Turkey’s coffee houses, a center of male social life, cannot survive the virus

ISTANBUL – Varan Suzme has spent years visiting the Kiral Coffeehouse near his home, where men from his neighborhood in Istanbul chat for hours, sip small steaming cups and play backgammon and cards.

“I came here every day,” said Mr. Suzme, 77, a retired textile salesman. “This is our second home. It’s a place I love, I see my friends, and I am happy and I play games. “

Until the pandemic. A lockdown earlier this year closed coffeehouses across the country, as well as bars and restaurants, and when the government allowed them to reopen in June, it banned the usual games as they increased the risk of viral transmission.

Customers, who are mostly middle-aged and retired, stopped coming for fear of the virus, and with games banned, coffeehouse owners saw business dwindle. Even before another lockdown took effect this month, they feared that the coronavirus could endanger the survival of many coffee houses and rob the country of an essential center of Turkish life.

A unique men’s reserve, the Turkish coffee house is everything from a post office to a social club fueled by cups of coffee – or nowadays, as tastes change, tea. In every neighborhood, from the narrow alleys of Istanbul to the ancient cities scattered across the country, it’s where men stop on their way to and from work, retirees meet and exchange gossip, and political parties campaign.

“We miss our friends and play backgammon,” said Mamuk Katikoy, 70, when he recently stopped by the Kiral Coffeehouse in Istanbul’s Yesilkoy district for an interview. “I haven’t seen this man for eight months,” he said, greeting a 90-year-old friend who also stopped by.

Several coffee shop owners complained that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s religiously conservative government opposed the games because of their association with gambling, and that the ban was more ideological than hygiene.

The country was already in an economic downturn when the pandemic struck, and with scarce help from the government, many businesses have been forced to close their doors for good.

Several famous cafes in the artistic Beyoglu district have closed in recent months. They had introduced Italian espresso to Istanbul society – Simdi Cafe, now closed, was famous for its 60s espresso machine – and represented a flourishing of Turkey’s intellectual and artistic life.

The traditional Turkish coffee house is a more modest affair, where the regulars are mostly working class people who play cards, backgammon and “okey”, a game similar to rummy, played with numbered tiles. Some coffee houses charge for running games by the hour, while others just make a living from the drinks they serve.

But with no games, things between lockdowns were so bad that most coffee houses have locks or few customers. Owners warn that without further government support, they may have to shut down permanently.

“Our businesses are empty,” said Murat Agaoglu, the head of the Turkish Coffee Houses and Buffets Federation, who predicted that 20 percent of the country’s coffee houses would fail.

That could rob Turkey of a mainstay of its communities nearly as old as drinking coffee itself. The custom spread from Arabia north to Turkey and on to Europe in the 16th century.

The first coffee houses in Turkey were founded by two Syrian merchants in the Tahtakale district of what was then called Constantinople, close to the seat of power of the Ottoman Empire and between the teeming alleys of the spice bazaar.

“At the time, Istanbul was one of the most populous cities in the world,” said Cemal Kafadar, professor of Turkish Studies at Harvard University. “Imagine the commercial potential of this innovation. Within half a century, there were hundreds of coffee houses in the city. And since then we can enjoy the blessed brew of this blessed bean in private or in public. “

The court of the Ottoman sultans embraced the drinking of coffee. Artisans made small, delicate cups and coffee pots with slender necks, women began serving coffee to guests in their homes, and the men gathered in the coffee houses and smoked tobacco in extravagantly long pipes. Later the hookah became fashionable.

The coffee houses developed into meeting places where businessmen mingled, but they also became centers of literary activity and public entertainment. Some had reading rooms or organized storytellers and puppeteers. Many still bear names that hark back to their Arabic origins: “kahvehane”, which means coffee house, and “kiraathane”, which means reading house.

Inevitably, the coffee houses became centers for political gossip and activism, as they did across Europe, and were periodically closed as political unrest rose, Mr Kafadar said.

Over time they lost their prestige in the eyes of the more educated urban public and gradually became cheap haunts for workers. “From the mid-19th century onwards, modernists associated them with laziness and backwardness,” said Mr Kafadar.

The traditional coffee houses, regulated by the government, are licensed to sell tea and coffee and other soft drinks, including salep, a popular drink made from Ottoman-era orchid bulbs.

The drinks and games are listed along with the prices on the permit that hangs on the coffee house wall. Prices are regulated and low.

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

Running a coffee house has been his life for Guven Kiral. He inherited his from his father and moved it to new premises 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 pandemic ended that by silencing the shuffling of cards and the sharp clicking and hitting of backgammon pieces.

“When I open, customers come for tea and sit for a while, but then they say ‘Sorry, there are no games’ and they leave,” said Mr. Kiral, worried he will be forced to close. down forever. “We are racing downhill. The pandemic has caused us a huge loss. “

He demonstrated his antivirus hygiene regimen: spreading disposable tablecloths, handing out a new deck of cards for each game, and soaking the backgammon chips in detergent. Tables would be far apart and even expanded to keep customers at a distance from each other, he said.

“The big problem is the ban on games, both for the customers and the people who work in these places,” said Bendevi Palandoken, head of the Turkish Chamber of Craftsmen, which represents owners and workers in 120,000 coffee houses across the country. “We want the government to lighten the burden with social security contributions and cash aid for breadwinners.”

A leaflet on the wall in the Kiral Coffeehouse says, “We’re asking the government, don’t we matter to you?”

Mr. Kiral said he would be devastated if he lost the company.

“For my regulars, divorce is the first. They won’t see people anymore, ”he said. “We would lose our jokes, our laughter.”

On a broader level, he said the whole older generation would be punished. “The costs are for a specific age group. They have nowhere to go. “


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