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The Turkish Man Who Sells Alcohol in Front of a Mosque

Inside his bar, just before the muezzin’s call for the noon prayer, Umit Dai made himself a fluorescent cocktail and spoke with me about his business’s imminent demise due to the rise of Turkey's conservative Islamist party.
Die große Moschee von Ganziantep. Fotos von der Autorin

"I don't like this job," admits Umit Dai, the owner of a club that serves alcohol in front of the biggest mosque in Gaziantep. The lokali—Turkish for "club"—hides behind a veil of green foliage only 80 meters away from the mosque of Ulu Cami, albeit illegally, in southeastern Turkey. Inside, just before the muezzin's call for the noon prayer, Umit makes himself a fluorescent cocktail and speaks with me about his business's imminent demise due to the changes his country is facing under a conservative Islamist party.


Umit, 56, took over the Gaziantep Lisesi Mezunlar Dernegi Lokali, which originally acted as a meeting point for the alumni of the exclusive Gaziantep Lisesi secondary school, in 2002. Thirteen years later, the modest venue serves whoever wants to have a drink in town without the fuss of expensive restaurants or the rowdiness of Kurdish bars. But the small sanctuary in the midst of a conservative city will soon cease to exist, a consequence of the club's proximity to its amicable neighbor, the grand mosque.

Every year, we turn back to the Middle East. We are walking back.

Since the rise of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the government has tightened alcohol regulations. In June of 2014, Turkey passed a law that prohibits alcohol advertising in bars, restaurants, newspapers and television, as well as the sale of alcohol in supermarkets and corner shops after 10 PM. It also banned the sale of booze in establishments located within 100 meters of a mosque or school.


Inside the lokali. Photos by the author.

"I'm tired," says Umit on a crisp October morning. "The lokali is finished in the officials' minds." Businesses are having difficulties acquiring new alcohol licenses and authorities have stopped renewing Umit's license, even though it was issued before the 2014 law. "Every year, we turn back to the Middle East," laments Umit unapologetically. "We are walking back."


The AKP came to power shortly after its inception in 2001 by effectively turning Turkey into a one-party state. The Islamist reforms ushered in by power-hungry Erdogan and his fixation with restoring Turkey's former Ottoman splendor contrasts sharply with Umit's ideas of modernity. Not only has Turkey experienced an ideological shift since the founding of the Republic, but deep polarization along ethnic, religious, and political lines has taken root inside Turkish homes. A three-year ceasefire agreement with Kurdish militias and failed elections in June fueled Turkey's bloodiest terrorist attack in its history.

Where are we going? Where is modernism? I must go to the future, not back.

Overwhelmed by the growing instability, Umit poses the same desperate question as the rest of his compatriots: "Where are we going? Where is modernism?" he pleads. "I must go to the future, not back."

Despite being retired—or as Umit puts it, "tired again"—he refuses to close down the club. "I have a family and children," he explains. Each day that Umit opens the lokali brings with it the possibility of problems or complaints from neighbors, patrons, or the authorities. One of the main causes is the city's growing conservatism, he claims. He gestures to the veiled women strolling in the city's biggest park, home to his club, as an example.


A portrait of Kemal Ataturk hangs inside.

"I don't remember these women before," he says, referring to their headscarves. During the 1980s and 90s, the headscarf was banned in public spaces in Turkey—including universities—for students, workers, and public servants. Consequently, the headscarf became a strong political symbol both for women and the struggle that modern-day Turkey faced at the fall of the Ottoman Empire, torn between East and West. As the newly formed state imposed a secular Turkish identity, pious Muslim women fought for religious freedom.


Around that time, Umit was a student at the University of Istanbul. "These were the terror years," he recalls. At 19, he was imprisoned briefly for being a social democrat and espousing leftist ideas, while women who were forced to take off their headscarves were wearing wigs as an act of subversion. In 2013, President Erdogan's AKP lifted the ban, but polarization on the issue remains unchanged.

It's very sad when you know you are finished. I told my son not to return to Antep.

Umit's family history is intertwined with that of Gaziantep. His ancestors date back to 1600 in this area; in 2011, he had 438 living relatives residing in the city. "In Antep, we are Oguz Turk," he says proudly, referring to the historical Turkic tribe from Central Asia. His prominent gut is a testament of his bon vivant nature and charm. With the exception of afternoons, which he uses for siesta, he spends his mornings and evenings chatting lithely from table to table. His business's impending closure, however, and his city's transformation with the start of Syria's civil war, hangs heavily in his otherwise buoyant heart.

"Antep is no longer old Antep," he says with regret. As a social democrat, Umit aligns with the Republican People's Party (CHP), which adheres to the founding values of modern Turkey. "I lived this country's best times," he states in a fit of passion. "I don't know this city's tomorrow." His hometown alone has undergone sweeping transformations. Out of Gaziantep's 1.5 million residents, around 500,000 are now Syrian refugees.


But four years ago, the influx of refugees was impossible to conceive, Umit says. "We made a lot of mistakes in Syria and our government has created a Frankenstein." Turkey has received the largest number of Syrian refugees than any other country—2 million so far. Some locals in Gaziantep, like Umit, are having a difficult time welcoming their Syrian neighbors as the economy deteriorates and the state clamps down on terrorism. "We can't close our doors because we are human, but there must be rules," he insists. "Give them doctors, teachers, food, camps, but don't let them free in my city," he warns.

View of the Lokali during the day from the park

A view of the lokali from the adjacent park.

The sluggish economy is another symptom of what Umit considers Turkey's illness: the government. "Our economy is going to zero," he argues. "Gaziantep is a big exporter, but our neighbors closed their borders," he continued. In this precarious climate, "nobody drinks, nobody eats," he says of the lokali. The country's currency has lost 25 percent of its value, in part due to the chaos that befell Turkey after the June 2015 parliamentary elections. "This country needs education and industry," continues Umit. "We make only roads, buildings, and mosques."

As the morning gives way to a sunny afternoon, the frizzy, fluorescent drink remains half full in front of Umit. He drinks deliberately, aware of the cocktail's limitations to quench his thirst. The obscure thought that his generation—secular, nationalist, and Western-leaning—is coming to an end fills him with grief. "It's very sad when you know you are finished," he says suddenly, breaking into tears. "I told my son not to return to Antep."

On November 1, President Erdogan called for snap elections after his party lost its majority and talks of a coalition government proved impossible. The months prior to the election were filled with violence in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast region between the state and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), outlawed as a terrorist organization. Turks like Umit, skeptical but loyal to the principle of democracy, went out to the ballots to cast their vote after months of fearmongering and instability. This time around, the AKP succeeded in regaining the majority.

"First, I'm human," says Umit, his drink finally empty. Irrespective of the vilifying effects of his country's political climate, Umit is proud to be a Turk and abstains from hate—be it against Kurds, Assyrians, Alevi, Armenians, or others. The future of Turkey is unknown and that of his lokali is bleak.

But one thing is certain: "We are near the mountain cliff," he says sadly.