Passing by the famous Mihrimah mosque in my neighborhood of Üsküdar the other day, I noticed a rather long line of people. They weren’t going into the mosque. Instead they were all waiting in the cold rain to buy vegetables from a newly set up tent.
Street markets are of course part of the fabric of the city that gave us the Grand Bazar. But this one was new. Upon closer inspection, I noticed a sign in the back of the tent that read, in Turkish: “FIGHT INFLATION TOGETHER!”
Ah yes! I remembered reading the day before something in the news about the “war on food terrorism.”
President Erdoğan in a speech, had railed against the nation’s food traders, or “profiteers,” as he called them.
“This is a game,” Erdoğan said. “They started manipulating prices … This is an attempt to terrorize us.”
This new stall, where all the people were standing and waiting, was one of 50 that had been set up by the government around Istanbul, and there were more in the capital, Ankara. You could call them ground zero of the Turkish government’s war on food terror.
In Üsküdar, perhaps it was no accident that the stall was set up in the shadow of two of the nation’s biggest süpermarket chains, Uçler and Migros.
At Uçler, where I stopped by to purchase some simit from the bakery, the workers were well aware of their state-subsidized competitors outside. While the supermarket workers seemed unfazed, it is worth mentioning that news reports the following day suggested that fruit and vegetable prices had dropped a bit in these places, perhaps in response.
At any rate, I figured the time was ripe to address the issue of vegetable politics. After all, it’s not the first time they’ve cropped up.
Several years ago, following the downing of a Turkish fighter jet near the Syrian border, which the Turks blamed on the Russians, a big row ensued. The result was a mutual boycott: the Russians vowed to stop coming to Turkey for tourism, and the Turks cut off exporting fruit and vegetables to their big Slavak neighbor.
Both sides – historical enemies – foresaw dire ends for the other:
“How will the Turks survive without our droves of Russian tourists on the beaches of Antalya?”
“How will the Russians survive those long Russian winters without our juicy tomatoes and delicious eggplant?”
Good old mutually assurred destruction, in the form of eggplants and pretty Russian girls.
Over time, as you might expect, the boycotts were lifted. After all, who doesn’t love eggplant? Who doesn’t love pretty Russian girls?
Anyway, that was some years ago. Now, with vegetables on the political plate once again, I thought this time I would raise the issue with my university students. In class, we read a news article together, and watched an ITN video report. Then I split the class into two camps, one “For” and one “Against” the government food stalls.
Usually these 18-year-old millennials fall into a coma whenever we do anything so boring as reading. The day before, I’d attempted a discussion on eco-friendly diets, with little success. Now, however, the topic seemed to hit close to home. Over the next hour, the students debated, and showed themselves to be surprisingly informed and thoughtful.
“I saw one of those vegetable stalls in my neighborhood in Bayrampaşa,” said one young woman.
“I saw it on the news last night!” cried a normally lethargic male.
Others were skeptical.
“I think the government is just trying to win the election,” they said. “And after the election, they will go away.”
“And it’s only a short-term solution,” added others. “It doesn’t solve Turkey’s long-term economic problems.”
These long-term issues, which the news reports also pointed out, included rising energy and transport costs, which the sellers blamed for the high veggie and fruit prices.
“Are we becoming socialists?” others asked. “What’s next? Is the government going to start selling cars?”
“Good points,” I said, facillitating. “It does raise the classic question: Should the government direcly interfere with the market? Should the government be in the business of selling vegetables? Is it a slippery slope?”
We also heard from the “For” group. Their leader, a blonde girl, said that Turkey’s agricultural sector is very important, and should be promoted by the state. Also, the program helps those hit hardest by inflation, senior citizens and the poor.
“It is the government’s responsibilty to help old people and poor people,” the “For” supporters said.
For obvious reasons, I have not mentioned the students by name, and bear in mind it was just a classroom speaking exercise. Still, it proved to be a very fruitful discussion, and almost all of the students seemed engaged, something all teachers love to see.
And why shouldn’t they be?
Trust me, folks: Inflation in Turkey is very real – food prices alone have risen more than 30 percent over the past year. And as my students pointed out, local elections are just around the corner in March.
So it something to think about: Are the food stalls just a bit of pre-election cake? Will they be permanent? And are such measures really enough to address the country’s bigger economic problems?
Of course, I’ve hardly mentioned the civil war to the South, which is nearly a decade old now. Or the 2016 failed military coup, which had noticeable and lasting effects on foreign direct investment, tourism and the dollar-lira Exchange rate, all of which Turkey is still dealing with, and no doubt have also contributed to enflasyon.
Meanwhile, the nation’s president, Tayyip Erdoğan, continues his public war on food terror.
“We have warned the profiteers,” he said. “God willing, we will give them the Ottoman slap!”
(Note: the “Ottoman slap,” used by Ottoman front-line soldiers who toughened their hands by hitting wet sand, was said to crush the helmets of their enemies in battle)
I read that the government is setting up a website, so that people can order their produce online, which should make for shorter lines.
Who knows? Maybe the Turkish government wants to be the next Amazon or Alibaba? If so, look out, Jeff Bezos! Careful Jack Ma! The Ottoman slap could be coming for you next.
All joking and vegetable puns aside, I’ll end the story where we started: passing by the stall in Üsküdar, and looking at the long line of (mostly old) people standing in the cold rain, the wind blowing up from the Bosphorus.
I called my wife Özge, asking if we needed anything from the supermarket.
“Don’t buy anything today,” she said. “We have enough at home, and we don’t need to be spending money at the süpermarket every day while other people are standing in queues in the cold waiting to buy vegetables.”
Ah, yes. The old Gandhi passive-resistance approach – as opposed to the Ottoman slap! Hadn’t thought of that. Well, as you know, my wife is a very sensible woman.
James Tressler is a former Lost Coast resident and journalist. He has written several books about Istanbul, including “Strait Fiction,” a collection of short stories published last fall.