Coping with COVID, Turkey Turns to Fragrant Tradition


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ISTANBUL - With Turkey battling COVID-19, Turks are turning to a traditional custom to contain the virus: sweet smelling cologne.

With its high alcoholic content, cologne is widely accepted as useful in killing the coronavirus on people's hands. From major producers to local chemists, all are working to keep up with the surge in demand.

Ziya Melih Sezer, 89 years old, is perhaps Istanbul's oldest chemist. His profession keeps him exempt from the nationwide lockdown on people over 65.

Donning a chic beret, Sezer continues to open his pharmacy to serve the local people, like his family has done for more than century.

On the wall of his store hangs his family's pharmacy qualifications written in Ottoman script dating back before the Turkish Republic.

Sezer recalls previous health crises to hit Istanbul. The typhus epidemic during World War Two was denied by authorities who dismissed the outbreak as malicious propaganda, he says.

Cholera, in 1973, was "terrible," with people fleeing the districts hit by the waterborne disease. But the coronavirus is the greatest challenge, he says

"Nothing like this happened. Nothing like this panic," Sezer said. "I haven't heard such rate of deaths, never seen anything like that. People are collapsing and dying like a house of cards."

According to Turkish healthy ministry figures, over 3,000 people have died from the disease, with more than 60% of those deaths in Istanbul.

Distinct lemon scent

Istanbul's mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu of the opposition CHP, suggests the death rate is probably much higher. The government vehemently denies Imamoglu's accusation.

In a tiny back room, Sezer, in his small way, is helping to battle the virus. For decades he, like many chemists, produces cologne, carefully mixing fragrances with alcohol.

In a large pestle and mortar, he pounds the ingredients that give the cologne its distinct lemon scent so loved by Turks. Sezer then, with a steady hand, carefully mixes in the alcohol, which he says is so effective in killing the coronavirus on people's hands.

As the virus spreads across Turkey and with it a growing awareness to regularly sterilize hands, demand for cologne has surged.

"At the beginning of the coronavirus, there was a real high demand," Sezer said. "For a short while, there was a shortage of ingredients."

Part of Turkish life

Cologne, for more than a century, is a part of the fabric of Turkish life.

"Still cologne is a very important tradition in Turkey," said Mehmet Muderrisoglu, owner of Rebul Pharmacy. His son Kerim runs the family firm Atelier Rebul, one of Turkey's most prominent cologne producers.

"There are few traditions when you visit an office or a house. One. You are offered a cup of tea, two a lokum (sweet), and three, when you enter the house the first thing they would give you, is to distribute cologne. This is the fragrant lemon cologne, and it is (also) good for disinfecting," Muderrisoglu added.

"I don't think another society has that much consumption of cologne as the Turkish society," said Professor Istar Gozaydin, an expert on religion and the Turkish State.

Enduring popularity

Gozaydin says Turkey being a predominantly Muslim country in part, explains cologne's enduring popularity.

"Cleanliness is a very important part of Turkishness, probably has to do with its religious identity, which is Islam, that demands washing before praying fives a day."

"However, among Muslim societies, the Turkish one is quite unique. Cleanliness among Turks extends to washing oneself only with running water is an example, or to be obsessed with washing oneself after deification, washing oneself after sex. Yes, it has to do with identity, and the widespread use of cologne is a part of this culture of cleanliness," added Gozaydin.

Cologne came to Turkey from Europe in the 19th century. A Frenchman founded Atelier Rebul, which is at the forefront of meeting the surging demand.

"The first week was a boom. It was a very booming subject because everybody was running behind the cologne," said Muderrisoglu, admitting they initially struggled to keep up with demand as people stocked up.

Muderrisoglu, says they are now on top of demand, with calm starting to return to the market, "Now it is decreasing to normal." But cologne's sterilizing qualities are now demanded not only in Turkey.

"Now we are exporting to Europe a lot. Previously cologne was never accepted in the European market. But now the European market is an important market for the cologne industry."

Fortunately, the surge in demand coincides with Atelier Rebul, opening a new factory that will triple production. Meaning there should be plenty of cologne to go round.