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Istanbul nightlife, or why the new alcohol law makes sense

February 18, 2011

Katherine Ammirati currently works as a legal intern in Istanbul. Her interests include the art of conversation, urban culture, and city life. She will be back.

The other day, as the conversation neared the limits of my Turkish, a new acquaintance asked me whether I went out on the weekends. I told him yes, and he made a face. “The Istanbul nightlife is terrible,” he told me. “I’m so sick of it—there’s nowhere to go.”

That’s a complaint I’ve heard often. According to this guy, the problem was that “men stare at the women, and the women don’t talk to men. There’s no energy here—in Amsterdam or Berlin, everyone just wants to have a good time.”

It’s not that there are strictly gendered spheres. I have seen a woman fingered through her tights in public three times since it got cold enough to actually wear tights—Saudi Arabia this is not. But there’s not the effervescence of a Saturday night in a city of twenty million people, either.

The new alcohol law seems equally incongruous as this guy’s complaints, belonging to small-town Kentucky rather than the most cosmopolitan urban area for hundreds of miles. But both the quality of the nightlife and the new legislation reflect a different attitude about what the appropriate consumption of alcohol does and does not entail.

Drunkenness is not seen as a necessary prerequisite for socializing. Think of the last time you saw a twenty-three year old in America abandon a drink. You can’t. It does not happen. A friend of mine in Istanbul told me that the Laphroig and soda I’d poured him tasted like cleaning solution. He didn’t finish it. When I went to (Turkish) Cyprus, “shots” turned out to be shots of mixed drink—vodka and orange juice. This wasn’t a cost-saving measure either—(a) alcohol in Cyprus is very cheap, and (b) we ended up finishing the bottle.

The drinking culture Istanbul does well is the sitting-and-drinking culture, or the eating-and-drinking culture, or the listening-to-music-and-drinking-culture. There isn’t much scope for getting really drunk, whether to dance or as an activity at all. It’s worth drawing attention to the fact that I feel relatively safe by myself at night, which might be due to the relative lack of really drunk men.

Except by virtue of making drinking more expensive, the new alcohol law makes no direct attack on Istanbul’s vibrant culture of moderate consumption. The legislation is a challenge to the imported idea that communal activities always involve alcohol, and not just alcohol, but drinking to excess.

What’s gotten lost in much of the criticism of the new legislation is that the majority of the restrictions are directed at the advertising for alcohol and tobacco. (In fact, the anti-tobacco component hasn’t attracted much attention at all). Any challenge to the legislation will likely be mounted by multi-national conglomerates on the grounds that the law inhibits the freedom of individuals over the age of 18, and any defense of personal liberty funded by a conglomerate merits a closer look. (I’m talking about you, Koch brothers).

Since I’m an American and I came of age after 1988, I know that it’s impossible to legislate drinking out of existence and I resent the fact that I had to wait until my twenty-first birthday to legally buy a beer. But it’s not the worst thing in the world for a government to treat alcohol like the poison it is, and to try to make sure its citizens are careful about how and where they consume.

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2 Comments leave one →
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