When I set out to visit the last pork butcher shop in Istanbul, I never thought the experience would become a juicy trip into the lives of a Turkish Rumeli family. Within a few visits to their unmarked shop, Ideal Salam, which directly faces a gas station in the Beyğolu district of Istanbul, I tasted a fatty slice of the Kozmaoğlu brothers' long history as pork butchers. Since 1967, the brothers have sold exquisitely fresh pork and charcuterie in Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country that persecuted the Rumeli—Ottoman Christians of Greek descent—and ultimately expelled thousands of Anatolian Greeks to Greece. Istanbul, however, is their home, and the pork butchers are uninterested in talking politics. They prefer to agitatedly discuss the logistics of the dying pork business in Turkey, their views on the Ecumenical Patriarchate, their community, and each other.
Lazari, 75, the oldest of the Kozmaoğlu brothers, sat at the entrance to his shop on a hot June afternoon in Istanbul. The heat that day was disarming and Lazari was caught off guard by our presence. Kozma, 63, stood behind the meat display and proceeded to explain to his brother the purpose of our visit. The shop's left wall was lined up with an assortment of wine, gourmet mustard and other imported sauces. The right wall held the cheeses, equally enticing. But the meat counter was the real center of attention. Were it not for their affordable prices and the shop's location in Dolapdere, a neighborhood adjacent to the infamous Tarlabaşı—known for its crime, drugs and sex workers—Ideal Salam would be a boutique charcuterie.
"Muslims are not supposed to eat pork, but our clients are wealthy Muslim people and for them it doesn't matter," stated Lazari authoritatively. "If you are rich, it's OK to eat pork regardless of religion." When asked whether wealthy Christians also buy their products, Lazari looked straight at me and snapped: "There aren't any rich Christians left in Istanbul."
Turkey is a secular country, but in recent years it has experienced a wave of conservatism under the auspices of its ruling party, The Justice and Development Party (AKP). Most pig farms and slaughterhouses have been closed down, for example. There are only two pig farms left, according to Lazari, and the number of pigs in Turkey is diminishing. In 1970, the pig population reached 18,000. By 2009, it had fallen to 1,717. "There used to be seven butcheries like this, but now there aren't enough animals," he said. "My friends switched to beef."
The brothers are a testament of the challenges facing those who raise pigs and process pork. In 1972, the brothers owned a pig farm in Kesan, Turkey. Four years later, their venture into pig breeding became too expensive to maintain. Up to 2013, they also owned a slaughterhouse, but the government failed to grant them a license and must now buy their meat from two farms in Antalya. "They [the farms] don't take orders," he explained. "They send meat whenever they have it because there aren't enough animals."
At 3 PM, the heat had not subsided. Kozma offered us soda and told his brother to open the front door for ventilation. Only the meat was kept cool in the chilled confines of its glass display. Lazari sat adjacent to my translator, and as our interview progressed, the irascible butcher's movements loosened up. At one point, his outstretched arm rubbed my chin. And to my Turkish translator's complete lack of astonishment or discomfort, the conversation would occasional shift to her personal life, or deviate altogether.
"Two weeks ago I went to Athens," Lazari told us in one such non sequitur. Twenty people Rumeli people had gathered in the city to party. "I got drunk with a friend I have known for 50 years," he said haughtily. "I will do it again soon."
Life hasn't always been a celebration for the Rumeli brothers. "I've gone through so much in this industry," muttered Lazari under his breath. I seized his candidness as an opportunity to bridge the Greek Orthodox community's troubled history, dating back to Ottoman rule and continuing throughout the formation of the Republic, with the demise of pork butchers in Istanbul. But Lazari disagreed, and turned the tables by asserting his identity as Anatolian Greek ancestry in Turkey. "I was born and raised here," he replied. "And I love my country." He harshly contested the suggestion that Christians are second-class citizens in Turkey. "The country being a Muslim country has nothing do to with me or my business," he added. "People want pork and someone has to do it."
Turkey, it seems, has been at a crossroads since the glory days of the Ottoman Empire. It inhabits a contradiction, which perhaps is not meant to be one. Underneath a blanket of nationalism, weaved by the Turkish state, lay a people rich in religious and ethnic diversity. "I used to have long lines outside my shop on holidays," recalls Lazari. "People came to get their cold meats and salami." Some estimates place the size of the Greek community in Turkey today to about 2,000 people. Before the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey, between 80,000 to 100,000 Greeks lived in Istanbul. All that is left of its inhabitants are empty buildings and, for those who stayed, a yearning for better times. "When I was little, 150 people would come to my birthday parties," said Lazari. "Now only my family comes."
The Kozmaoğlu brothers are used to media attention, but that doesn't mean they like it. I first approached Kozma about an interview in February, and he was about as eager to talk as most Turks are to try pork. After exchanging a few words—mostly Kozma repeating the date of the shop's inception—I bought salami and left. I returned several times and only managed to get a treat from Kozma: delicious cold meat samples, a considerable victory for someone who doesn't speak Turkish.
After a few months and no progress, I felt ashamed of being fed so much free salami and ham, so I took a bold decision. I set out for the last time with my phone and Google Translate. While I managed to secure an interview and have lunch, I left Ideal Salam disoriented. Before stepping out of the shop, Kozma had asked for a kiss. In my failed attempt at building rapport, it turned out that Kozma was as confused as me.
During our interview, the brothers tell me that have not experienced hostility from their community or backlash against their craft. If they ever did, Lazari claims he would "beat them up." Since Turkey is a secular country, the government condones their business, yet not without galling conditions. Turkey doesn't allow pig imports, one reason why the dwindling pig population is so worrisome. All pork products must be labeled in two contrasting colors and placed in distinct counters away from other meat products. And if a restaurant wishes to offer meat in their menu, they must use a separate kitchen. Thus, out of convenience, many opt not to offer pork.
"We don't care if we don't earn money from pork," said Lazari. "We just don't want to let it go. But if we can't find the meat, we will have to stop."
The brothers have been called "the last pork butchers of Istanbul" by both international and Turkish media so often that they don't even have to make an effort to promote themselves as such. "The government is afraid of us because we do so many interviews," Lazari joked. "It's good publicity for us."
Lazari gets to the shop at 6:30 AM to beat traffic and leaves early for the same reason, so by 4 PM it was time for him to go. Once our interview was over, Kozma was left tending the shop. He had kept mostly silent in the presence of his older brother, but once Lazari was gone, he began a litany of complaints. "He gets to go home early and I stay here until 7 PM," he began. "I also arrived at 6." Kozma joined his brother as a partner in the business in 1972 after serving the army. "The business would have fallen a part without me," continued Kozma, his face expressionless except for his big blue eyes.
We stayed a while longer, listening to Kozma's complaints about his brother. Once the wound down, he allowed us to look in the back of the shop, a request Lazari had rejected a few minutes later. I wanted to ask Kozma about his life and his take on the profession, but that is Lazari's job. He offered us a slice of ham instead.