Burning Incense in Berlin: on the Power of Herbs and Stay-At-Home Exorcists

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I noted that some of the stores in the Berlin neighbourhood where I reside took to burning incense ‘for protection,’ as the vendors claimed. At around the same time, an increasing number of stalls in our local open-air market started selling incense and other herbal fumigants. Neighbours and friends recommended to gargle solutions or use nasal sprays that contained essential oils to protect from the coronavirus or took to burning incense or scent diffusers. And one of the adult learning courses offered by our municipality in the second half of 2020 (“Räuchern mit Kräutern und Harzen,” Fumigation with Resins and Herbs) was advertised with the claim that the essential oils released in the act of fumigation not only pleased our noses, but also purified and protected from “sickening germs”. Interested in the olfactory element in different cultures of hygiene in pandemic times, I decided to participate.

Different types of incense on display in a stall at the open-air market on Maybachufer, Berlin December 2020 (Foto: C. Liebelt)

Fumigation and the burning of incense, mostly herbs and resins, are ancient ritual practices that precede the use of personal fragrants. In fact, the notion of ‘perfume’ originates from the Italian parfumare – to perfuse with smoke or smoke through. Incense has a long history as a demonifuge and is an important part of multi-sensorial religious practice world-wide. In many contexts, particular fumigants create a smell of holiness or are considered sacred in themselves, as is the case with camphor in Hinduism (McHugh 2014) or frankincense in Orthodox Christianity. Moreover, incense is commonly considered therapeutic and has long been used for healing, for example in traditional Chinese medicine (Habkirk and Chang 2017). Indeed, many of the resins, herbs and essential oils used for fumigation actually do have antiseptic properties of which its users are usually well aware of. From a medical materialist position, the use of incense is regarded as ‘a superstitious kind of disinfectant’ (Kenna 2005: 6), a survival from pre-Pasteurian miasma theory, the belief that epidemics and diseases are caused by ‘bad airs’ and malodour (cf. Corbin 1986). However, in the Euro-American imaginary, fumigants also carry important symbolic meanings. In Christian and Jewish liturgical traditions, the act of fumigation constitutes a sacrificial offering and evokes spiritual transformation more generally; the ascending smoke symbolises the immortal soul or breath of life, a link between the material and the immaterial, between heaven and earth. As Margaret Kenna (2005: 15,11) points out in her research on Greek Orthodox olfactory practices, the smoke of incense is ‘a medium of inter-connectedness with the transcendent world,’ forming an important part in church services giving the believer ‘a glimpse of what heaven is like’. Incense may also be used to mark territory as sacred, such as in Buddhist or Daoist pilgrimage (Habkirk and Chang 2017).

Burning incense at a Chinese Buddhist pilgrimage site on Mount Wutan. (Foto: David Wilmot, via Wikimedia Commons)

The municipal course mentioned above took place shortly before Germany’s second Corona lockdown in mid-November 2020, in the private suburban home of the course leader, a retired female landscape gardener and herbal expert. Due to the pandemic regulations, the course was limited to eight persons, all of whom were middle-aged to elderly women. Some were already into burning incense while others were simply curious or in search of distraction from dire everyday routines as stay-at-home moms or pensioners. In the introductory round, two elderly ladies talked about the use of frankincense during church services, which reminded them of their childhood; others recounted how they had lately rediscovered incense sticks, which they had last used in their teens. One participant, a palliative caretaker in her mid-fifties, talked about a transformative experience of consuming and buying white sage from “an Indian” in a US American nature reserve that she visited during a journey that she undertook after she lost her first husband. The course leader agreed that “Indians” knew how to use the power of herbs and possessed knowledge that “we” had long lost.

Over the course of three hours, we burned incense with the help of different techniques. We learned about the effects of burning a multitude of herbs, resins and even mushrooms and with the smoke wavering above our heads shared memories triggered by their scents. The course leader told us about spiritual creatures that resided in her garden and encouraged us to use fumigation to purify not only our homes, but also our bodies, for example after using public transport. She was convinced that fumigation could be of great therapeutic help during the COVID-19 pandemic, not only due to its meditative and relaxing aspects, but also to purify and drive away ‘bad energies’. ‘We shouldn’t rely on vaccinations exclusively,’ she stated and gave as an example angelica, a medicinical plant which had been of great use in Cholera epidemics already. She offered us small pieces of the sweetly scented root to chew on and herbal infusion to drink. Finally, we learned that she also burned incense in special house purification rituals to exorcise demons, occasionally performed for an exclusive clientele. These rituals were in great demand these days, she told us. Returning home from fieldwork that day, I could not help but wonder why it took me almost two decades of professional practice before engaging in fieldwork ‘at home’. It turned out that the place where I resided was utterly surprising and actually quite exotic.

Accessories used for burning incense during a municipal training course, Berlin November 2020 (Foto: C. Liebelt)

A few weeks later, I met one of the course participants again, the palliative caretaker, to learn more about her interest in burning incense. Burning incense helped her to regain control whenever she sensed that something was wrong, she said. Since we last met, she had been infected with COVID-19 and was yet to recover from anosmia, a temporary loss of smell caused by the coronavirus. The last time she had burnt incense, she remembered, was during the winter solstice, in a ritual that was commonly celebrated among the female herbal community that she had grown part of in the past few months. Thus, the burning of incense had recently given rise to a digital community of ritual practice across distance as our former course leader was now offering Zoom meetings to connect with her former course participants. Sitting in front of their computers in their respective homes, in these meetings the women burned incense together yet apart, in search of sociality, comfort or healing.


Corbin, A. 1986. The Foul and the Fragrant: Odour and the French Social Imagination. Leamington Spa, Hamburg, New York: Berg.

Habkirk, Scott and Hsun Chang. 2017. “Scents, Community and Incense in Traditional Chinese Religion,” Material Religion, 13 (2): 156-174.

Kenna, Margaret E. 2005. “Why does incense smell religious?: The anthropology of smell meets Greek Orthodoxy,” Journal of Mediterranean Studies, 15 (1): 1–20.

McHugh, James. 2014. “From precious to polluting: tracing the history of camphor in hinduism,” Material Religion, 10 (1): 30-53, DOI: 10.2752/175183414X13909887177501

Kolonya in the News

In the early days of COVID-19, supermarkets in Turkey quickly ran out of stock in medical hand sanitizer and disinfectants. The day the World Health Organization (WHO) characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic, Turkey’s Minister of Health publicly declared that given the scarcity of medical hand sanitizer citizens should use alcohol-based kolonya, Turkish for Eau de Cologne, to protect themselves from the Coronavirus. Research in the news archives of four Turkish mainstream print media shows that kolonya has remained on the news in Turkey ever since. While mass sales and production are a major topic, articles also deal with what could be termed a particular kind of kolonya nationalism and the cultural effects of the Turkish kolonya renaissance.

In the early days of COVID-19, supermarkets in Turkey, like elsewhere, quickly ran out of stock in medical hand sanitizers and disinfectants. On March 11, the day the World Health Organization (WHO) characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic, Turkey’s Minister of Health Fahrettin Koca publicly declared that given the scarcity of medical hand sanitizer citizens should use alcohol-based kolonya, Turkish for Eau de Cologne, to protect themselves from the Coronavirus. Following his announcement, prices soared almost immediately and the next day, news outlets all over Turkey reported that stores had run out of supply. Some local producers also ran out of stock of ethanol, a major ingredient of kolonya­. The same day, the government banned the export not only of kolonya but also, of ethanol. By the end of March, the price of a kilo of lemon, the most popular fragrant ingredient in kolonya had increased threefold and papers also reported a lemon export ban. Research in four major newspaper archives –of Hürriyet, a liberal mainstream daily, which in 2018 was taken over by a pro-government holding; Posta, a mass market tabloid with high circulation in Turkey; Yeni Şafak, a Muslim conservative daily paper, known to be very close to the AKP government and Sabah, a right-wing and pro-government mass market paper– shows that kolonya has remained on the news in Turkey ever since. While mass sales and production are still a major topic, articles increasingly also deal with what could be termed a particular kind of kolonya nationalism and the cultural effects of the Turkish kolonya renaissance.

The great sale: kolonya mass production

In the first few days after the Ministry of Health’s kolonya announcement, Hürriyet, like many newspapers in Turkey, ran several articles a day under the tag of ‘kolonya’. By March 12, the demand for hand sanitizer had increased 15-fold and the demand for kolonya had more than tripled (Hürriyet, March 12). It was reported that shopkeepers sold more kolonya in one day than they usually did in a year (Hürriyet, March 11), even though individual sellers rationed the portions their customers were allowed to buy (Hürriyet, March 13). While toilet paper was stockpiled in Germany, kolonya was in Turkey. The Hürriyet website ran a picture gallery of the overcrowded sales office of a small kolonya-producing firm in the town of Izmit, located at the eastern Sea of Marmara, showing long lines of customers waiting to be served; the owner was quoted saying that ‘if the situation goes on like this, we will have to produce at night’ (quoted from Hürriyet, March 11).

Izmir residents lining up in front of Tarış, an agricultural cooperative, to buy Eau de Cologne (screenshot from a video posted by Hürriyet, 13 March 2020, https://www.hurriyet.com.tr/video/izmirliler-kolonya-sirasina-girdi-41468117).

Indeed, this is what happened in many kolonya producing factories: By September, Sabah (September 14) reported about a factory in the western Black Sea region of Düzce that organized night shifts to produce kolonya 24 hours a day since March. Similar extensions of production were  reported from large kolonya factories in Edirne, in Eastern Thrace (Sabah, September 17), and Kayseri in Central Anatolia (Sabah, September 24). Moreover, a thriving black market evolved, which also included products based on cheaper, but potentially hazardous methyl-alcohol instead of ethanol. In late March, Hürriyet reported about a large raid in 25 cities across the country, issued by the Minister of Interior, Süleyman Soylu, which resulted in the capturing of 71 and the arrest of four persons involved in the illegal production and sale of hand sanitizers and kolonya, as well as the confiscation of 65,000 boxes of disinfectants, 750 bottles of kolonya, 4,375 litres of ethanol, 340 litres methyl alcohol and eleven tons of other chemical substances. Indeed, explanations and recipes for home-made kolonya or disinfectants had been shared not only in talk shows and among friends, but also in the print media (for example, Hürriyet, March 17). Not least, the boom in kolonya production and sales was not restricted to Turkey. In mid-August, the Turkish Statistical Institute reported that during the first half of 2020, Turkey had sold kolonya to 86 countries worldwide and exports had hit a record high of over 13 million US dollars (see Hürriyet, August 22). Hürriyet (March 18) also interviewed a German producer of Turkish origin about the rise in demand of ‘Turkish’ kolonya in Germany.

Chemical substances for the production of kolonya and disinfectants confiscated during a police raid (published by Hürriyet, 26 March 2020, https://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/son-dakika-haberler-bakan-soylu-talimat-vermisti-25-ilde-operasyon-41478691)

Corona Biopolitics, kolonya nationalism

With the above-mentioned statement by the Ministry of Health in mid-March, kolonya became a quasi-official cure against rising Corona infection numbers in Turkey. Beginning in early April, millions of care packages, including facial masks, a bottle of kolonya and a letter from the President were distributed among elderly and chronically ill citizens. The campaign and the first days of distribution in Istanbul were covered extensively in the Turkish media. The newspapers’ websites offered picture galleries and even videos (for example, Hürriyet, April 7) showing teams of police men knocking on residents’ doors and handing out care packages. In the pro-government newspapers, these packages were closely associated with President Erdoğan himself and occasionally called ‘Erdoğan’s hygiene packages.’ The campaign was part of the regime’s attempt to effect the image of an all-powerful government taking good care of its national community. In its wake, kolonya became a patriotic symbol, part and parcel of Turkish nationalism on the rise.

One example for this kind of nationalism appeared on April 4th in the pro-Muslim government loyal Yeni Şafak under the title of “As the kolonya produced to meet the instructions by President Erdoğan hits the road, workers can’t hold back their tears”. Reporting about a kolonya-producing factory in Düzce where workers laboured for ten days without proper sleep to meet a government order of 300,000 bottles, Yeni Şafak commented not on the horrendous working conditions, but emphasised the workers’ heroic efforts. The accompanying pictures depict almost exclusively female workers uniformly dressed in dark pants, headscarves and wine-red overcoats waving national flags as trucks decorated with “Homeland First” banners leave the premises of the factory to distribute the first shipment. The factory’s executive manager is quoted saying that the order from their (‘our’) President and Minster of Health was so dear to them that they were prepared to continue the pace of production for another three or five months. One of the workers is described as weeping as the first trucks leave the factory; he is quoted speaking of the workers’ personal effort to fulfil the state order out of the hope to provide ‘healing’ (şifa) to the people. He also declares his ‘love’ for Turkey and that he would sacrifice his life for the homeland (vatan).

Yeni Şafak also reported on another of the eight factories that received a tender for producing products intended for theCorona emergency kits, namely Eyüp Sabri Tuncer, one of the oldest kolonya brands in Turkey. Eyüp Sabri Tuncer’s general manager Engin Tuncer, is quoted saying that he motivated his workers by telling them ‘You are working for the public health sector now. Our product is like a medicine’ (Yeni Şafak, April 13).

Workers forming a guard of honour with national flags as trucks leave a kolonya factory in Düzce (photo: Tezcan Solmaz, DHA Samsun, published by Yeni Şafak, 4 April 2020).

Another genre of Turkey’s mediated (kolonya) nationalism during the Corona crisis consisted of comparing Turkey favourably with the ‘Western’ world. Again, the Muslim conservative Yeni Şafak was most eager in this regard: early on in the pandemic, in an article titled ‘Nothing Compares Globally: Turkey’s ‘Social State’ Reflects its Difference’ commentator Şahin Şen emphasises Turkey’s exceptional role in dealing with the Corona crisis. Whereas in the US and Europe, Şen claims, citizens were unable to get hold of disinfectants, masks, gloves or even food, in Turkey, public workers strove relentlessly to fulfil the needs of elderly and chronically ill citizens, distributing kolonya and masks in a national struggle (milli mücadele) against the virus. The crisis thus revealed the ‘social’ character of the state. Also in Yeni Şafak (March 24), featuring pictures from a small kolonya store in Eminönü, kolonya was characterised as Turkey’s ‘secret weapon’ (gizli silah), which had made it into the headlines of European media.

Given the fact that hundreds of journalists have been arrested and the Freedom of the Press in Turkey has deteriorated significantly over the last decade as well as our decision to focus on print media with a high circulation, which are all pro-government or government-controlled, it is perhaps of little surprise that no kolonya-related critical reports on the dealing with the crisis and the widespread use of kolonya as a hand sanitizer were to be found.

Practices of hand hygiene, epidermic anxieties

From early on in the Corona crisis, newspapers distributed practical tips on how to use and produce sanitizing and disinfectant products, including kolonya. In the Muslim-conservative Yeni Şafak (April 4), consultants of Alo Fetva, the telephone hotline operated by the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), reported about numerous queries on the permissibility of using alcohol-based kolonya, given that alcohol was a forbidden substance in Islam. Alo Fetva consultants were quoted saying that the use of kolonya for sanitizing purposes was tolerable for cleansing purposes and did not ‘break’ the ritual ablution before prayer, thus reiterating an official statement by the Diyanet. From mid-March, public health experts and scientists were consulted by media outlets to support the minister’s claim that kolonya was antibacterial and explain its use during the current health crisis (for example, Hürriyet, March 11 and Hürriyet, March 12).

Sporadically, experts were quoted on the damaging side effects of an exaggerated use of kolonya, for example, offering tips on how to care for dehydrated or irritated skin (see Posta, April 2 or Sabah, June 2). The Muslim conservative Yeni Şafak published an article on the cleansing effects of rose water, which has a powerful religious connotation in Turkey and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Under the headline of “Constant use of kolonya creates skin irritation: To protect against microbes, use rose water,” a researcher from Istanbul University’s Institute of Maritime Sciences and Management was quoted saying that rose water was preferable to alcohol-based products due to its beneficial effects on dehydrated and irritated skin. While he did not claim that rose water effectively destroyed the Corona virus (which most certainly, it does not), the article nevertheless suggested that it destroyed ‘microbes’ and functioned as an antibacterial. In late May an announcement by the Clinical Microbiology and Infection Specialist of Istanbul Kent University’s Prof. Ayşe Wilke Topçu that kolonya with a high percentage of alcohol (above 70°) makes the Corona virus stick to the skin rather than destroy it created much repercussion and concern in the print media (see Yeni Şafak, Posta and Sabah on May 28).

Transforming kolonya Cultures: My Mask, My Kolonya

Another set of articles featured various cultural effects of Turkey’s current kolonya renaissance. Yeni Şafak’s Yaşar Süngü wrote about one of the first kolonya producers in Turkey, Eyüp Sabri Tuncer ( “A Perfumer’s Tale”), born in 1898 to a Bosnian family, who started producing and selling his own lemon-scented fragrance in Ankara around 1930.

A number of articles point to the strong affective relationship between fragrances and their users. For example, Yeni Şafak reports about an elderly man from Samsun, who over the years has collected more than 3,000 bottles of different types of kolonya and neatly arranged them in a room of his apartment. Due to the fact that his wife is asthmatic and doesn’t like kolonya, he did so secretly, saying that he loves his fragrant bottles ‘like my children’ (quoted from Yeni Şafak, April 17). Another article features an engineer living in İzmir, who has collected almost 2,500 bottles of kolonya made up of 75 different fragrances from 25 cities (mostly in Turkey). Dreaming of a Turkish kolonya museum, he claims that ‘these days, Turkey can be called the homeland of Eau de Cologne, due to the fact that as a society we are very interested in, and sensitive to scents.’ (quoted from Yeni Şafak, April 22). Yeni Şafak (May 10) also reports about the historical birthplace of kolonya, Cologne, showing pictures from the museum of one of the best-selling, though not the oldest, brands of Eau de Cologne, 4711. (Thus, Farina’s 1709 is certainly older and prides itself on a museum of its own.)

Private Eau de Cologne Collector in Samsun (photo: Yaprak Kocer, DHA Samsun, published by Yeni Şafak, 17 April 2020).

Here, like elsewhere, the early history of Eau de Cologne and the founding myth of one of the later producers of Eau de Cologne in Cologne (4711 among them), Mühlens, is reproduced rather uncritically, probably due to the fact that literature on the topic is hard to come by. Hürriyet’s Doğan Hızlan weaves historical anecdotes and personal remembrances into an essay on the changing role of kolonya in Turkey: from a symbol of hospitality and welcome during Muslim holidays or in the context of sick bed visits to a protective measure in pandemic times. And finally, as the epidemic situation is increasingly out of control and infection numbers are sadly on the rise again in early September, Hürriyet’s journalist Kanat Atkaya transforms Tanju Okan’s 1976 pop song slogan ‘My drink, my cigarette [are my only friends]’ into ‘My Mask, My Kolonya are my only friends’.

Surveying Cultures of Hygiene in Germany and Turkey

Between June 8 and July 15, my research assistant İdil Deniz Şakar and I conducted an online survey on the “Cultures of Hygiene in Germany and Turkey,” which has now been completed by 212 respondents. We were overwhelmed by the many positive responses to our survey and would like to summarize some of our findings in the following.

Who completed the survey? More than half of our respondents (59 percent) resided in Turkey, 37 percent in Germany. Due to the fact that we reached many of our respondents from among our (former) students as well as university staff, university graduates were clearly overrepresented, with 63 percent of all respondents holding a university degree. Nevertheless, we succeeded in reaching persons of many different ages with half of our respondents being 40 years of age or older. 76 percent of our respondents described themselves as female, 22 percent as male and two percent as diverse.

Facial masks for sale in a mobile phone shop in Berlin-Neukölln (Photo: C. Liebelt)

Changes in bodily hygiene in Corona times

According to our respondents, everyday bodily practices and hygienic measures have changed dramatically since the global spread of COVID-19: 89,4 percent of all respondents said that their own hygienic everyday measures have increased; in Turkey, this rate was even higher, with 95.2 percent of all respondents saying that their hygienic measures increased. Respondents in both Germany and Turkey stated that they now washed their hand more often, 96 and 96.7 percent respectively. Some of those, who did not, explained that due to the risk of infection they observed physical distance and therefore did not see the need to wash their hands more often. Forms of greeting have likewise changed, with 90.4 percent of all respondents saying that they now refrained from touching other persons’ hands or faces upon greeting them (89.5% in Germany, 91.1% in Turkey).

69 percent of our respondents also used hand sanitizer on a regular basis, with an overwhelming majority of users (96 percent) saying that they now used it more frequently than before. Hand sanitizer was used more frequently in Turkey (by 79.2 percent of respondents) as compared to Germany (52.6 percent). Those who did not use hand sanitizer on a regular basis said they relied on other hygienic measures (72 percent) or avoided hand sanitizer out of concerns about skin damage (38 percent). Others claimed that during the lockdown they had rarely left the house and therefore did not require it. Most respondents in Turkey and Germany, 88.7 and 86.7 percent respectively, regarded washing hands as the more effective hygienic measure. A majority of respondents living in Turkey (56.6 %) also used sanitizing agents to disinfect objects as compared to just 17.5% in Germany.

The greatest differences between our respondents in Germany and Turkey concerned the use of Eau de Cologne. In Turkey, Eau de Cologne (kolonya in Turkish) is widely used as a hand sanitizer and became the quasi-official national cure for dealing with the Corona crisis following the public declaration of Turkey’s Minister of Health that citizens should use kolonya to protect themselves from the Coronavirus. Whereas 90.4% of respondents in Turkey said that they used kolonya, only 9.2 percent of respondents in Germany did so. In contrast to Turkey, where the disinfectant effect of Eau de Cologne was the main reason given for its current use, in Germany, this effect was rarely quoted (if at all known). In Turkey, Eau de Cologne is traditionally offered to guests in a gesture of welcome and hospitality. In Germany, according to our survey, it is rather associated with “traditionalism” and regarded as something used by the elderly or previous generations.

Covid-19 in Turkey and Germany and hygienic measures more generally

As of today (August 4), the official number of COVID-19 cases stands at 233.851 confirmed cases and 5.747 deaths in Turkey and 212.328 confirmed cases and 9.161 deaths in Germany (see the COVID-19 map by the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center). Both countries were among the top ten of countries with the highest number of infections globally at the beginning of the pandemic but managed to eventually “flatten the curve,” starting so-called normalization processes in early May. State measures of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic differed greatly, with the German government imposing lockdown measures that varied between its different federal states and the Turkish government imposing a total curfew for those 65 years of age or older and the chronically ill on March 21, which in early April extended to those under the age of 20. Whereas an overwhelming majority of 98.4 percent of respondents in Turkey agreed with the statement that “the current situation demands substantial hygienic measures, including the sanitization of public buildings and streets,” only 34.2 percent of respondents living in Germany did so. Whereas not a single respondent in Turkey opposed the statement, 42.1 percent of respondents in Germany did. More ethnographic research and data analysis is needed to further explain these and many other findings, including the reservations regarding some hygienic measures in Germany especially, which are most likely linked to the historical connotation of the notion of “hygiene” in Germany and political concerns.

In both Germany and Turkey, our survey finds, respondents’ worries about their own and relatives’ health, their economic, professional and financial situation have increased since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given that the pandemic has made visible and/or exacerbated political conflicts and social inequalities, it is perhaps of little surprise that the number of those, who reported “great worries” about the global-political situation in both countries has doubled. At the very end of our survey, we asked respondents how they evaluated the hygienic measures taken up by the state to fight the spread of COVID-19. Here again, there were clear differences between respondents living in Germany and Turkey: respondents in Germany tended to be rather or very satisfied (60.5 percent) with the hygienic measures taken up by the state, as opposed to just 9.2 percent who were unsatisfied. In Turkey, respondents were divided almost equally between those, who were satisfied (27.1 percent) and those who were unsatisfied (33.9 percent), with a relatively large number of respondents choosing not to respond to this question or opting for “neither/nor, I don’t know” (42.4 percent). The many open answers to our question about the reasons for satisfaction or dissatisfaction with state hygienic measures spoke of a great deal of concern and reflection among our respondents. Many expressed their sense of appreciation for often far-reaching hygienic measures, authorities’ lack of control (in Germany) or reluctance to impose lockdown measures (in Turkey) and were concerned about other persons’ irresponsible behaviour.

Trained as a social and cultural anthropologist who believes in qualitative rather than quantitative data and loves to engage in ethnographic research rather than online surveys, for me these outcomes are just the beginning for more thorough research. Nevertheless, they offer many interesting insights into the dealings with the current crisis, the transformation in everyday lives and bodily practices, as well as olfactorial, hygienic and political concerns in Germany and Turkey.

Stay tuned for more findings and research outcomes!

A great thank you to all of those, who participated in the survey!

The smell of Covid-19: notes from Berlin during the lockdown

Shortly before the beginning of the Coronavirus lockdowns, I embarked on a new project on the social and cultural configurations of smell. While originally, I planned to focus on perfuming and deodorising in relation to cultural notions of beauty, what came to the fore in both my everyday life and the scholarly literature that I read, was the smell of hygiene –subsequently giving rise to a new research focus and the name of this blog. In this post, I would like to assemble a few research notes and observations on smell in coronatimes and my changing smellscape, living in Berlin during the Covid-19 lockdown. Does the pandemic smell, and how? What are the olfactorial shifts that I noted? In writing about these things, I also grapple with another question, perhaps the most difficult of all, namely, how to write about and record smell and odours?

Smell is ephemeral and cannot be recorded like sound or vision. Moreover, the language we have to describe smell is rather poor. Reading on the role of smell and odours in medical history and history more generally, as I currently do, I cannot help but think that over the past century or two our capability to detect and articulate odours has become even poorer. Not least, I’m certainly not ‘a nose’ (un nez in French), as they say in the French perfumery industry studied by Bruno Latour for an article published in 2004. That is, like most of us, I’ve never been systematically trained and educated in detecting, articulating or creating odours and scents respectively.

One of the first things that come to my mind when thinking about the relation between smell and Covid-19 is the relation between smell and the virus itself. Thus, a loss or a changed sense of smell is one of the effects of the coronavirus, as noted by the World Health Organisation. Rather late, on May 18, the British NHS officially added the loss or changed sense of smell to its list of coronavirus symptoms. Here, the loss of smell is described as ‘unpleasant,’ though usually ‘not serious;’ nevertheless, the experiences of those suffering from this loss, called anosmia, speak of a serious irritation. The olfactorial power of the virus, however, is twofold: what is less widely known is that the virus also produces a particular kind of smell. While this smell is undetectable for humans, even ‘the noses’ described by Latour, in the past few weeks, dogs trained by researchers at the University of Helsinki have succeeded in sniffing out Covid-19 patients by distinguishing between different urine samples.

Blossoming cherry tree along the canal in Treptow donated from Japan in 1990 (photo: C. Liebelt)

Moreover, there are changes in the urban smellscape that are related to the Covid-19 shutdown rather than the virus itself. No longer taking the subway to the university or squeezing into the bus to take my daughter to school in the mornings, my personal everyday smellscape has certainly changed quite dramatically in the past few months. Staying at home most days and keeping physical distance while shopping, I’m hardly ever confronted with the bodily smells of others from close up. Moreover, in the first few weeks, with traffic in the neighbourhood coming almost to a standstill, there was an incredible improvement in the air quality that could not only be heard, but also smelled. Thus, I wonder whether the dramatic change in the urban soundscape during the shutdown –chirping birds, rather than traffic– contributed to a general intensification of attentiveness and sensorial experiences such as the olfactorial, reported by many of my interlocutors and experienced myself?

The period of shutdowns also coincided with the arrival of spring in Berlin and during April and May, intensive musky and floral scents were carried through the air. Not far from where I live, the 45 cherry trees planted in 1990 along the former border between East and West Berlin by a Japanese TV channel as part of the so-called Sakura Campaign to mark the reunification of Germany started blossoming and I walked there almost daily to indulge in this visual and olfactorial spectacle.

Unbranded hand sanitizer in a restaurant in Berlin-Charlottenburg in mid-May (photo: C. Liebelt)

A novel smell that came to dominate the smellscape of our apartment building and indeed, of many public and commercial buildings, is the smell of cleaning and sanitizing agents. In mid-March, in the beginning of the lockdown in Berlin, one of our neighbours used an extensive amount of sanitizing agent to disinfect the staircase and door knobs. Its acid smell continued to waft in the building for days. In the weeks that followed, I heard and smelled a lot of cleaning going on in our neighbours’ apartments. Similar to what has been reported for the epidemics of the 19th and 20th century (as described, for example, in Corbin’s masterful The Foul and the Fragrant) in confronting the pandemic, many of our neighbours obviously resorted to purifying and deodorizing their private spaces.

Newly discovered imported tobacco-scented Eau de Cologne from our Turkish corner shop (photo: C. Liebelt)

Now was the time to take stock of the hand sanitizers that we had at home: there was one in the car, an antiseptic in the bathroom, a couple of Sagrotan® cloths in the medicine cabinet.. To my taste, they all smelled rather horrid. I wondered, will their olfactorial attack on my nose affect my ability to smell? While ‘medical’ disinfectants were sold out almost everywhere, they nevertheless became ubiquitous, especially in their acrid olfactorial presence. Friends, who had rarely ever used hand sanitizers before, now carried them along in their handbags and increasingly used them. Many Turkish friends used traditional Eau de Cologne, rediscovered in Turkey as hand sanitizer due to its high alcohol content. Even my partner acquired a tobacco-scented Eau de Cologne, the classical kolonya used during his teenage years in Istanbul, from our Turkish corner shop. Another friend, whom I met for occasional walks around the block, used lemon-scented spectacle cloths to sanitise her hands. After mid-May, cafés and restaurants, offices, museums, libraries and even swimming pools and sport and fitness clubs reopened, given their so-called ‘hygiene plans’ had been approved by the municipality. Hand sanitizers for employees and customers/ visitors formed an important part of these. Again, I noted that many Turkish-owned cafés and restaurants use scented kolonya instead of ‘medical’ hand sanitizers, creating a different olfactorial atmosphere altogether.

Hand sanitizer offered at the entrance of the municipal library in Berlin-Neukölln; the sign reads ‘Please disinfect your hands’ (photo: C. Liebelt)

Now that we enter month four of the Covid-19 lockdown in Berlin, things are slowly returning to a fragile and different kind of normal everyday life. Cars and buses are back in the streets and with them, traffic emissions and exhaust smell. However, the smell of cleaning and sanitizing agents, I suppose, will stay with us for quite another while.

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.

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. 

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