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Turks are tea'd off over drink shortage

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 19, 2003

CIZRE, Turkey -- Call it liquid comfort food.

From the minute they get up to the time they go to sleep, Turks drink tea. No crisis is too great, no matter too pressing, no mission too urgent that a Turk can't stop and sip the clear amber brew.

"Look how eastern people are so calm -- they drink tea every day," says Nihat Burgin, a merchant and self-proclaimed tea connoisseur. "Without tea, we would fight all the time."

As it is, Turkey is getting ready to fight. And the prospect of war is causing stress among the millions of Turks who can't get through the day without 10, 20, even 40 glasses of fine Ceylon tea.
[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Children prepare tea on the edge of a cotton field in Turkey a few miles from the Iraqi border. They gathered dead cotton plants to fuel fires for boiling tea and keeping warm.

Grown in Sri Lanka, the former British colony of Ceylon, the tea is smuggled into Turkey through neighboring Iraq. No one is quite sure how the black market trade evolved, but it has let the people of Cizre and other border towns enjoy the world's best tea at far cheaper prices than it is sold in stores.

But with war expected to start any day, trucks have stopped crossing the border and the supply of Ceylon tea is drying up. Prices have risen more than 20 percent, and people are cutting back. Or trying to.

"They are addicted to tea," says Mehmet Guclu, who owns a local tea house.

How central is tea to Turkish life? Consider: Last week, a Los Angeles Times photographer and ABC camera crew were caught trying to sneak across the border into northern Iraq. Turkish soldiers scared them by firing shots into the air; after the journalists were taken into custody, their military hosts graciously served them tea.

And when strangers to the region are stopped at army checkpoints, they're often startled by an incongruous sight: A burly commando, M-16 slung across his shoulder, coming toward them with a silver tray and little glasses of tea.

It is virtually impossible to do anything in this country without being asked "Do you want to drink tea?" Visit the poorest home and within minutes you'll be stirring little sugar cubes into freshly made brew. Stop at the pharmacy or gas station and someone will invariably appear with a complimentary glass of tea.

"If I don't offer tea to a guest, it means this visit doesn't mean anything," says Kemal Dilsiz, whose appliance store recently began stocking gas masks in event of an attack from Iraq. "With everyone who comes into the shop, I drink tea. If 20 people visit me, I drink 20 glasses, if 30 people visit, I drink 30 glasses."

Wherever people drink, the ritual is the same.

Cups are taboo: the tea is served in small, curved glasses designed to fit cozily in the hand.

The glass always sits on a saucer, usually red and white or blue and white. The sugar cubes are precisely a half-inch square and kept unwrapped in little bowls. No one asks for milk or cream.

Serious drinkers -- mostly unemployed, middle-aged men -- prefer short wooden stools whose webbed seats mold comfortably to the backside.

Foreigners tend to associate Turkey with its sludge-like coffee. But Turks are among the world's biggest tea drinkers; on a per capita basis, only the British and Irish consume more.

At Guclu Tea House, a dingy establishment on Cizre's muddy main street, waiters pour at least 500 glasses a day. From before dawn to after dark, the tea house serves as a social center of town. Customers drink tea, watch TV and mull over the latest news on Iraq. None has forgotten the first Gulf War and its devastating effect on Turkey's economy.

"Because of America, the town of Cizre is unemployed," says a Fiat mechanic. He's so broke friends often buy him tea.

Because Cizre is in one of the most conservative areas of this largely Muslim nation, the Guclu Tea House is a male-only domain.

"Is she married?" 63-year-old Mehmet Guclu inquires about an American journalist. "If so, why does her husband let her come here?"

Guclu, who started the tea house in 1979, has two wives, both of whom stay home. These days he lets his namesake son run the business while he socializes and drinks tea. At 9 a.m., he is on his seventh glass.

If anything unites everyone in Turkey, it is fondness for tea and opposition to war. Much of Turkey's economy depends on trade with Iraq, but the border has been closed as the Turkish government decides whether to join the attack on its neighbor. No longer do trucks bring in cheap Iraqi oil and prized Ceylon tea.

In recent weeks, a 2-pound bag of Ceylon has risen to 11-million Turkish liras -- $6.90 -- from 9-million liras. But the tea house can't increase its prices even though it charges just 150,000 liras, or about 10 cents a glass.

"People don't have money," says the younger Guclu. "If I make it 200,000, nobody will come."

This also is a bad time to start a business, says Ugur Basaran, owner of a new supermarket. However, he found one sure way to lure customers: offering a set of six tea glasses for 950,000 liras, less than half of what they cost elsewhere in town. In just a month, he has sold almost 600 sets.

Besides being a major consumer of tea, Turkey also is a major producer. Some 160,000 tons are grown annually around the Black Sea. But growers have done little to improve the quality.

Still, Basaran's supermarket stocks only Turkish tea; no one in Cizre would buy Ceylon from a store because they can get it more cheaply from black-market vendors on the street.

"Everyone prefers Ceylon," he acknowledges. "But very soon there will be war and we will not have any more."

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