Text and image by Diana Miu –
As Erdoğan’s fight against secular Turkey moves forward, bans and laws on alcohol consumption are strengthened, affecting both storeowners and young people.
Maçka Park, 2022. Image credit: Gökhan Tan
It’s 7pm and the Maçka Park seems to be getting more crowded every minute. Friends of friends are joining, young couples are laying down their picnic blankets and opening bottles of wine. The slight breeze makes the evening sun tolerable as you lay down on the grass, beer in one hand.
Right in the middle of the largest city in Turkey is Maçka Park, the hotspot for friends and family meetups in a relaxed, hassle-free environment. The local park in the Beşiktaş area is filled with people from different walks of life enjoying a beer, glass of wine or even shot of vodka. They coexist peacefully, not bothering each other. It’s the Vondelpark of Istanbul, if you will.
Straight through the park’s main alley, the police are strolling around, turning a blind eye to the sprawling hills filled with people consuming their alcohol beverage of choice.
Back in 2013, an alcohol regulation was implemented, banning all stores from selling alcohol beverages between 10pm and 6am. Faced with heavy taxes from 65 thousand liras to 320 thousand liras, storeowners are still the target of Erdoğan’s drive to impose a religious lifestyle on all Turkish people. Together with high fines and measures imposed in recent years, the government’s approach to alcohol consumption caused a justified concern on whether the government’s rather restrictive policy would constitute a “lifestyle intervention” and a direct attack on the secularism of Turkey. Struggling to juggle between customers’ needs and the restrictions, most stores illegally sell alcohol even after 10pm, in order to keep their business afloat in the poor economic market. The Special Consumption Tax applied to alcoholic beverages in Turkey is raised every 6 months, accounting for approximately 65 percent of the price of beer and distilled spirits as of January 2022. The tax collected from alcoholic beverages is now claiming its own record, with the tax rate of Turkish raki increasing to 287%. The drinking culture in Istanbul is mainly shaped by storeowners who are directly affected by all the implemented laws and regulations, and young or secular people. Between prices skyrocketing and alcohol bans for stores, young Turks have also had to find their way around the law against drinking in public spaces. This is where places like Maçka Park come in handy. A haven for young people, this park has been described as a “peaceful and safe environment” by frequent goers. It is an unspoken rule that the police are not to disturb anyone here.
Maçka Park, 2022. Image credit: Diana Miu
Sat in a circle, a group of four 20-something year olds are vibing to an indie rock song playing from their speaker. Friends since high school, they’ve had the “accidental” tradition of going out to Maçka Park every other weekend to catch up and soak up the sunshine. Eager to hang out in a trouble-free, easy-going environment, whilst also enjoying the occasional bottle of bear, the group of four appreciate the lack of authority interaction in the park. “The police walk a lot around us, I see them. But they never interact with us, they just pass by. But if we were somewhere outside the street, they’d most probably stop us,” says Ceyda, a 23-year-old born and raised in Istanbul.
As the sun sets, one can’t help but feel like they’ve been transported to a bubble outside Turkey. This is not what you imagine when you think of Istanbul; free of inhibitions and carefree, Maçka Park invites anyone to a different cultural and social side of the city. Now 11pm, conversations are getting louder, trying to cover the all-surrounding music. Some hip-hop here, some soft rock there. Beer and wine and the occasional celebratory champagne. It’s a totally different reality than what one might imagine of Istanbul.
Maçka Park, 2022. Image credit: Diana Miu
Although many young people crave a safe outdoor place where they can have a drink with their friends, Turkish people in general drink way less alcohol compared to other G20 states. According to World Health Organisation (WHO), yearly alcohol consumption per capita in Turkey was 1.4 litres in 2020, considerably lower than France with 12.33 litres, the Netherlands with 9.61 litres, and the US with 9.87 litres per capita. The low number in Turkey can be attributed to several factors – the state’s laws that prohibit consumption of alcohol in public places, the relationship between the state and religion, and the high tax on alcoholic beverages.
Turkey alcohol consumption. Image credit: WHO
Storeowners have been struggling with keeping up with all the taxes and fines, while the Turkish economy is sinking. “Of course we sell alcohol after 10pm, we all do. We’d starve otherwise right now. This is life,” says Burak Yildirim, a man who runs a store in the busy Kadıköy area.
Between all the hassle buying alcohol after 10pm “underhand” and looking out for the laws about public space alcohol consumption, young people in the city of Istanbul have turned to centrally located parks like Maçka.
Basking in the warmth of the sun or resting in the coolness of the shade, the smell of fresh grass and spilled beer makes you think of a summer night festival in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world.
As you walk through the park, drink in one hand and the police passing by not making any eye contact, one thing is certain: young people have shaped the Istanbul drinking culture regardless of bans, regulations, or the crippling economy.