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).
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.
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).
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.)
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’.