Turkey’s Coffeehouses, a Hub of Male Social Life, May Not Survive Virus

ISTANBUL — For years, Varan Suzme has frequented the Kiral Coffeehouse near his home, where men of his Istanbul neighborhood while away hours chatting, sipping from tiny, steaming cups and playing backgammon and cards.

“Every day I used to come here,” 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, along with bars and restaurants, and when the government allowed them to reopen in June, it forbade the usual games, saying 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 had been worried that the coronavirus could endanger the survival of many coffeehouses, robbing the country of an essential hub of Turkish life.

A uniquely male preserve, the Turkish coffeehouse is everything from a post office to a social club, fueled by cups of coffee — or these days, as tastes change, tea. In every neighborhood, from Istanbul’s narrow back alleys to the ancient towns spread across the country, it is where men stop on the way to and from work, pensioners meet up and swap gossip, and political parties campaign.

“We miss our friends and playing backgammon,” said Mamuk Katikoy, 70, when he recently came by the Kiral Coffeehouse in the Istanbul neighborhood of Yesilkoy 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 was opposed to the games because of their association with gambling, and that the ban was more ideological than hygiene related.

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

Several famous cafes in the artistic neighborhood of Beyoglu have shut down in recent months. They had introduced Italian espresso to Istanbul society — Simdi Cafe, now closed, was famous for its 1960s-era espresso machine — and came to represent a flowering of Turkey’s intellectual and artistic life.

The traditional Turkish coffeehouse is a more humble affair, where the regulars are mainly working-class people, playing cards, backgammon and ”okey,” a game similar to rummy, played with numbered tiles. Some coffeehouses charge for running games by the hour, while others just make their money from the drinks they serve.

But without games, business between lockdowns was so poor that most coffeehouses closed or have few patrons. Owners warn that without more government aid they may have to close permanently.

“Our businesses are empty,” said Murat Agaoglu, the head of the Turkey Coffee Houses and Buffets Federation, who predicted that 20 percent of country’s coffeehouses would go out of business.

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

The first coffeehouses 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 among the teeming alleys of the spice bazaar.

“At that moment, Istanbul was one of the most populous cities in the world,” said Cemal Kafadar, a professor of Turkish Studies at Harvard University. “Imagine the commercial potential of this innovation. There were hundreds of coffeehouses in the city within half a century. And since then, we are able to enjoy the blessed brew of this blessed bean in private or in public.”

The Ottoman sultans’ court embraced coffee drinking. Artisans crafted tiny, delicate cups and slender-necked coffee pots, women began serving coffee to guests in their homes, and the men gathered in the coffeehouses, smoking tobacco in extravagantly long-stemmed pipes. Later the water pipe became fashionable.

The coffeehouses developed into meeting places where men of business socialized, but they also became centers of literary activity and public entertainment. Some had reading rooms or hosted storytellers and puppeteers. Many still bear names that hark back to their Arabic origins, “kahvehane,” meaning a coffeehouse, and “kiraathane,” meaning a reading house.

Inevitably, the coffeehouses became centers for political gossip and activism, as they did across Europe, and were periodically shut down when political agitation rose, Mr. Kafadar said.

Over time they lost their standing in the eyes of the better-educated urban public and gradually became inexpensive haunts for workers. “From the mid-19th century onward, modernizers associated them with idleness and backwardness,” Mr. Kafadar said.

The traditional coffeehouses, regulated by the government, are licensed to sell tea and coffee and other soft drinks, including salep, a popular beverage made from orchid bulbs that dates from Ottoman times.

The drinks and games, together with the prices, are listed on the license which is posted on the coffeehouse wall. Prices are regulated and set 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 listed among the offerings, but the government of Mr. Erdogan banned use of them indoors more than a decade ago.

For Guven Kiral, running a coffeehouse has been his life. 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 is like a second son to me.”

On busy days he would have 60 people playing, he said, but the pandemic has ended that, silencing the shuffle of cards and the sharp click and slap of backgammon pieces.

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

He demonstrated his antivirus hygiene regime: spreading disposable tablecloths, breaking out a new deck of cards for every game, and soaking the backgammon counters in detergent. Tables would be widely spaced and even expanded to distance customers from each other, he said.

“The big issue is the ban on games, both for the customers and the people who work in these places,” said Bendevi Palandoken, head of the of the Turkish Chamber of Artisans, which represents owners and workers in 120,000 coffeehouses nationwide. “We want the government to lighten the burden with social security premiums and cash support for people who are breadwinners.”

A flyer on the wall in the Kiral Coffeehouse reads: “We ask the government, don’t we matter to you?”

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

“For my regulars the first thing will be separation. They will not see people anymore,” he said. “We would lose our jokes, our laughter.”

On a broader level, he said the entire older generation would be penalized. “The cost will be to a certain age group. They will have nowhere to go.”

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