Celebrating the Feast of Sweet Smells and Tastes during Corona times

From 23–24 May, Muslims all over the world celebrated Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of four weeks of fasting during the month of Ramadan. In Turkey and the Turkish Muslim diaspora, the holiday is commonly known as Ramazan Bayramı or Şeker Bayramı, the “Feast of Sweets,” due to the fact that upon visiting relatives, friends and neighbours, one is awarded candy, chocolates and other traditional sweets such as Turkish Delight.

While I was able to observe the holiday preparations and visits of neighbouring families in Berlin-Neukölln where I live, a district well-known for its large Turkish diaspora community, I had to resort to virtual ethnography to get a sense of how this year’s holiday was celebrated in Turkey. I am especially interested in the changed role of Eau de Cologne and scents during the holiday. Thus, during bayram, visitors are not only awarded candy, but also –in a traditional gesture of welcome and as a sign of hospitality– Eau de Cologne, called kolonya in Turkish. Its use certainly did change in the past few weeks, as is confirmed by countless twitter postings under the hashtag of #kolonya in recent weeks. As one user, Mine Karakoç expresses on twitter on the evening of the holiday, ‘This holiday, kolonya has a different meaning!’

Due to its disinfectant effect, alcohol-based kolonya has recently assumed the role of a staple in everyday life and subsequently, local demand and prices have been skyrocketing. At the same time, for most people in Turkey, the holiday more generally was celebrated quite differently this year: whereas the Turkish government has so far refrained from stringent Covid-19 lockdowns but resorted to weekend curfews in some provinces as well as movement restriction orders for children and the elderly, shortly before the holiday, it announced a strict and nationwide four-day lockdown.

Buying Eau de Cologne for Eid al-Fitr this year (screenshot from a youtube posting)

In preparation of the feast this year, families obviously still went shopping for candies and Eau de Cologne. However, as this youtube video posting of an urban middle class family shows, the shopping was done with rubber gloves and masks. Left alone at home due to the Covid-19 regulations, the couple’s daughter nevertheless directs her parents’ buying decisions via WhatsApp. Filming his tour through the supermarket with his smart phone, the father disappointedly exclaims: ‘I would have loved to get some nice scents for the holiday, but there’s nothing left. Should we get some lemon kolonya, then? The daughter, via the mother’s smart phone, agrees and he picks one for 14 TL.

Many bayram postings on twitter invoked the celebrations of former times, such as a user named Bihter Fidangül, who posted a Turkish state television spot from 1988 wondering ‘where have the old bayram celebrations gone?’ The spot features holiday greetings from a number of Turkish celebrities as well as a typical bayram scene, with younger family members ritually greeting older relatives by kissing their extended hands and touching their forehead as well as a female host offering candies to a group of seated guests.

In the weeks before the holiday, many producers of fragrances and scents launched advertisements that directly refered to the Covid-19 related changes. For example, the video commercial for Selin Limon Kolonyası, a lemon-scented Eau de Cologne produced by a family firm in Izmir, states:

‘This holiday, in our Eau de Cologne, there’s not only your beloved smell of lemon. This holiday, it also includes the smell of your beloved grandparents and great grandparents, who you cannot go to visit. It also includes the smell of the feast table. It also includes the smell of sweets from your homeland [memleket], where you cannot go. This holiday, our Eau de Cologne includes the scents of our loved ones, the ones we miss and the ones we wait for as well as of upcoming beautiful days. Selin Eau de Cologne wishes a happy holiday to all of Turkey!’

One of many postings on twitter this Eid al-Fitr, combining the seasonal greetings with a picture of bottled Eau de Cologne.

Like many others, journalist Ercan Küçük posts his holiday greetings on twitter (on 24 May 2020, 3:39 pm) alongside a picture of his personal kolonya assortment. Among the 14 bottles of all kinds of styles and sizes sitting on a beige sofa, there are the usual scents, such as lemon, rose and olive flowers, as well as one that I’ve never seen before: hamsi kolonyası, an anchovy-scented Eau de Cologne, produced in the Black Sea town of Trabzon. I wonder what it smells like? Was this part of a panic buying as they have been reported for Turkey in March, or is this rather the effect of missing one’s home region (the Black Sea region is famous for its delicious anchovy dishes)?

Finally, I come across a youtube video of a team of the Turkish Red Crescent, walking through the emptied town of Hakkari, on the Turkish Iraqi border, on a rainy day, offering drops of Eau de Cologne and candy to those they meet outside, mostly soldiers and policemen. These images of colourful candy and Eau de Cologne in an atmosphere of ghostly tristesse and melancholy linger on.


Author: Claudia Liebelt

Claudia Liebelt (PhD, Halle, 2010) is Assistant Professor in Social Anthropology at the University of Bayreuth. She currently holds a Heisenberg Position on “Gender, Body, Beauty: Transnational Formations of the Self,” funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). Her research foci are in the Anthopology of the Body and the Senses, Political Anthropology, Gender and Sexualities, Care and Intimate Labour, as well as Islam and Secularity. She is especially interested in debates on the biopolitics of beauty and hygiene, embodied normativities, postsecularism and new materialities, with a regional focus on the Middle East and Northern Africa.

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