Thursday, 9 July 2009

Kozma Kozmauoglu, Kozmaologu’s Pork Butcher, Dolapdere, Istanbul

Every surface and machine was spotless, or being made so by Kozma’s staff, as he showed us around the processing and storage rooms behind his pork butcher’s shop. The last of the sliced ham was being vacuum-packed as the operation wound down its business for the day. We were offered some slices of very tasty ham, rather than the customary tea. The pork chops, ribs, sausages, smoked or mortadello ham, and other pork products had already been withdrawn from the shop’s display. “With the heat of the day," he explains, “it’s best to keep everything in the large fridges in the back rooms.”

We’d set out to meet with Kozma, ‘The Last Pork Butcher in Istanbul’, after hearing a news broadcast on BBC radio last year. The programme spoke of the potential demise of his business due to new regulations, that some say are part of the government’s increasingly Islamic agenda.

He’s being prevented from slaughtering pigs. The Agriculture Ministry are refusing him a licence to operate his own abattoir, saying it did not meet the strict new guidelines. Careful not to say anything inflammatory, Kozma suggests, “maybe it was the issue with Pig Fever last year that led the government to revoke all pork abattoir licences.”

Others [on the BBC] said the closure of his, and all the other pig slaughterhouses, was “all about Islam” and symptomatic of the pro-Islamic agenda of the governing AK Party, which is popular with religious rural and the conservative, urban middle-class.

Despite this regulatory squeeze, we learnt that Kozmauoglu has negotiated a way to stay in business, as well as adapting to the long-standing decline of the non-Moslem minorities in the Dolapdere neighbourhood.

“These days, it’s rare for there to be walk-in customers, though we do have occasional visitors,” Kozma says. Now it’s mostly wholesale, to cruise ships, Armenian schools, chic delicatessen frequented by secular high society, and hotels, particularly those in the Antalya tourist region on Turkey’s south coast.

The government now allows Kozmaoglu to buy pork - he receives the pigs halved from farms in Mersin and Antalya - then process and distribute pork products around Turkey. They are the only institution in Istanbul to have a licence to do this. In return, he provides the government with a list of his customers to prove he is not selling to Turkish Moslems and is transparent about those he trades with.

To demonstrate the delicacy of his situation, he showed us two shipping documents, noting that the government officials do not put their own names on the documents for fear of reprisals. When asked about the future of the shop he said, “Who knows. It’s difficult to predict the government’s attitude.”

Kozma set up the business in 1977 with his brother Lazari, and comes from an old Greek family that moved to Istanbul 200 years ago, with roots in the central Anatolian town of Karaman. His daughter and son also work for the business. Just behind the shop is the Greek Orthodox Church of Panayia Evangelistria. The neighborhood was predominantly Greek when Istanbul’s Rum [Greek] minority numbered 100,000 or more in the early 1950s. Today, Istanbul’s Rums, as they are called, number around 2,000. The decline was prompted by the riots against the Greeks and other non-Moslem minorities in September 1955. He says some of his extended family emigrated to Greece in the 1970’s, though still come back to visit. There are only 10 or 15 Rums living in the neighborhood nowadays. And for some of them, Kozmaoglu’s shop is a meeting place. They come and chat and drink tea, even if they don’t buy anything.

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