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The demise of Turkey's pork butchers

The role of Islam in Turkish society is a subject of continual debate. Secularists are protesting against what they see as the government's increasingly Islamic agenda, and as Sarah Rainsford found out, the latest battleground could be across the butcher's counter.

Lazari Kozmaoglu butcher's shop
Current legislation is threatening Turkey's pork butchers
"We're going filming at a pork butcher's and a pig farm," I told my Turkish cameraman in a text message. Slightly anxious, I added: "Is that OK with you?"

A moment later a message from Gokhan flashed back.

"Yes," he wrote. "I like a good pork steak!"

He is not the only one.

Another Turkish friend told me that eating pork, which is forbidden by Islam, is increasingly popular in secular high society here.

She described this as an act of defiance by some Turks who fear religious dictates have begun creeping into their lives since a government led by devout Muslims took power.

But those people could soon be looking for a new way to rebel because Turkey's pork industry is on the brink of extinction.

Shrinking business

Lazari Kozmaoglu describes himself as the last pork butcher in Istanbul.

Lazari Kozmaoglu, a butcher
Lazari Kozmaoglu has worked as a butcher for 40 years
We met at his unmarked shop, in the shadow of a towering, Orthodox church. Outside, hungry-looking cats sat pawing the window.

As Lazari showed me round, he reminisced about the cosmopolitan Istanbul of his youth - filled with ethnic Armenians and local Greeks like himself. The days when the pork business was booming.

Many of those Christians have long since left or been forced out. But Lazari stayed on.

Curiously, all the other slaughter houses that once dealt with pork have been closed too
For more than 40 years he has been selling pork to his own fast-shrinking Christian community, to defiant Muslims, and to foreigners. Now, he is being squeezed out of business.

Lazari's being prevented from slaughtering pigs and the stock of meat in his freezer is running critically low.

He owns an abattoir but the Agriculture Ministry has refused him a licence to operate it, saying it does not meet strict new regulations.

Curiously, all the other slaughter houses that once dealt with pork have been closed too. Lazari's reluctant to say what he suspects is happening.

"There are only 2,000 Greeks left in Istanbul," he grumbled. "None of us dares speak out."

So a rare customer filled in the gaps.

"It's all about Islam," Sami said, as the shop assistant wrapped his sausages in greaseproof paper.

"Most people are more religious these days. They don't want to eat pork, and they don't let others produce it either."

In a typical "Istanbul" twist, the customer himself was Jewish. Behind him I spotted my Muslim colleagues - munching contentedly on ham sandwiches.

Conservative rule

Today's governing AK Party is far more conservative than my workmates.

It is extremely popular in rural Turkey, and with the new urban, religious-conservative middle-class here.

But the AKP's leaders once belonged to a more radical, pro-Islamic party, and strictly secular Turks suspect their agenda has not changed.

To such sceptics, the fate of the pork business is proof.

A couple of hours' drive towards the Bulgarian border, I found a farm that seemed at first to be thriving.

Zafer, a farmer
Despite an ever increasing number, Zafer is unable to sell his pigs
Trees heavy with honey-blossom did nothing to disguise the stink of some 300 pigs, snuffling through the mud for food.

"You'll find the smell addictive," Zafer the farmer laughed, as I tried in vain to block it out.

A lively man, with bushy brown curls, he invested heavily in his farm, spurred on by visions of British tourists breakfasting on his bacon, and diplomats barbecuing his pork chops.

But four years on, Zafer cannot sell a single animal for slaughter.

Just like Lazari with his abattoir, Zafer's farm has failed the new hygiene test.

On top of that the regulations now say you can only farm pigs if you say which abattoir will slaughter them: Catch-22 when they have already been closed.

Back in Istanbul, the local Agriculture Ministry man denied the situation's anything to do with Islam
"The government doesn't announce out loud that it has banned the pig farms," Zafer told me.

"But at the end of the day, that's what's happened here. They're trying to send a message to their religious constituents," he said.

Back in Istanbul, the local agriculture ministry man denied the situation's anything to do with Islam.

He insists the regulations were introduced to bring Turkey up to European standards.

"We've got no problem with pork," Ahmet Kavak told me. "The farmers just need to meet the criteria."

Hope for resolution

As evidence, he claimed the ministry was now working closely with Lazari to help open his slaughter house.

If that does finally happen - after years of fruitless negotiation - the butcher believes farmers could be lured back to the pork business.

Zafer is ready and waiting.

"This lot are eating me out of house and home," he laughed, pointing to a wriggling pile of pink and black-spotted piglets. His herd keeps on expanding.

But Zafer's passionate about pig farming, so he keeps the animals as pets, holding out for a solution.

"The authorities thought we'd give up." Zafer told me.

Then, he continued, "at the elections, they could say: 'Look, we're Muslims, we finished off this business,' but we're still here - and determined to solve this".

He smiled as a three-day old piglet clambered across his feet, then trotted off after its mother across the field.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 26 April, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Country profile: Turkey
03 Apr 08 |  Country profiles
Turks fear political turmoil
03 Apr 08 |  Europe
Turkey faces testing year ahead
02 Jan 08 |  Europe


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