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.

Buying hand sanitizer in my local pharmacy

In mid-May, I enter my local pharmacy in Berlin-Neukölln to buy hand sanitizer. Right next to the cashier a handwritten sign announces the sale of hand sanitizers: 100 ml for 5 EUR, 200 ml for 10 EUR. I ask for a small bottle, telling the pharmacist that hand sanitizers are still unavailable at dm, a large drugstore chain in Germany. The pharmacist tells me that I shouldn’t rely on the hand sanitizer offered there, because they are merely bactericidal, not virucidal. It simply doesn’t affect the coronavirus. In contrast, their hand sanitizer is based on the recommendation of the WHO. I ask about the ingredients and he explains that it is basically alcohol mixed with water; they used propanol to reduce skin dehydration. He explains that in order to be effective and similar to hand-washing, hand sanitizer has to be rubbed until completely absorbed, for about thirty seconds.

I ask when they started producing hand sanitizers? He explains that they used to produce hand sanitizers, but a couple of years ago, due to a change in regulations, were no longer allowed to do so. On March 4, the Federal Office for Chemicals issued a new decree in reaction to the spread of Covid-19, which allowed pharmacies to produce their own hand sanitizers once more. Ever since, this decree has been updated several times and most recently also includes the right to produce surface sanitizers.

In early March, he recounts, they hardly managed to produce and bottle sanitizers in sufficient numbers and even alcohol was increasingly difficult to come by. Indeed, in mid-March, the business magazine Capital reported that breweries and cosmetic firms world-wide started producing hand sanitizers to help ease the shortage.

Throughout March, my local pharmacy sold four items almost exclusively, the pharmacist tells me: Paracetamol, hand sanitizers, gloves, and facial masks. Now things are returning back to normal, the pharmacist says.

Their hand sanitizer comes in a plain white plastic bottle with a printed label on it. The production and expiry dates are hand written: according to the label, mine was produced on April 29, 2020 and is best before April 29, 2021. It has an acrid smell to it.

Katılım Daveti

Korona pandemisi sırasında Türkiye ve Almanya’da Hijyenin Kokusu konulu antropolojik araştırma projemiz için 18- 99 yaş arası, koku, hijyen, dezenfeksyon maddeleri hakkında günlük deneyim, gözlem ve anılarını bizimle paylaşmaya hazır katılımcılar arıyoruz.

Katılım için önkoşul 10 hafta boyunca konu ile ilgili haftalık fotoğraf, yazı yada ses kayıtlarından oluşacak bir günlük tutmayı kabul etmek. Bu veriler E-mail ya da Whatsapp üzerinden, Almanca, Türkçe ya da İngilizce olarak tarafımıza iletilebilir.

Bize gönderilen bilgi ve deneyimlerinizden her hafta bir tanesi derlenip seçilecek ve araştırmanın internet blogunda paylaşacağız.

Elde edilen veriler anonim olarak yayınlanacak ve kişisel veriler kesinlikle bir başkasıyla paylaşılmayacak. Katılımcılara araştırmanın sonuçlarının derlendiği kitabı projenin sonunda teşekkür olarak göndereceğiz.

Araştırma başlamadan önce sizinle yaklaşık 20 dakikalık bir online görüşme yapmak isteriz.

Araştırmamız ilginizi çektiyse, sorularınız ve katılım ayrıntıları için bize cultures_of_hygiene@uni-bayreuth.de adresinden E-mail ile ulaşabilirsiniz.

Proje ile ilgili ayrıntılı bilgi edinmek için internet sitemizi ziyaret edebilirsiniz: https://www.ethnologie.uni-bayreuth.de/de/forschung/forschungsprojekte/liebelt_olfaktorien-der-Hygiene_tuerkisch/index.html

About this project

Taking the use of hand sanitizers during the COVID-19 pandemics in Turkey and Germany as a starting point, this projects seeks to analyze the social, cultural and affective configurations of sanitization, bodily hygiene and smell. Drawing on an online survey, Auto- and virtual ethnography (including video interviews, participant observation in social media) as well as the keeping of diaries by selected research participants, Olfactories of Hygiene seeks to enable a deeper understanding of the bodily sensual and everyday hygienic practices in relation to different public containment measures. Moreover, it will contribute to conceptual debates in the anthropology of the senses and science and technology studies, such as, will post-Pasteurianism (cf. Paxson 2008) receive a setback during the COVID-19 pandemics? In what ways are the notions of hygiene and sanitations related to sensorial affects, or: does sanitized modernity smell, or is it rather odourless? What do the smells of cleaning and disinfecting agents remind us of? How do we relate to and what do we associate with cleanliness and disinfection?

Due to the global outbreak of COVID-19 practices of bodily hygiene, cleanliness and sanitation have achived new meanings in their everyday uses. While in many contexts, medical hand sanitizers were quickly sold out, in some, the disinfectant effect of perfumed alcohol-based Eau de Cologne have been rediscovered: For example, in Turkey, so-called kolonya, traditionally associated with hospitality and used in particular social situations, has assumed new meanings and now stands for a cultural understanding of hygiene and self-conscious self-sufficiency. Since early April, millions of Turkish citizens aged 65 and older have received Eau de Cologne as part of a COVID-19 emergency kit from the government. This has sent output figures and prices of locally produced Eau de Cologne skyrocketing. In Germany, olfactory displays of hygiene and cleanliness function in different ways. While it is here that Eau de Cologne first became popular during the 18th century, more recently, its use has been considered rather old fashioned, a thing one’s grandmother might still use. The hand sanitizers agents increasingly provided in shopping malls and public offices in Germany are commonly non-perfumed or smell of their chloride or alcohol-based ingredients.

The Turkish government’s COVID-19 emergency package containing face masks, Eau de Cologne and a letter from the President sent out to citizens above the age of 65 since April 2020 (photo: İhlas News Agency).

Olfactories of Hygiene aims at studying the everyday practices and multi-sensorial meanings and affects of bodily hygiene, sanitation and smell in relation to cleaning and disinfecting agents during times of rapid societal change. How are bodily hygiene and cleanliness manufactured and what is the role of smell in these processes? How have these practices changed in Germany and Turkey during the COVID-19 pandemic? What kind of affects, emotions and meanings are ascribed to different notions of hygiene and cleanliness? What are the material and immaterial effects on sanitizing practices? In what ways are the Olfactories of Hygiene bound up with intersectional categorizations of age, class, gender and ethnicity? And finally, what are the public politics of hygiene in Turkey and Germany and in what ways are these tied to what could be called olfactorial politics? To sum up, the research project seeks to contribute not only to scholarly debates, but also to highly relevant sociopolitical understandings of everyday olfactorial practices of hygiene.


Heather Paxson 2008. ‘Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States.’ Cultural Anthropology, 23(1): 15–47.

Hand Sanitizers at the University – A Scarce Good

In late April, the president of the University of Bayreuth (in the southern German Free State of Bavaria) sends out an email with the latest Infection Protection Act. In paragraph 7, the universities are asked to guarantee sufficient possibilities for hand washing and sanitizing in their facilities. However, the president writes that the sufficient provision with sanitizer dispensers is a difficult task at the moment due to “the current market situation” and that it will take a few more weeks until the problem will be solved.  

Curious to find out more, I get in touch with the responsible persons at the university’s Department for Acquisition and Inventory Management  and they confirm that they’ve never seen anything like what’s currently happening on the sanitizer market. Lately, many products have simply become unavailable.  

In the current Covid-19 pandemic, hand sanitizer dispensers have become a scarce good © picture alliance/dpa/Daniel Karmann

By the end of February, when the Covid-19 epidemic came increasingly closer, the university ordered 40 dispensers. In early March, they attempted to order additional dispensers, as well as refilling bags, but the provider was even back then unable to provide any and couldn’t quote a delivery date. There are enough supplies of disinfectant agents, which are used for cleaning surfaces at the university, but due to state regulations, these may not be used as hand sanitizers.

Instead, different kinds of hand sanitizer products have been ordered from other firms to refill the available dispensers. These hand sanitizers are based on alcohol and one on chlorine, provided by a firm specialized on the purification of water. When I ask the person responsible for ordering the products about their smell, she laughingly responds that she never even gave a thought to this! In the product data sheets the smells are described as alcoholic and chlorine respectively…

In the meanwhile, the in-house technicians are busy installing the precious forty dispensers where they are most urgently needed. While at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis dispensers were installed more generally across the campus, lately many have been removed and installed in newly reopened facilities. 

Call for Participation

For our project on the Cultures of Hygiene: Practices of bodily hygiene and smell during the COVID-19 pandemics in Germany and Turkey we are looking for participants between 18 and 99 years old, who are willing to share their everyday observations, reflections and memories on the themes of hand sanitizers, smell and hygiene. 

Over a period of ten weeks, participants will keep a thematic diary and, prompted by weekly questions, contribute short texts, photos or voice messages. Contributions can be submitted via email or WhatsApp in English, German or Turkish. Each week one selected contribution will be published on our research blog. All research outcomes will be anonymized, all personal data will be treated confidentially. As a thank-you gesture, all participants will receive a book copy of our project outcomes. 

In preparation of the study, you will be asked to participate in a video briefing, which will take app. 20 minutes.

For more information on the project or for participation, please get in touch with cultures_of_hygiene@uni-bayreuth.de

This research is funded by the German Research Foundation and is part of a Heisenberg-Position on “Gender, Body, Beauty: Transnational Formations of the Self” at the Chair for Social Anthropology, University of Bayreuth (https://www.ethnologie.uni-bayreuth.de/en/team/Liebelt-Claudia/index.php)

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