Jul 06 2018

“A cakeless national coffeehouse”

One of the most debated campaign promises that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made in the lead-up to the June 24 parliamentary and presidential elections was National Coffeehouses.

Erdoğan announced his coffee house project to the public at a campaign rally in the southern city of Hatay: “The British have Hyde Park; we will have a National Garden. What’s more, we will build national coffeehouses to add vibrancy to our lives.”

Erdoğan also discussed his new project during a rally in the central Anatolian city of Kayseri: “National Coffeehouses will not charge for tea or cake. Our youth will get their tea and coffee, and surf the Internet freely. They will study their lessons. Everyone will benefit from these services, whether they are 7 or 70 years old.”

The opposition responded by complaining, “We talk to our youth about jobs, he talks to them about cake.”

As a result, more so than coffeehouses, cake became a focal point for campaign debates.

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There are currently two of these coffeehouses in Istanbul (in Sultanbeyli and Zeytinburnu). Ahval visited one in order to describe it to our readers.

Following Erdoğan’s announcement of his new project, the Merkezefendi Public Library in Zeytinburnu was renamed “The Merkezefendi National Coffeehouse.”

As one of 11 public libraries in the district, the building has hosted the community for two years.

Visitors benefit from its proximity to schools and dormitories, as well as tramway and bus tops.

The old library/new coffeehouse is open 24/7.

20 thousand books and current publications are housed in the facility.

Novels, poetry, encyclopedias, world classics, and test-preps books are among the thousands of recorded books.

The facility has a membership system, with almost 12 thousand current members. But the library faces a big problem: insufficient capacity.

Due to the lack of chairs, visitors wait in line for hours before they can find a seat.

The facility can only accommodate 121 people at once.

If you happen to arrive when all of the desks are occupied, you go to the waiting hall.

Visitors can leave a form of ID in return for a spot in line.

When a table becomes available, the next person in line is called up.

But the length of time you could wait is uncertain.

Visitors prefer this library over the 11 other public libraries in Zeytinburnu because it is always open.

As a result, visitors come not only from Zeytinburnu, but also from surrounding districts.

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Atatürk Library is the only other library in Istanbul that is open 24 hours a day.

Fortunately, I did not have to wait long when I arrived, and was able to pick from the five available desks, table 59, and go inside.

The clerk at the door affirmed that it was my lucky day: “You are lucky you will be able to work—some people have to wait for two or three hours.”

Everyone who enters gets their own private desk.

This is the only space you are allowed to use.

If you leave the library and do not return within an hour, your table is forfeit to another visitor.

But you are welcome to stay inside for as long as you like, even if you do not have a table.

The facility now has a new distinction that makes it more than just a library.

Now, everyone can help themselves to the free tea, coffee, and soup offered at the center.

In addition, wireless Internet and printing up to 10 pages of photocopies are available for free.

Between 1-2pm, 7-8pm, and 12-1am the 24-hour library also offers free soup.

The Zeytinburnu municipal government is responsible for covering the cost of all of these offerings.

President Erdoğan spoke of offering free cake during his campaign rallies as well, but there is no cake.

As I was settling into my desk, I realized that only students at work surrounded me.

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Despite the thousands of books housed in the library, almost none of the visitors are reading.

The desks are covered with test-prep books.

Most of the visitors are clearly students, who are looking for a quiet place to study.

President Erdoğan was wrong to claim there would be people ranging from 7 to 70.

There are only students.

I strike up a hushed conversation with one of these students.

They have been studying for the civil service exam for 4 years. They would like to become a teacher.

Their house is close by, so they like to study here.

Staying open 24 hours is another plus.

29-year-old Ö.D., who prefers to remain anonymous, is pleased with the free offerings.

But they explain that the free food does not address real problems:

“I worked for years. I studied to become a math teacher. I had high hopes for my first civil service exam. But we all saw the tricks people turn in these exams. We lost our faith in the system. I have been studying for four years because I don’t have any other choice. Politicians talked about how students could study at these coffeehouses at campaign rallies, but they did not address the skewed education system or our real concerns. Cake and pastries are not enough. There is a systematic problem here. And neither the government nor the option are bothering to highlight these issues.”

Despite everything, Ö.D. is happy to be able to keep the 20 lira he would otherwise have had to spend on food and drink. Studying all day without having to worry about eating is nice.

“Since I have been studying for civil service exams for 4 years, my family supports me. Millions of students and people in my position will benefit from the new changes. But they are nothing more than appeasement tactics, just another short-term campaign strategy, rather than a systematic solution. We will see how long it lasts and how many people it satisfies.”

Another person I talked to at the same table is a PhD student, who is unemployed.

Their family deals in commerce, so they are financially secure for now.

They say they do not need to work.

They want to finish their dissertation as soon as possible.

Also preferring anonymity, A.P. lives in the nearby district of Cevizlibağ and enjoys the comfort of this centrally located workspace.

The location is also convenient.

I ask if they are happy with the new system.

They begin by saying that they voted for the opposition coalition in the recent elections.

They also say that the National Coffeehouse project was a blessing for students.

Their reasoning is bold:

“Whether you like it or not, these coffeehouses are important for students in Turkey, nearly all of whom are impoverished. They are a big deal for a student who goes an entire day with just a bagel, who lacks Internet, who can barely afford tea or soup. This project is the work of a socially engaged state. I predict that over time, these facilities will become centers for more cultural activities. Right now, they only attract students. But after some time, everyone will discover these places. Of course, municipal governments have the biggest responsibility here. They must ensure these centers spread and expand.”

As a PhD student, A.P. believes that this project will help students save money.

They think that although the opposition sees the project as pointless, millions of students will benefit.

“Unfortunately, different segments of Turkey are completely oblivious to each other. A well-off student can easily meet up with friends at cafes, but less fortunate students cannot. These coffeehouses are a place for students to socialize. As you have probably noticed, the growing influx of people indicates a need for such facilities.”

As we continue talking, we hear voices from outside.

The Traditional Medical Festival being held next door is creating enough noise to disrupt the silence of the study area.

A.P. laughs, “Hopefully these noise problems will be resolved overtime.”

As I get ready to leave, I ask for permission to take pictures.

Both of them refuse.

Ö.D., the future teacher, responds to my request with a joke, “I take it you don’t want me to become a teacher.”

I leave with a few photos from the coffeehouse and my notebook.

A group of students are entering to study.

As I walk down the street, I weigh the plusses and minuses of these coffeehouses.

The 24-hour service is good.

The lack of range in age is bad.

The free 10-pages of photocopying is good.

The 20 thousand unread books are bad.

The studying students are good.

The noise seeping in from outside is bad.

The free tea, coffee, and soup are good.

The lack of cake is bad.

Very, very bad.