Yerevan-based Marianna Grigoryan finished 2013 off with what might be Eurasianet's wildest story of the year: an article about one Armenian supermarket that is offering up an entire smoked crocodile as an item for the traditional New Year's feast.
Here's a taste of her great article:
Situated on a bed of lettuce and lemons on a counter in SAS supermarket’s meat department, the 12-kilogram, 90-centimeter-long crocodile, imported from the United States, weighs in at the staggering price of 380,000 drams, or $940; roughly twice the amount of the average monthly salary.
“Who can afford such luxury?” fumed 48-year-old Yerevan dressmaker Silva Alexanian. “Once the markets used to be full with people before New Year’s nowadays; now they are empty. People have either left the country, or cannot afford celebrating New Year’s. Most of them hope for the money their relatives working abroad send them.”
With roughly one-third of Armenia’s approximate population of 3 million people now officially living in poverty, for some, the crocodile symbolizes all that has gone wrong economically with this South Caucasus country since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Migration has increased by 12 percent this year, while remittances increased fivefold in the first six months of the year to $1.2 billion, according to official data.
Grigoryan's smoked crocodile tale was so intriguing that I followed up with to get more details about the story and some of the economic and sociological background to it. Our exchange is below:
Without a doubt, 2013 will be a year Turkey’s powerful leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will do his best to forget.
Prior to this year, Erdogan – in power since late 2002 – had gotten used to seeing things go his way. Rivals, in the form of the military and the old secularist establishment, had been vanquished. Plaudits for Turkey’s foreign policy and economic growth were coming in on a regular basis. And, following a third straight victory at the polls in 2011, Erdogan was being hailed as one of the political giants of the modern Turkish Republic, perhaps even an invincible one.
Things have worked out a bit differently in 2013. On the foreign policy front, Turkey found itself increasingly isolated in the Middle East this past year, as its aggressive policies regarding Syria, Egypt and Iraq, accompanied by ever tougher talk from Erdogan, failed to deliver tangible results (of the positive kind, that is). On the domestic front, the summer’s Gezi Park protests and Ankara’s heavy-handed response to them presented the most serious homegrown challenge Erdogan had yet to face, while his insistence that the protests were somehow part of a shadowy international conspiracy to topple him seriously tarnished his reputation abroad. Meanwhile, the PM’s effort to have a new constitution passed this year that would provide for a more powerful office of the president that he would assume failed, leaving Erdogan with a less clear path forward (the bylaws of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) forbid him from serving more than three consecutive terms as PM).
Turkey's European Union membership bid may be permanently stalled, but things have worked out better for the country's effort to get baklava from the southeastern city of Gaziantep registered with the EU's "protected status." Reports Yahoo about the announcement from Brussels that the flaky pastry is now a item worthy of its protection:
The Gaziantep baklava, described as a "pastry made of layers of filo pastry filled with semolina cream and Antep pistachio", became the first Turkish product to receive the coveted status.
The sweet and nutty treat is one of 16 non-EU products to win the logo, including Darjeeling tea and 10 Chinese foodstuffs.
At the same time, the European Commission also recognised foods from Greece -- Turkey's arch rival and recipient of billions in EU bailout funds -- and eurosceptic Britain.
Greece's Santorini tomato, a cherry tomato that draws its fruity sweetness from lengthy exposure to the sun and a volcanic soil, won protected status, joining such Greek delights as feta cheese.
And Britain won protected status for its Yorkshire Wensleydale, a creamy-white cheese made in the northern county since the 11th century.
The Wensleydale joins the Cornish pastry, Scottish wild salmon and the Birmingham Balti.
But while the EU is moving to protect Gaziantep's baklava (which, for the record, truly is among the finest to be had), one of Turkey's most famous makers of the sweet is raising the alarm about what he says is a dangerous threat to the quality of the dessert. According to Nadir Güllü, owner of the large Güllüoglu chain of baklava shops, inferior black market pistachios -- one of the dessert's main ingredients -- coming from Syria and Iran are flooding the market, which he says is making it harder to produce baklava as it should be. From the International Business Times:
I recently had the opportunity to travel to the area around eastern Turkey's Erzincan, for a story about local dairy making traditions in the home village of Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of the very successful Chobani yogurt brand. That story, from which the photos in the above slideshow were taken, can be found here.
A recent New Yorker profile of Ulukaya, who went from shepherd boy in the mountains near Erzincan to prosperous entrepreneur in the United States, can be found here.
What does kvevri, the Georgian method of making wine inside large clay vessels buried in the ground, have in common with the traditional Chinese use of the abacus and an Indian style of singing and dancing known as sankirtana? Until recently nothing. But on December 4 all three (plus several other traditions from around the world) were added to UNESCO's list of "Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding."
From UNESCO's description of the kvevri (or "qvevri," as it is sometimes spelled) tradition (which also includes a slideshow worth looking at):
Qvevri wine-making is practised throughout Georgia, particularly in village communities where unique varieties of grapes are grown. The Qvevri is an egg-shaped earthenware vessel used for making, ageing and storing the wine. Knowledge and experience of Qvevri manufacture and wine-making are passed down by families, neighbours, friends and relatives, all of whom join in communal harvesting and wine-making activities....Wine plays a vital role in everyday life and in the celebration of secular and religious events and rituals. Wine cellars are still considered the holiest place in the family home. The tradition of Qvevri wine-making defines the lifestyle of local communities and forms an inseparable part of their cultural identity and inheritance, with wine and vines frequently evoked in Georgian oral traditions and songs.
Well-meaning and with lofty goals, Turkey's "zero problems with neighbors" foreign policy came crashing down once the advent of the Arab uprisings exposed some of the policy's internal contradictions and shortcomings.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with striving to have no problems with neighboring countries, but Ankara's overly optimistic approach -- which, among other things, failed to see how its own ambitions for regional leadership would set off alarm bells in the capitals of other countries with similar aspirations -- was not able to withstand the tensions and dynamics unleashed by the new crises in the Middle East, especially in Syria.
But it's fairly clear now that Ankara is working on rebooting its regional foreign policy, with its strained relations with Iraq being used as a test case of what a new version of the "zero problems" policy might look like.
Ties between the two countries hit rock bottom in April of last year, when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, upset about Ankara's support for his political rivals, labeled Turkey an “enemy state” bent on interfering in his country's internal affairs. In response, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his Iraqi counterpart – leader of a Shiite party – was fanning the flames of sectarianism in Iraq. The exchange of words led to ambassadors being summoned in both capitals.
In recent weeks, though, Turkey and Iraq have had reciprocal visits by their foreign ministers, and visits by their prime ministers are in the works. Writing in Today's Zaman, analyst Yavuz Baydar provides the background to all the action taking place on the Turkey-Iraq front:
Considering Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gotten involved in telling Turks how many children they should have (at least three), what they should drink (the non-alcoholic ayran) and what kind of bread they should eat (whole wheat, preferably), it would seem unlikely that the opinionated leader could still shock with his intrusions on people's private lives.
But, true to form, Erdogan again stunned the nation, telling members of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) today that the government is not only working towards creating segregated dormitories for male and female university students (known as "adults" in many parts of the world) but that it is also working to ferret out any instances where members of the opposite sex may be living together off campus. Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
The prime minister said the government was already on a mission to “segregate” girls’ and boys’ buildings in dormitories operated by the state, adding that this segregation had been completed in around three quarters of all dorms.
“There are some troubles concerning the share of houses in some places since we could not meet needs at the dormitories,” Erdoğan was quoted as saying by the Anadolu Agency on Nov. 5 as he addressed a parliamentary group meeting of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
For its 90th birthday, the Turkish state Tuesday gave itself and its citizens a fine present: a brand-new commuter rail tunnel that runs under the Bosphorus and links Istanbul's European and Asian sides.
The Marmaray tunnel, as it is called, is a historic achievement certainly worth celebrating. First dreamed up some 120 years ago by Sultan Abdulhamid, the underwater Bosphorus crossing that just opened is the world's deepest immersed tunnel, a technologically sophisticated $2.8 project that serves as a potent symbol for both Istanbul's and Turkey's dynamic growth.
For the ruling Justice and Development Party and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan the tunnel's opening was an opportunity to once again assert themselves as the succesful builders of a new and more advanced Turkey, while at the same time describing the Marmaray project's significance in rather grandiose terms.
At the tunnel's opening ceremony in Istanbul's Uskudar neighborhood, for example, Erdogan said Marmaray "is not a project only for Istanbul Marmaray is a project for whole humanity." Other Turkish officials suggested the tunnel is the linchpin of a "New Silk Road" that would, as signs at the opening ceremony promised, connect "Peking with London." (Never mind that one can already travel from China to England by train, using existing tracks that go through Russia.)
Fast food entrepreneur Kadir Nurman recently died in Germany, leaving this world with what may be one of the finest titles ever bestowed on any man: "Inventor of the doner kebab."
Nurman, born in Istanbul, was part of the wave of Turkish migrants who came to Germany as "guest workers" in the 1960's and 70's. Settling in West Berlin, he set a food stall selling sandwiches of grilled meat sliced off a vertical spit and, as they say, the rest is history. Or is it? As the Guardian points out in an article written in the wake of Nurman's death, attributing the "invention" of doner to him might be a bit misleading. From the Guardian:
The doner – or shawarma or gyros, as it's also known –differs from other familiar kebabby preparations, such as shish, by being layered up on a spit and grilled vertically. This in itself wasn't particularly novel; 18th-century Ottoman travel books talk of meat being cooked this way, while in the kebab's spiritual home of Bursa, the vertically grilled Iskender is perhaps Turkey's finest mouthful.
Nurman's supposed innovation came in sticking the shaved pieces of meat into a flatbread with the saladings, making kebabs a moveable feast for busy Berliners. Until then, in theory, they had been shoved on a plate. While few seem convinced by Nurman's claim to have invented what is essentially a sandwich, in 2011 a slightly mysterious Berlin-based organisation called the Association of Turkish Doner Manufacturers made it official, and so it passed into history.
While Turkey's foreign policy in the Middle East has faltered over the last two years in the wake of the Arab uprisings, a region where Turkish diplomacy has racked up some important successes has been the Balkans, where Ankara has been behind a number of significant diplomatic and economic initiatives. But a comment made by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a recent visit to Kosov is threatening to derail Ankara's Balkan express -- and again raises the question of what kind of impact does the mercurial leader's rhetoric have on his country's diplomacy.
During an address made last week while visiting the Balkan mini-state, which declared independence in 2008 after breaking away from Serbia, Erdogan told an audience in the city of Prizren: “Do not forget that Kosovo is Turkey and Turkey is Kosovo."
The comment drew an immediate rebuke from Serbian leaders, who not only called for Erdogan to apologize for his comments, but who also announced that they would freeze their participation in an upcoming trilateral meeting between Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey, part of successful mechanism put in place by Ankara in 2009. From a report on the Serbian B92 website:
[President Tomislav Nikolić] underscored that the scandal triggered by the Turkish prime minister in Prizren constitutes brutal and reckless breach of good neighbourly relations and disrespect and violation of Serbia's sovereignty by a revision of history.
Nikolić said that when he took on the position of the president, he also took on the good relations with Turkey set up by his predecessor, former president Boris Tadić.