Turkey’s coffeehouses, a hub of male social life, cannot survive the virus

ISTANBUL – Over the years, Varon Suzme has frequented the Kiral Coffeehouse near his home, where people around his Istanbul spend hours chatting, taking small chuskies, drinking cups and playing backgammon and cards.

“I used to come here every day,” said Mr. Sujme, 77, a retired textile dealer. “This is our second home. This is a place I love, I see my friends, and I’m happy and I play games. “

Until the epidemic. Earlier this year a lockout closed coffeehouses around the country with bars and restaurants, and when the government allowed them to reopen in June, they refused the general games, saying they Increase the risk of viral transmission.

Customers, mostly middle-aged and retired, stopped coming in fear of the virus, and with the game banned, coffee house owners saw a decrease in business. Even before another lockdown went into effect this month, he was concerned that coronavirus could endanger the existence of several coffee warehouses that rob the country of an essential center of Turkish life.

A typical male patronage, the Turkish Coffeehouse is everything from a post office to a social club, filled with cups of coffee – or taste changes these days, as tea. In every locality, from the narrow streets of Istanbul to ancient towns spread across the country, this is where men stop on their way to work and go, pensioners meet and chat, and political parties campaign.

“We miss our friends and play the role of backgammon,” said 70-year-old Mamuk Katikoy, when he recently came for an interview by Kiral Coffeehouse in the Yerillia neighborhood of Yerillok. “I haven’t seen this man for eight months,” he said, congratulating a 90-year-old friend who also stopped.

Many coffee shop owners complained that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s religiously conservative government was opposed to the Games because of its association with gambling, and that the ban was more ideological than related sanitation.

The country was already in the grip of economic recession due to the epidemic and many businesses were forced to do well due to government support.

Several famous cafes in the artistic neighborhood of Beyoglu have closed in recent months. He had introduced Italian espresso to the Istanbul society – Simdi Cafe, now closed, was famous for the 1960s espresso machine – and came to offer a flower of Turkish intellectual and artistic life.

The traditional Turkish coffeehouse is a more polite affair, where the regulars are mainly working-class people, playing cards, backgammon, and “OK,” a game similar to rummy, played with numbered tiles. Some coffeehouses charge by the hour to run the game, while others only make money from their beverages.

But without the games, trade between lockdowns was so bad that most of the coffeehouses closed or there were few patrons. The owners warned that they may have to be permanently closed without much government assistance.

“Our businesses are empty,” said Murat Agglu, head of the Turkish Coffee House and Buffets’ Federation, who estimated that 20 percent of the country’s coffee would go out of business.

It can rob Turkey of a mainstay of its communities that are almost as old as drinking coffee. This practice spread from Arabia northward to Turkey and Europe in the 16th century.

The first coffeehouses in Turkey were founded by two Syrian merchants, who were then called Constantinople, between the Ottoman Empire’s seat of power and the taming lanes of the spice market.

“At the time, Istanbul was one of the most populous cities in the world,” said Semal Kfadar, a professor of Turkish studies at Harvard University. “Imagine the commercial potential of this innovation. Within half a century there were hundreds of coffeehouses in the city. And since then, we have been able to enjoy this blessed bean in private or in public. “

The Ottoman Sultans’ Court adopted coffee drinking. Artisans made small, delicate cups and thin-necked coffee utensils, women began serving coffee to guests in their homes, and men gathered at the coffeehouse, smoking tobacco in long-faded pipes. Later the water pipe became fashion.

Coffeehouses flourished in places where business men socialized, but they also became centers of literary activity and public entertainment. Some had reading rooms or hosted storytellers and puppets. Many still bear the names reverting to their Arabic origins, “Kahawayne,” meaning a coffee house, and “Kiratane,” meaning a reading house.

Inevitably, coffeehouses became central to political gossip and activism, as they did throughout Europe, and were periodically shut down when political movements intensified, Mr. Kafadar said.

Over time they lost their place in the eyes of the better educated urban masses and gradually became cheap prey for the workers. “From the mid-19th century, modernists associated him with laziness and backwardness,” Mr. Kafadar said.

Government-regulated traditional coffeehouses are licensed to sell tea and coffee and other soft drinks, including salip, a popular beverage made from orchid bulbs that come from the Ottoman times.

Drinks and games, along with prices, are listed on the license that is posted on the coffeehouse wall. Prices are regulated and set low.

They serve traditional Turkish coffee, each cup individually brewed, bitter or sweet to taste, and small glasses of strong black tea. Water pipes are still listed as offerings, but Mr. Erdogan’s government banned their use indoors more than a decade ago.

For Gwen Kiral, running a coffeehouse has been her life. He inherited it from his father and moved to the new campus in the same neighborhood.

“This place is like my child,” he said. “I have a son, but it’s like a second son to me.”

He would have 60 people playing on busy days, he said, but the epidemic had ended, silencing the card’s shuffling and the sharp clicks and slaps of backgammon pieces.

“If I open, the customers come for a tea and they sit for a while, but then they say ‘Sorry, there’s no game, and they leave,” Mr. Kirral said as he Worried that he would be forced to close. Down for good. “We hurtle downwards. The epidemic has caused us great harm. “

He demonstrated his antivirus hygiene regime: spreading disposable tablecloths, breaking a new deck of cards for every game, and soaking backgammon counters into detergents. He said that the tables would be widely spread and even customers would be far from each other.

Bendvi Palandokane, head of the Turkish Chamber of Artisans, said, “The big issue is the ban for both customers and people working in these places, representing 120,000 coffee-making owners and workers across the country.” “We want the government to lighten the burden with social security premiums and cash support for breadwinners.”

A flyer on the wall at the Kiral Coffeehouse reads: “We ask the government, do we not mind you?”

Mr. Kiral said he would be heartbroken to lose the business.

“The first thing will be different for my regularity. They will not see people anymore, ”he said. “We will lose our laughter, our laughter.”

On a broader scale, he said that the entire older generation would be punished. “The cost will be for a certain age group. They will not have to go anywhere. “

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