,000 TL at the first offence and 72,000 TL plus the revocation of their club licence for five years at the second offence.  Music hall sponsor, Elif Erdost, sees this as the ruling party’s way of saying that music itself is forbidden and believes that eliminating youth from these events due to alcohol will shut down social life itself.  Again, thoughts in extreme lead the way.

At the moment, it is difficult to tell whether the ban will be as strictly enforced as the smoking ban in place last year.  In a matter of months, smoking was quietly permitted in the upper floors of several bars.  Since the drinking ban is seen as a religious progression, however, stakes are higher and such easy flouting cannot be expected, except where class comes in.  Connections and money will allow an elite minority of underagers to escape the government-mandated protection placed on their less-priveleged peers.

Illustration 1: A cartoon in Radikal (30/01/11) reacting to Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinç saying, “Life is not only about drinking and sex.”
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Riza permalink
    February 10, 2011 6:58 am

    Maybe a relevant addition to what has been posted above: In todays Turkey, it is still legal to still drink yourself silly, even if it leads to your death in a strange man’s house while your 18 month old baby is at home with your husband.
    The sad case of defne joy foster comes to mind, the famous presenter/singer/dancer/dj we lost last week.

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