06 Mar, 2019

How Food Divides Turks and Syrians

by Daniele Santoro

In July 2011 the first group of 15,000 Syrian asylum-seekers crossed into Turkey. They were accommodated in temporary shelters, with the expectation that they would soon return home. Instead, the Syrians are still in Turkey – along with an estimated 3.6 million additional asylum-seekers.

As the number of Syrians has swelled, so have tensions. Syrians, by and large, have stayed apart from local Turks, separated by different cultures – exemplified by different culinary traditions. Turks want their army to open safe areas inside Syria in order to allow the refugees to return home.

The Turkish government never granted the legal status of “refugees” to Syrians, labelled them as guests. Although Ankara tried to reverse its strategy offering citizenship to Syrians refugees in March 2016, popular resistance soon forced it to reverse course. According to Turkish government figures, only 55,000 Syrian refugees have become Turkish citizens .

Syrians do not even have the right to work legally in Turkey. To date, the Turkish government has granted work permits to less than 21,000 Syrians. Potential employers must pay a large amount of money to regularize them. At least one million Syrians earn a living by working illegally.

Many arrive in Turkey with a few dollars in their pockets and set up their own businesses. By September 2018 there were more than 10,000 companies with Syrian capital operating in Turkey. In 2011 Syrian companies represented 2% of the companies set up in Turkey with foreign capital; today, the ratio is 20%. These companies employ roughly 100,000 workers – and often focus on food.

Turkey’s main urban areas are scattered with Syrian restaurants, buffet and kebab shops. Micro, family-run businesses with signboards written in Arabic employ and serve Syrians. The Syrian restaurants, bakeries and small food stores sell to Syrian. Instead of Syrian food becoming a factor for integration, it has contributed to the birth of “Little Syrias” (or “Little Aleppos”, given that most of Syrians living in Turkey are from Aleppo province). The Aksaray neighborhood of İstanbul’s Fatih District, for example, is almost entirely Arabized.

While at the beginning of the so-called “Arab Springs” Turks welcomed Syrians like “brothers”, between 2011 and 2014, when Turkey was hailed as a “model-country” for the Arab world, Syrians reminded the Turks the old good days of the Ottoman grandeur. Three out of four Turkish citizens now want to send Syrians back to their homeland.

What changed? In October, 2014, the Obama administration formed an alliance with Turkey’s longtime enemies, Syria’s Kurds. From the beginning of 2015 to June 2016, as Syrian rebels suffered one defeat after another, immigration skyrocketed, bringing more than 1.5 million Syrians into Turkey.

Today, Syrians remind the Turks the “betrayal” of World War I. The Ottoman Empire is still the elephant in the room. After its collapse, as the Turkish presidential advisor İbrahim Kalın put it, “we have been taught that Arabs betrayed us, while the Arabs have been taught that we turned our back to the Arab world to become Westerners and infidels.”

Turks and Arabs are both Muslims, but Turks are not Arabs. In the Islamic world there is a well-known saying: “The Quran was revealed in Mecca, recited in Cairo and written in İstanbul.” Besides being a tribute to the esteemed calligraphy of the Ottoman experts, this way of saying recalls the existence of a separate, modernized Turkish school of Islam, quite different from the Syrian approaches to religion.

Food and drink demonstrate these differences. According to the Turkish Health Ministry and the World Health Organization, only 1,4% of Syrians living in Turkey drink alcohol at least once in a lifetime. Some 23% of Turks have tasted alcohol, including 11% of religious Turks. Many Syrian arrivals are shocked to see Turks drinking alcohol.

Although Turks initially enjoyed a wide variety of food thanks to Syrian restaurants, bakeries and groceries, Turks prefer to continue to follow their traditional diet and to shop their food stores. Recently, some municipalities have passed a regulation prescribing that shop signboards must include at least 60-75% Turkish words...

For their part, Syrians were not impressed at all by the availability of “Ottoman” hummus in Turkey and would not agree with the definition of their cuisine as “Ottoman.” Turks were unable to kick-start a process of genuine assimilation by imposing their food habits on the Syrians. According to the Turkish Healthy Ministry and World Health Ministry a majority of Syrians dislike Turkish cuisine. The cullinary gap has played a major role in the genesis of Turkey’s “Little Syrias”, semi-autonomous communities in which the lingua franca is Arabic.

The emergence of Syrian ghettos in Turkish cities resemble the threat of Hispanization of the United States outlined by Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington in his controversial book Who Are We?. According to Huntington, Hispanic (namely, Mexican) immigration in the United States differs from previous immigration due to a combination of six factors: contiguity; numbers; illegality; regional concentration; persistence and historical presence.

A similar combination of factors is at work in the case of Syrian immigration to Turkey. Turkey and Syria have a 911 kilometer-long border in common; Syrians are by far the largest irregular immigrant group in Turkey and their presence has never been legalized; they are concentrated in specific areas of the country; their number could further skyrocket if the Ankara-Moscow agreement on İdlib falls through; and they have historical claims on Turkish territory.

Syrian immigration is a threat to Turkey’s identity and national security just as Mexican immigration is a threat to American identity and national security. If for Mexican immigrants in the U.S. “Uncle Sam no es mi tío,” for Syrians in Turkey “Atatürk is not my father.”

Turks now envision a military solution. After the Turkish army invaded Northern Syria in August 2016 (“Euphrates Shield” and “Olive’s Branch”), more than 255,000 Syrian refugees have returned to al-Bāb, Jarablus, Afrin and other cities. At a high-level security summit convened in Ankara on January 23, 2018, the final document clearly stated that Turkish military operation in Syria would continue until “around 3.5 million Syrians who are now sheltered in Turkey are able to safely return to their homeland.”

It’s a sad story. After a promising beginning, Syrian integration in Turkey must be judged a failure. Rather than bringing two peoples together, food has played a role in driving them apart. Syrians face an unenviable choice: stay unwelcomed or return to a country devastated by war and under the brutal rule of Bashar al Assad.