ISTANBUL: The sun is setting but the party is only just beginning for 29-year-old Merve Kortan, one of the many young Turks who hang out in Istanbul’s vibrant Beyoglu district.
New alcohol legislation has made it more expensive and harder to buy or sell alcohol in Turkey, with critics accusing the Islamic-rooted government of imposing a religious agenda in the mainly Muslim but officially secular nation.
But for Kortan, a business consultant sporting a cropped top, high heels and a few tattoos, the campaign hasn’t dampened her party mood.
“The government pokes its nose into everything, but I really don’t care. Why do I have to respect your orders when you don’t respect my choices?” she said as she sipped a glass of wine at a rooftop bar overlooking the Bosphorus.
“Leave your orders for the faithful and leave me with my drink. Religion is a personal thing,” she said.
In May last year, Turkey’s parliament passed legislation curbing alcohol sales and advertising, as well as increasing taxes on beer, wine and spirits – the toughest such measures in the republic’s 90-year history.
The law banned the sale of alcohol between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. in shops, and at any time near schools and mosques. Bottles now must display messages warning of the dangers of drinking, and alcohol advertising is banned on TV and in newspapers.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a pious Muslim who neither smokes nor drinks, argues that the law is aimed at protecting Turkey’s youngsters from the dangers of alcohol.
Most people do not drink in Turkey, which despite its secular system remains a deeply religious country. According to a January report by the Health Ministry, 87 percent said they had never drunk alcohol.
But Turkey’s sizable secular population has denounced the new laws as repressive, pointing out the country already has the lowest alcohol consumption among OECD countries.
Those who do drink have always had plenty of options: beer, Turkish wine and the traditional aniseed-flavored raki are all widely available, especially in Istanbul, Ankara and the coastal resorts.
After a one-year grace period, liquor stores had in June to take down outdoor neon signs advertising alcoholic drinks.
The restrictions have hit many small corner shops, but not the pubs and bars.
Cem Kavcak, the manager of the Topless roof bar in Beyoglu, even sees a positive side to it.
“For fear of losing customers, even the smallest bars have started to organize events, which have helped the nightlife in Istanbul become even more diverse and dynamic,” he told AFP.
“The bans are of course annoying, they are sort of held as a sword of Damocles over our head and we don’t know what the future might hold. But so far, we have just had to loosen our purse-strings,” he said.
The bar is well stocked and two DJs blast the latest techno hits mixed with world music rhythms for the fashionably dressed locals.
At street level, a group of people mingle out on the sidewalk openly drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.
“We are always going to find ways to get alcohol. We are young, we are full of energy. Those sitting all day in parliament to impose bans cannot understand this,” 26-year-old Filiz said.
“And what’s better than an ice-cold beer on a hot summer day in Istanbul?” she said, before kissing her boyfriend.
A Turkish liquor company representative told AFP, on condition of anonymity, that their sales have not “dramatically” fallen since last year, but that they were noting a negative trend in the country’s pious Anatolian heartland.
The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) alcohol restrictions were one of the major concerns raised by anti-government protesters during mass protests that swept the country last summer.
Istanbul revelers were already furious at a local ban on bars and restaurants having tables outside, widely seen as a stealth curb on al fresco drinking.
Erdogan, who says he wants to raise a “devout” generation, has urged people to drink ayran, a non-alcoholic yoghurt drink, and called it the “national drink” of Turkey rather than raki.
“We don’t want a generation walking around drunk night and day. We want a youth that is sharp and shrewd and full of knowledge,” he said, branding people who drink as “alcoholics.”
Both the founder of modern secular Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and his successor Ismet Inonu were known for their fondness for drink.
“When two drunkards make a law, you respect it. But when we make a law for something that the faith orders, you reject it,” Erdogan said in parliament this year.
Secularists see the alcohol rules as part of a crackdown on their way of life that includes lifting a longstanding ban on headscarves in public buildings and efforts to ban mixed-sex dorms at state universities.
“These are entirely religiously inspired moves. Erdogan is just playing politics with religion,” said Sezgin Tanrikulu, a lawmaker from the secular main opposition Republican People’s Party.
“With everything he says and does, he keeps sending a message to his overwhelmingly pious grassroot supporters that he is in charge and protecting their faith,” he told AFP.
“But when you make a huge thing of this ‘war on alcohol’ you will eventually annoy a lot of people and it will not work.”